More than four years after the mysterious disappearance of 4-year-old Lillian Gill of Big Bear City, detectives this week found the child's body in a grave dug by her mother shortly after the girl was suffocated.
Under a plea agreement, Sharon Michelle Gill told detectives where she had buried her daughter and on Thursday pleaded no contest in San Bernardino County Superior Court to involuntary manslaughter, child endangerment and residential burglary. She faces up to 14 years in prison.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Steven Malone said it was important to get Gill's cooperation because it is so difficult to prosecute cases when investigators cannot find the victim's body. He said Gill, 50, was alone with Lillian when she died and that it was difficult to discern whether Gill had intended to kill her daughter.
"It's not satisfying," Malone said of the agreement Thursday. "I would love to have gotten more time.... There's no result that could ever be satisfactory in this case."
Gill, who will be sentenced Dec. 29, must serve at least 85% of her sentence and will not be given credit for the nearly three years she has spent in jail since she was arrested in February 2004 on suspicion of murder.
Sharon and John Gill adopted Lillian when she was a toddler after the child was taken from her birth mother, who had been living with her children in Apple Valley with no running water or electricity, and little more than a camper shell for shelter.
Child Protective Services thought the Gills, who were in their mid-40s, were a good match for Lillian and, later, her younger brother James. Neighbors would often see the parents and the two children playing in the yard on the quiet residential street in Big Bear City and leaving for family outings as a foursome.
In March 2002, Lillian vanished. For more than a year, Sharon Gill told her husband, neighbors and relatives that she had been having trouble with her daughter and had sent her to live with a family friend in Milan, Italy, so the girl could attend a special school for children with autism.
When authorities later checked Lillian's medical and social service records, they found no evidence that the girl was autistic, Malone said.
In fall 2003, sheriff's officials said Child Protective Services received a call from a concerned neighbor who reported that the little girl was missing and that neighbors were suspicious. Malone said the wife of a co-worker of John Gill, who worked on boat engines at a Big Bear marina, also contacted Child Protective Services and told officials they should look into the child's disappearance.
Sheriff's detectives interviewed the couple at home in October 2003. Officials later said Sharon Gill gave evasive answers about her daughter's whereabouts and refused to turn over the address where her daughter was staying in Italy.
She told detectives Lillian would be home in three days.
As the three days went by, John Gill began questioning his wife, according to Malone, and she responded by telling him she was having chest pains. On the drive from Big Bear to a Redlands hospital, Malone said, Gill made her husband stop the car for a walk in the woods, where she confessed that she had suffocated their daughter. Later, she confessed to her mother-in-law, and her in-laws eventually went to the police.
By early 2004, detectives had determined that Lillian Gill had never left the country. Sharon Gill was arrested at her adult daughter's home near Anaheim on suspicion of murder in February 2004.
John Gill, who divorced Sharon Gill last year, later told authorities about his wife's confession. Neither he nor his lawyer returned calls seeking comment Thursday.
"We didn't have any evidence to indicate he was involved," said Malone, who added that Gill had apparently believed his former wife's story and gave her letters to send to the child in Italy.
In her court appearance Thursday, Gill did not make any statements about her daughter's death.
Gill's attorney, Richard A. Moss of Pasadena, said Lillian's death was "unintended" and that he and his client began negotiating a plea agreement with the district attorney's office several months ago because it was in her best interest.
"She accepts responsibility for her daughter's death," Moss said, but he noted that the charges "show that no murder was committed."
Moss said his client's recollections of how Lillian died are "extremely unclear." Moss noted that Sharon Gill had no history of violence and her husband testified in the preliminary hearing that she was an "excellent mother."
Deputies, who had previously swept the Gills' backyard with dogs and found nothing, uncovered the buried remains of a small child in a plastic bag there Wednesday.
Nona Muro, who lives on the street where John Gill still lives with his new wife and son James, said neighbors were still taken aback.
"It was a relief [that they found the body] and at the same time still a shock," Muro said. "It's still unbelievable that could happen here in a neighborhood with so many families."