The Tennessee man who vanished last year with his niece after plucking her out of school, leading to a nationwide search to bring the little girl home, has been sentenced to 25 years in prison, officials said.
Gary Simpson, 58, entered an Alford plea on Monday in Hawkins County Criminal Court to especially aggravated kidnapping and to aggravated sexual battery in the May kidnapping of 9-year-old Carlie Trent, his niece through marriage, the Kingsport Times-News reported.
An Alford plea is tantamount to a guilty plea, but is not an admission of guilt.
The second charge had been reduced from rape of a child to spare the victim from having to testify in court, Attorney General Dan Armstrong told the Times-News.
A charge of aggravated sexual battery pertaining to events that occurred prior to the kidnapping was dismissed, as it also would have required the little girl to testify, Armstrong said.
"We felt comfortable making that offer just to keep Carlie from having to testify," he told the newspaper, explaining that the higher and additional charges would have done nothing to increase Simpson’s sentence.
On May 4, Simpson went to Carlie’s school and told officials that her father had been in a bad accident, saying he needed to bring her home and that she probably wouldn’t be in school the next day, authorities said.
Simpson had parental permission to pick Carlie from school as he and his wife of 34 years, the sister of Carlie’s father, previously had custody of the little girl while her father was in jail.
“He’d go out of his way for me; he didn’t give any clues he’d do this,” Carlie’s father, James Trent, told InsideEdition.com at the time. “I’ve known that man the majority of my life.”
Carlie’s kidnapping triggered a nationwide Amber Alert, and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Marshals Office assisted in the hunt for Simpson.
The pair was found by a civilian search party on May 12 in a rural area, where they had been camping in Simpson’s van.
While searching the van, police reportedly recovered a checklist of sexual acts that Simpson planned to perform on his victim, the Times-News reported.
Simpson allegedly admitted to investigators that he had completed a few of the items on the checklist, prosecutors said.
"At the bottom of the list was a threat that if anyone was told what they were doing, they would both die along with several people who were close to the child,” Armstrong said in court.
Simpson declined to make a statement during his plea hearing.
Carlie Trent's father and mother attended the guilty plea, along with agents from the TBI, Rogersville police, the Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office and the attorney general investigator, the Times-News reported.
Officials said Simpson’s sentence of 25 years must be served at 100 percent, meaning he will probably remain in prison until he is 82 years old.