Jacksonville man pleads guilty in 74-year-old aunt's death

Phillip Jason Smith, 39, sentenced to life in prison

After Janice Fulton was found dead outside Atlanta, Phillip Smith was arrested.
After Janice Fulton was found dead outside Atlanta, Phillip Smith was arrested.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A Jacksonville man pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the 2017 death of his 74-year-old aunt, the State Attorney's Office announced Wednesday. 

Phillip Jason Smith, 39, was sentenced to life in prison.

Jacksonville police learned about the disappearance of Smith's aunt, Janice Fulton, when family called the afternoon of Jan. 26, 2017, to report her missing.

According to Smith's arrest warrant affidavit, when Fulton's family went to her Westside home after not hearing from her in several days, they found blood and discovered her car was missing, so they called police and Smith, who lived with her after prosecutors said he was released from a four-year prison sentence in May 2016 for burglary and elderly exploitation crimes. 

Police said Fulton was found dead the evening of Jan. 26, 2017, in Henry County, Georgia, south of Atlanta, after Smith had stopped for gas in the Kia Optima that police were looking for.

Locust Grove police -- who were alerted the car might be in their area when JSO pinged the GPS tracker in the car -- located the vehicle about 10 p.m. and took Smith into custody.

Georgia detectives found Fulton's "body wrapped up in a tarp inside the car," the arrest affidavit said. 

Prosecutors said Fulton's body had signs of trauma to her face, head and body. 

A grand jury indict Smith for first-degree murder in August and the State Attorney's Office filed notice of its intent to seek the death penalty, but later made the decision not to seek death.

“After considerable review, we determined this resolution brings finality to the litigation, certainty in the outcome, and honors the wishes of the victim’s family,” State Attorney Melissa Nelson said.

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