A Milwaukee man convicted of choking the life out of seven women during a 21-year killing spree was sentenced Thursday to spend the rest of his life in prison, and prosecutors said they may yet tie Walter E. Ellis to two or more unsolved slayings.
Ellis, 50, was convicted last week after he pleaded no contest to charges of first-degree intentional homicide and first-degree murder. Although the charges carry a mandatory life sentence, Judge Dennis Cimpl had the option of allowing the possibility of parole.
However, Cimpl said the only factor in Ellis' favor — that by pleading out he spared the victims' families from having to endure a trial — was like weighing "a feather against thousands of pounds of bad things."
Cimpl sentenced Ellis on Thursday to seven consecutive life sentences for the slayings. Ellis sat impassive as the sentence was handed down, just as he had during the previous hour when a parade of victims' relatives, some angry, some tearful, called for justice.
Several remembered the victims as mothers of small children, as women who may have led troubled lives but who didn't deserve to suffer at Ellis' hands. Several called Ellis the devil, and one said he hoped Ellis' fellow inmates violate him and treat him with the same contempt that he showed his victims.
A few relatives lamented the fact that Wisconsin does not have the death penalty. However, the sister of victim Irene Smith said it wasn't for humankind to pass such judgment.
"I'm not one to judge," Virgie Smith said, her eyes red with tears after the hearing. "He's going to get the worst thing God can give him."
The sentencing brings a close to a deadly rampage that ran from 1986 to 2007. The subsequent investigations eventually forced a complete review of how the state maintains its DNA database.
All seven victims were strangled, either by hand or with a rope or clothing tied around their necks. One was also stabbed.
"Of any way to kill somebody, that's probably the most despicable way to do it," the judge told Ellis. "You look at them and you literally choke their lives away."
Ellis declined to speak before sentencing, continuing his silence that has frustrated and infuriated those desperate to know what motivated him to kill their loved ones and whether he felt any remorse. Ellis has long refused to cooperate with authorities and even with his own lawyers.
Defense attorney Patrick Earle also declined to speak at the hearing. A message left at his office afterward was not immediately returned.
Ellis was arrested in 2009 after police said his DNA matched semen samples found on six victims and a blood sample on a can of pepper spray discovered at the scene of the seventh slaying. Authorities have said they began to focus on Ellis after his name surfaced in connection with a number of unsolved homicides.
Ellis' case exposed flaws in the state's process for collecting DNA from convicted felons. Ellis' DNA was missing from a state database even though he should have submitted a sample during an earlier prison stint. Authorities said Ellis persuaded a fellow inmate submit a DNA sample in his place.
Police have said that if a sample had been taken from Ellis at that time, they may have been able to track him down before the last slaying, in 2007.
The discovery prompted a state audit, which found nearly 17,700 offender samples missing from the crime lab's database.
Authorities suspect Ellis in at least two other killings, but District Attorney John Chisholm said he hasn't brought charges in those cases because he wanted to focus on his strongest cases.
Chisholm, who told the judge Ellis was one of the few defendants he'd ever seen who truly deserves to be called evil, said the investigation continues in those two cases.
Chisholm said he was also concerned that Ellis' later crimes, along with his deceit in not submitting a DNA sample, showed that his understanding of DNA's role in crime investigations was growing more sophisticated. The prosecutor said investigators would also review other homicides in which no DNA was left to see if any more slayings could be tied to Ellis.
Outside the courtroom, victims' families and friends collapsed into each other's arms. They laughed and cried together, grateful that the sentencing finally brought closure to decades of uncertainty.
Mansa Miller, the brother of victim Tanya Miller, said Ellis got the sentence he deserved.
"I pray for him to do what he has to do with his life to make himself a better person," he said.
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.