An upstate New York couple will spend the rest of their lives in federal prison after pleading guilty to the kidnapping and sexual assault of two young Amish girls near Syracuse, N.Y., last year, law enforcement officials said Thursday.
Stephen Howells II, 39, and Nicole Vaisey, 25, have pleaded guilty to kidnapping, sexual exploitation and possession of child pornography, St. Lawrence County Dist. Atty. Mary Rain told the Los Angeles Times.
Howells, who entered his plea last week, faces up to 580 years in prison at sentencing, Rain said. Vaisey pleaded guilty Thursday and faces up to 300 years, Rain said.
The abductions sparked a sprawling and complicated manhunt in August, when the victims mistook Howells and Vaisey for customers at their family's roadside vegetable stand in Heuvelton, N.Y.
Howells, who worked as a nurse at a health clinic, regularly stole drugs from his workplace to use in sedating the couple's victims, according to court records. On the night of the kidnapping, he injected one of the girls with midazolam after forcing her into his car, records show.
After the girls were abducted, New York authorities scrambled to issue an Amber Alert but were unable to release photos to the news media because the Amish shun modern technology.
The couple held the girls captive for about 24 hours before dropping them off near a home in Richville, N.Y. A stranger recognized them from news reports and called police. Howells and Vaisey were arrested the next day.
As part of their plea in federal court, the couple also admitted to the state charges of first-degree kidnapping, Rain said. By structuring the couple's plea deal that way, Rain said, prosecutors would not need to ask the victims to testify. The girls already were caused embarrassment when authorities released their names early in the investigation, before police were aware an assault had taken place.
The Los Angeles Times and many other news organizations previously published the girls' names, which were revealed when they first went missing, but The Times is now withholding their identities because of the sexual assault allegations.
Rain said her office has kept in touch with the girls, who have been slowly recovering.
"The Amish people are quite resilient. Their parents believe that there should be punishment; however, they have forgiven Howells and Vaisey, and their attitude is you can't live in the past," Rain said. "You can only live in the present."