(KMOV) – A 22-year-old Illinois man who allegedly stabbed his 7-year-old niece to death pleaded not guilty to murder charges when appearing in front of a judge for the first time on Thursday.
Justin DeRyke, who is accused of killing Willow Long early last week, filed the not guilty plea during a 1 p.m. arraignment in Effingham County.
DeRyke’s trial will begin on Dec. 2. Illinois State’s Attorney Bryan Kibbler said he will file papers to seek a sentence of natural life in prison.
The not guilty plea comes a day after he was indicted on three first-degree murder charges.
Officials said 16 to 21 jurors heard details of the case. Kibler said there was a unanimous vote to indict him.
Police said the body of Long—who was reported missing on Sept. 8--was found by four search volunteers in an area south of Watson around 7:30 p.m. near the Little Wabash River a day later.
According to court documents, DeRyke told officers he was home alone watching Long and her brother when the alleged incident occurred. Police said Long’s mother was at a local bar and her grandparents were out of town.
DeRyke told police he spent most of the evening in his room playing video games. When he left the room to go to the bathroom, he said Long tugged on his arm and asked him to watch a movie with her. During the exchange, DeRyke said the girl accidentally scratched his arm, causing it to bleed.
He reportedly got upset and yelled at Long, which caused her to run into the front yard. According to his statement, DeRyke said she then fell on a brush pile, causing a stick to impale her in the neck.
DeRyke said he wanted to end her suffering.
Prosecutors said he then slit her throat before stabbing her in the heart and throat. Police said DeRyke put the girl’s body in a plastic bag, duct taped it and dumped it in the Little Wabash River.
According to police, an autopsy concluded Long’s throat had been slashed. She also had stab wounds on her collarbone and neck as well as defensive wounds on her hands.
DeRyke remains in custody on a $5 million bond.