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Delco teen enters plea in brutal attack on elderly Chesco woman left bound & gagged in closet

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Delaware County Daily Times
POSTED: February 1, 2019

Guilty, but mentally ill

WEST CHESTER — The Delaware County teenager who attacked an elderly East Brandywine woman in her home, leaving her bound and gagged in a dark closet without food or water for days, admitted his guilt in the case Thursday, but asserted that a mental illness had contributed to his actions.

Accompanied by his attorney, Khemmathat Fariss, who was 17 at the time of the attack at an isolated cottage along Creek Road, stood before President Judge Jacqueline Carroll Cody, who was set to begin picking a jury Friday in his attempted murder trial, scheduled to start Monday and pleaded guilty but mentally ill to all the charges against him.

Fariss, now 19, asserted in the plea that he had acted under a diminished capacity when he attacked the woman inside her secluded home, choked her, and left her tied up with duct tape and zip ties, a bag over her head, after walking away from the Devereux Foundation campus in nearby Wallace, where he had been placed after an juvenile arrest for burglary.

He was charged with attempted first degree murder, robbery, burglary, aggravated assault, strangulation, and related offenses. He could face incarceration at a state prison for a minimum of seven years on the attempted murder charge alone.

Cody will now convene a hearing on Tuesday to determine whether Farris’s assertion that a mental illness affected his judgement at the time of the crime is warranted. The Chester County District Attorney’s Office has disputed his mental health defense.

Fariss has been held in Chester County Prison since he was ordered to stand trial as an adult in 2017. He said little during the brief proceeding in Common Pleas Court, speaking in a low but clear voice in answer to Cody’s questions about his decision to admit his guilt. Attorney Robert C. Keller of the Havertown law firm of Keller, Lisgar & Williams, representing Fariss, told Cody that he had discussed the decision to enter the plea with his client and that the young man had agreed to do so.

After hearing the version of events laid out by Assistant District Attorney Christine Abatemarco, who is leading the prosecution, Cody asked Fariss if he agreed with what she said he did. “I do,” Fariss answered simply.

The hearing next week is anticipated to feature testimony of mental health experts who will attempt to explain what was going on with Fariss at the time of the attack.

A guilty but mentally ill defense is different from an insanity defense, in which a defendant seeks a verdict of not guilty. Under this defense, a person attempts to show that their mental infirmity left them less culpable than a non-mentally ill criminal defendant. That status can be raised either during trial or at sentencing as a reason for a judge to find mitigating circumstances and lessen the defendant’s punishment.

Keller had filed a notice that he would be seeking a mental health defense at trial last year. The decision to enter a guilty plea, however, came on the eve of trial.

“It is our position that Mr. Fariss is very young, and suffers from a longstanding mental health problem that affected his ability to appreciate the nature and quality” of his actions, Keller said last year. “He never had the intent to commit homicide. He could not formulate the intent to do that.”

Fariss is a native of Thailand who was adopted by an American family when he was 6 years old after being in an orphanage there and whose family lived in the Media area of Delaware County at the time of the crime. He was a student at the Devereux Foundation campus in Wallace in February 2017, having been placed there by Juvenile Court in Delaware County after he was charged for committing two residential burglaries.

He walked away from the facility sometime before 11 a.m. on Feb. 22, intending to flee the bullying he said was occurring at the facility and to live “life on the road,” according to previous testimony. However, he stopped at a house along Creek Road that was isolated from the road and whose garage door was open. He broke in, took items he would use to make his getaway, and left.

When the woman who lived there discovered the burglary, she called police but decided to wait until after she came home from work later that day to file a report, according to investigators. She left the house as Fariss watched. The Daily Local News is withholding the victim’s name.

According to Abatemarco’s version of events, when the woman came home around 5 p.m., Fariss surprised her inside the house, attacked her from behind, strangled her, and told her, “You’ll be with Jesus soon.”

After locking the woman, who was 72 at the time, in a dark basement closet, with her hands and feet bound and her mouth gagged, Fariss drove to Maryland in her Fiat 500. He returned to Devereaux on Feb. 24, but hid the car and did not tell anyone about the woman, who he assumed was seriously injured.

The woman remained in the closet in her home for four days, unable to move. She became severely dehydrated and malnourished, said Abatemarco.

She was eventually discovered on Feb. 26 when a relative came to the house because she had been unable to contact the woman. The victim was in critical medical condition with a variety of injuries, but had been aided by the fact that the weather that month was particularly warm, which kept her from suffering from fatal hypothermia in the unheated closet. She has since largely recovered, and was seated in Cody’s courtroom with family members and police for the plea.

When police discovered Fariss’ involvement in the crime, they noted that he had taken steps to hide his connection to the attack, including using bleach on his shoes to hide the blood on them and stripping the woman’s Fiat coupe of identifying features, then hiding it in the woods behind the facility.

The attack and its connection with Devereux, a facility for troubled youth, caused a panic in the Downingtown and Glenmoore areas, and led to new procedures for community notification when there are walkaways there.

In previous interview, Keller said that his client, who remains in Chester County Prison without bail, was concerned about his fate.

“He is a young kid and he is scared,” the attorney said. “He is quite remorseful and feels for the victim. He is starting to understand what occurred here.”

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