Decatur man pleads guilty to murder of 16-year-old Austin student

·3 min read

Dec. 7—A Decatur man who at the age of 19 was charged with killing a 16-year-old Austin High sophomore pleaded guilty to murder Monday in Morgan County Circuit Court.

Judge Charles Elliott presided over the hearing and spoke with the defendant, Bernandino Miguel Matias, now 21, through an interpreter. After the interpreter confirmed his guilty plea, Elliott said he would sentence Matias in January.

Matias pleaded guilty to the Oct. 24, 2019, murder of 16-year old Tina Rico at a Southwest Decatur apartment. Elliott in 2020 denied Matias' request for youthful offender status.

Morgan County District Attorney Scott Anderson said the sentencing hearing will take place Jan. 12.

"Since it is not a capital murder case, we will not seek a death penalty," Anderson said. "We will quest to sentence Mr. Matias to life and that will be with the possibility of parole, but life is the maximum sentence in this case."

Matias entered a blind plea, meaning it was not part of a prearranged sentencing agreement with the prosecutor. His court-appointed attorney, Paul Holland, said the decision to enter a blind plea was for Matias' benefit.

"After discussing the case and reviewing the evidence and the testimony that was going to be given in court, we felt that was in his best interest to enter a blind plea," Holland said.

Anderson said the court has broad discretion in sentencing a defendant who has entered a blind plea.

"Basically, they'll throw themselves on the mercy of the court and request a sentence that is less than the sentence we offer," Anderson said.

Anderson declined to say what sentence the state offered to Matias.

Anderson said Matias and the victim had a longstanding relationship.

"We have evidence that the defendant and victim dated for several years," Anderson said. "We also have evidence that the victim was going to end the relationship."

Matias also told investigators that Rico "disrespected" him.

"When Decatur police talked with Matias during the time of his confession, (Matias) said that the victim disrespected him and his family," Anderson said. "(Matias) didn't go into any detail about that, but those are the two factors that we know of that could have been a motive."

Matias and Rico both lived with the girl's mother in the apartment where the slaying took place.

According to Decatur police Detective Sean Mukaddam at a preliminary hearing last year, Matias confessed to cutting Rico's throat.

"I jumped on her back and pulled her hair with my left hand and cut her two more times in the side of the neck. She began making a snoring sound. I asked her, 'Baby, are you OK?' and took my things and left," Matias said in a portion of the statement read by Mukaddam. "... She was insulting me and my family, said I had an ugly face. She told me to leave. ... I told her I loved her. ... I quit school to pay for the apartment."

An autopsy report showed Rico, a sophomore at Austin High, died from a sharp force injury to her neck causing asphyxiation. She also had lacerations on her fingers and abrasions on her face, chest and back.

Matias told Mukaddam that he threw the murder weapon into the Tennessee River as he escaped with his brother to Knoxville, Tennessee, to see their uncle.

The day after the slaying, authorities in Knox County, Tennessee, arrested Matias and detained him until Decatur police arrived. Matias signed the five-page statement that detailed his confession while he was still being held in Tennessee.

Anderson told reporters on Monday that the murder weapon has not been recovered.

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