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AMERICAN FORK — Nearly four years after their disappearance, the families of Emily Quijano Almiron and her three-year-old son Gabriel now know how they died.
Almiron's ex-boyfriend admitted Tuesday in 4th District court to shooting her in a panic after he severely injured her young son and found the boy had died during the night in September 2015.
The resolution brings authorities a step closer to recovering the bodies of the mother and child. As part of his plea bargain with prosecutors, the 30-year-old Christopher Poulson agreed to help investigators find his victims.
He led authorities last week to the stretch of desert not far from Utah County where he hid the pair's remains, but could not remember exactly where they were, prosecutor Lance Bastian told reporters after the court hearing. Investigators will continue to comb the land there, he said.
Inside the courtroom, sobs could be heard as Poulson pleaded guilty to murder, a first-degree felony, and manslaughter, a second-degree felony. Under the terms of the plea agreement, he faces at least 16 years and up to life in prison.
"We were never going to have an explanation from him without some kind of resolution like this, to potentially be able to recover the bodies, to be able to lay them to rest some place more respectful than where they are currently," Bastian said. The guilty pleas are more final than a trial, which could ultimately become vulnerable to appeals, Bastian added.
If the authorities eventually retrieve remains of the 23-year-old mother and son, the plea bargain permits Poulson to seek a judge's permission to withdraw his pleas and admit to lesser charges.
But Judge Robert Lunnen said Tuesday he would not commit to honoring that deal ahead of time.
"I'll listen to what you have to say," Lunnen said, but he emphasized he may not accept pleas to the possible 30 second-degree felony counts: one each of murder and manslaughter, plus 28 of obstructing justice.
Poulson said little in the hearing, appearing in glasses and a red jail uniform. He admitted that he had been using meth and drinking alcohol when he babysat the 3-year-old Gabriel on Sept. 8, 2015, and somehow injured the boy. He put the child to bed before Almiron returned home and went to sleep, then later checked on him to find he had died. Poulson then lost his nerve and shot Almiron with a handgun while she slept.
The series of events, read aloud by a prosecutor, did not touch on how he discarded their bodies.
Investigators did not initially focus on Poulson but later became suspicious when they perceived he was lying and giving deceptive answers in his conversations with them. Poulson, of Smithfield, was later arrested in Hawaii, where prosecutors say he moved after FBI investigators spoke to him about the case.
At a preliminary hearing last year, her family members described Almiron as a happy young mother who loved to sing and play her Fender Stratocaster, but who sometimes fell in with the wrong crowd. Poulson had broken up with her four days before her ex-husband reported her as missing in September 2015, the state alleged in earlier court hearings.
Investigators traced his steps by tracking his cellphone, finding he went to dumpsters in two different areas in Orem the day after the breakup, and bought a shovel and work gloves at a Springville Walmart. Charging documents say he then took Almiron's red Toyota Prius to southern Utah and left it there to deflect attention from himself.
Poulson originally was charged with two counts of aggravated murder, a first-degree felony; obstructing justice, a second-degree felony; and two more counts of abuse or desecration of a human body, a third-degree felony.
Sentencing is scheduled for September 26.