The Murder of Elizabeth Olten
A Tale of Two Girls
45 minutes: That’s how long Elizabeth Olten was missing before her mother called the police. That’s also how long it took Alyssa Bustamante, 15, to kill her first victim; little Elizabeth, who was just 9 years old.
Elizabeth : According to friends, family and neighbors, Elizabeth Olten was all sweetness and light. She was an adorable child who loved cats, the color pink and was a real girly girl. She had long medium-brown hair, wide-set eyes and was described as a shy girl who “was afraid of the dark and would not normally have gone into the woods alone,” according to the AP, making her disappearance more ominous.
Alyssa : Looking at photos from Alyssa Bustamante’s (now-defunct) Facebook page, one sees a girl hardened beyond her years. Pale blue eyes rimmed with heavy black eyeliner, straightened bangs hanging in her eyes and a defiant pout, chin stuck out at the camera. Even in two dimensions, she had attitude and charisma to burn. Like many troubled teens, she was labeled a Goth. In an alternate life, she might have been a star; in this one however, she may be one of the most shocking teenage murderers yet.
She’s Just a Small Town Girl
The two neighboring communities from which the girls came in Missouri, St. Martins and Jefferson City, epitomize small-town America. St. Martins, where Elizabeth Olten lived, has just over one thousand people. Everyone knows each other. So when Elizabeth failed to make it home on Wednesday, October 21st, from a friend’s house just a quarter-mile away, there was cause for alarm.
The search began almost immediately. Although there was a two-lane highway that ran the stretch from the friend that Elizabeth had been visiting to her own house, for some reason or another, the little girl who was afraid of the dark, chose to take a shortcut through the woods, curving around and behind neighboring lawns and backyards.
By the time the search started, with the aid of hundreds of volunteers, it was dark and cold and the weather had turned. It started pouring down rain making searching the woodsy terrain a difficult process. Dave Wininger, a volunteer firefighter who joined in the search for Elizabth Olten, was quoted by the Associated Press as describing the search area as “brushy” and “hilly.” “There’s a lot of rocks, trees, and brush piles. It’s a very rough place to be,” he said.
The searchers included dogs, firefighters, police, helicopters, FBI, and highway patrol. They went over and over the area, but were unsuccessful. Olten’s cell phone initially gave them a hint, but by Thursday morning, the battery had died.
A Hint, a Suspect
Until this point, the scenario that the community and the police had feared was that an older male predator had snatched up the little girl as she walked home alone through the woods. No one suspected that it was a member of the community, much less a teenage girl. But details began to emerge and rumors quickly spread. A teenager was described as a person of interest. The police had gathered some evidence, writings that led to the teenager. Alyssa Bustamante didn’t show up for school the day after the murder, her first and only unexcused absence.
Shockingly, the teenager led the police to the body. It had been in the very woods they had been searching.
Juvenile or Adult – Male or Female?
For a while, there was public uncertainty as to the gender of the person-of-interest. Because the town was so small, Cole County Sheriff Greg White declined to give more specifics on the suspect until it was decided how Alyssa Bustamante was going to be tried.
“I know that it would be cathartic for the public to know exactly what happened, but the difficulty with that is, we have to maintain a prosecutable case,” White was quoted in an AP report. “We’re not going to contaminate jury pools or anything else.”
Because Alyssa Bustamante was a juvenile, there was a question whether or not she’d be tried as an adult, possible under state law which could then make her eligible for the death penalty. But Missouri has an unusual two-pronged system for dealing with young offenders, one that mirrors Canada’s.
Missouri is one of 22 states using a “dual jurisdiction” system. If a suspect is found guilty, then the offender can be held until age 21, when a new hearing is held, and it is determined whether the offender has been rehabilitated or should serve the rest of the sentence.
It was ultimately decided that Alyssa Bustamante would be tried as an adult. Her defense attorney Kurt Valentine expressed disappointment with the decision, saying, “We are throwing away the child and we are signing a death sentence for Alyssa. She is not going to survive her time in the Cole County jail.”
As details of the murder came out, though, it became clear this was not child’s play-gone-wrong.
A Dark and Troubled Mind Revealed
Alyssa Bustamante had reveled in her bad girl image. Her Facebook page bore images of her with red smeared lipstick, designed to look ominously bloody paired with black kabuki-style makeup over her eyes. She gritted her teeth and made faces when she wasn’t pouting like a sexpot. She was known around town as a bit of a bully.
Like many teens, she was deeply involved with social media and had pages on Myspace, Twitter, and Facebook.
She had a YouTube account under the name OkamiKage (Japanese for “WolfShadow”) and filled out her profile. Under her hobbies, Alyssa Bustamante listed “killing people, cutting.”
Alyssa had been treated for severe depression and had tried to commit suicide. Her Twitter account stated that she was “somewhere I don’t want to be.” On the photo of her with smeared lipstick, she is pointing a finger at her head like a gun; many little red cuts are visible on her inner wrist.
A Tweet a few weeks before the murder read: “This is all I want in life; a reason for all this pain.”
Her YouTube account featured several videos of her and her brothers, mostly just engaging in horseplay or mimicking Jackass stunts, but one in particular was disturbing, Idiots Getting Electrocuted by Electric Fence. In it, Alyssa Bustamante and her two younger brothers are standing in front of an electric fence. She gives the camera a grin and grabs the fence as she grimaces. Well aware of the pain it causes, she nonetheless convinces her younger twin brothers, 9, do the same. The screen reads: “This is where it gets good. This is where we see my brothers get hurt.”
They dutifully follow her lead, ending on the floor, half laughing, half-shuddering.
The Murder and Confession
When Elizabeth Olten left to go home, she’d been playing with Alyssa Bustamante’s half-sister, who lived a few doors down. The six-year old and the nine-year old pals hung out, and then, when Elizabeth started her journey home, she was allegedly diverted by Alyssa who called Olten on her cell phone and redirected her back to Bustamante’s house.
Allegedly, Alyssa Bustamante had then led Elizabeth into the woods. Elizabeth, who was afraid of the dark, would have trusted the older teen, After all they played together and were friends. But, little Elizabeth couldn’t have anticipated that she would be brutally slashed on the neck and arms and then fatally stabbed to death.
The young girl’s body was found in a grave. Alysssa admitted to digging two graves a week before the murders, giving rise to speculation that her twin brothers were in fact the original intended victims. But a detail from the press conference gave people further pause. When Cole Country prosecutor Mark Richardson was asked why there were two graves, and whether one or both graves had been used for Elizabeth, he said only: “No, I can’t tell you that right now.”
The autopsy revealed that Elizabeth Olten had been strangled, her throat and wrists had been slashed and she’d been stabbed.
Missouri State Highway Patrol Sgt. David Rice said that Bustamante’s motive for the senseless murder of Elizabeth Olten was simple and terrifying. “Ultimately,” Rice told the AP, “Alyssa stated “she wanted to know what it felt like.”
Entering a Plea
On December 8, 2009, Alyssa Bustamante walked in shackles and handcuffs into the Jefferson City courtroom wearing a lime green prison jumpsuit. Her brown hair hung in her eyes. Her chin still jutted, but her defiance had been muted by the events of the previous months. The circus had come to town: reporters were allowed inside.
Even with a confession, Alyssa Bustamante entered a not guilty plea.
More than two years later, on January 10, 2012, Alyssa Bustamante pleaded guilty to second degree murder and armed criminal action. Her first-degree murder trial was scheduled to start later in the month; if convicted, she faced life without parole. Now, having entered a guilty plea, she stood a chance of being released. The punishment for murder in the second degree can be life with the possibility of parole, or 10-30 years. The sentence for armed criminal action is three years to life. After she pleaded guilty, Cole County Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce had Alyssa describe her actions on Oct. 21, 2009.
“I strangled her and stabbed her in the chest,” Alyssa said. When asked if she also cut Elizabeth Olten’s throat, she responded, “Yes.”
According to her attorney Charlie Moreland, Alyssa decided to plead guilty because “she wanted to take responsibility for it.”
On February 8, Alyssa Bustamante was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. During a sentencing hearing, forensic consultant Don Locke read aloud to the court a page from Bustamante’s diary, dated the day of the Elizabeth Olten’s murder. The entry had been scratched out, but Locke was able to recover it. It read,
“I just f*cking killed someone. I strangled them and slit their throats and stabbed them. Now they’re dead. I don’t know how to feel ATM. It was amazing. As soon as you get over the ‘Oh My Gawd. I can’t do this’ feeling it’s pretty enjoyable. I’m kinda nervous and shaking though right now. Kay, I got to go to church now LOL.”