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Teen held on $1 million bail in death of girl, 6

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  • Jenise Paulette Wright (AP Photo/FBI)

PORT ORCHARD, Wash. » A judge on Monday found probable cause to detain a 17-year-old boy under investigation in the death and sexual assault of a 6-year-old Washington girl.

Judge Kevin Hull set bail at $1 million for Gabriel Gaeta after prosecutors said in court filings they had enough evidence to hold the teen on suspicion of first-degree murder with aggravating circumstances, felony murder and first-degree rape of a child.

Kitsap County prosecutor Kelly Montgomery asked for the bail amount "based on the heinous nature of the crime that is alleged."

Court records released Monday showed 6-year-old Jenise Wright suffered blunt-force trauma to the head and was strangled and sexually assaulted. Authorities said they linked evidence found near the girl’s body to the DNA of Gaeta, who was friends with her family.

Prosecutors are pursuing the case in Kitsap County Superior Court, where the teen is expected to be tried as an adult.

The judge also granted prosecutors’ request for a mental-health review of Gaeta. After the hearing, Kitsap County Prosecutor Russ Hauge said they sought the competency evaluation to first determine whether they can charge the teen with anything.

"Right now, we’re confident we can. We just want to nail that down," Hauge said.

A message left with Gaeta’s lawyer Monday was not immediately returned.

Gaeta arrived in court with a black jacket over his head. He spoke softly as he answered the judge’s question. His next court date was set for Aug. 28.

Jenise’s parents sat in the courtroom’s second row.

James Wright, Jenise’s father, told The Seattle Times the suspect was a close friend of the family and had visited their home many times.

"It’s devastating, and it’s going to be hard to forgive," he said.

Court documents lay out grisly details into the death of Jenise, who was last seen when she went to bed Aug. 2 at her family’s home in a Bremerton mobile-home park. Officials have said there were no signs of forced entry at the residence and no indication Jenise was taken from her room.

The girl’s body was discovered Thursday almost entirely submerged in a nearby muddy bog. It appeared to have been moved between a half-hour and three hours after she died.

Searchers found a small wood pallet over the body, and also located a nylon duffel bag on top of the pallet. They earlier discovered Jenise’s underwear and shorts about 15 to 20 feet from where her body was found.

Authorities say forensic evidence analyzed by the Washington state crime lab linked the clothing to the teen’s DNA. The sheriff’s office collected DNA cheek swabs from Gaeta and dozens of other nearby residents during the investigation.

Detectives interviewed the teen Saturday, during which time he "clearly nodded yes" when they asked whether he was the only one involved, according to court documents.

"Certainly, as you can see from the probable cause statement, his interactions suggested that he knew that responsibility was rightfully focused on him," Hauge said.

Authorities then searched his home and found evidence, including a blood- and mud-covered shirt and a bloody towel in Gaeta’s bedroom.

His residence is two homes away from the access to a wooded trail leading to where the body was found, according to the court document.

A growing memorial at the entrance to the neighborhood includes silver balloons, stuffed animals, lit candles and flowers.

Katelynn Christenson and her friend Amanda Ungren, both 18, were among those who crowded the courtroom Monday.

The two said they went to the same junior high school as the suspect. They said they weren’t close with him but saw no signs of violence.

"He was a nice kid," said Christenson, who said she called her mother in tears when she heard who the suspect was.

Ungren said she didn’t know Jenise’s family but lived in the same trailer park when she was a child.

"It hit close," she said. "I came to support her and only her."

In the days after Jenise’s disappearance, hundreds of people, including officers from 15 law enforcement agencies, searched for her and went door to door at the mobile-home park on the west side of Puget Sound, across from Seattle. They also pulled surveillance video from nearby businesses and checked in with sex offenders in the county.

Associated Press writer Phuong Le in Seattle contributed to this report.

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