Florida man found guilty and sentenced to life for killing his girlfriend’s daughter

A jury took about 30 minutes on Monday to convict Robert Kern Jr. of first degree murder for killing his then-girlfriend’s 16-year-old daughter in 2018 and leaving her body in a wooded area in DeLand.

On April 13, 2018, a Friday, Kern was scheduled to drive Justis Marie Garrett to Mount Dora High School after missing her school bus. Garrett had lived in New Smyrna Beach until moving to Sorrento several months earlier.

But instead of taking her to school, Kern, 43, killed and raped her, Assistant District Attorney Megan Upchurch, who pursued the case with Assistant District Attorney Jason Lewis, told jurors during their hearings. pleadings on Monday.

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“Robert Kern on April 13, 2018 kidnapped, raped and murdered Justis Garrett and the state has proven it beyond a reasonable doubt,” Upchurch said.

After the verdict was read and the jury exited the courtroom, Kern stood up and faced Circuit Judge Dawn Nichols, who sentenced him to mandatory life in prison without parole for murder at the first degree. She sentenced him to a concurrent five-year prison term for tampering with evidence.

The girl’s family embraced in the courtroom after the verdict and sentencing.

Kern did not testify and his defense attorneys did not call any witnesses. Kern shook his head several times during Upchurch’s and then Lewis’ closing arguments. Prosecutors’ closing arguments lasted approximately 90 minutes.

Upchurch juxtaposed two photos of Garrett for the jury of eight women and four men. On one half of the screen, an image showed a smiling teenage girl. On the other side of the screen was a photo of his partially decomposed skeletal remains.

District Attorney Jason Lewis points to Robert Kern during a murder trial at the Volusia County Courthouse in DeLand, Monday, Aug. 8, 2022.

The pants she was wearing had come down to her Nike shoes. Her bra and hoodie had been pulled up to her neck. The drawstring of the hoodie was tight under his skull.

Garrett used her cell phone and social media frequently, but on April 13, 2018, the last time she used her phone was at 6:48 a.m. when she posted a picture of herself on Snapchat.

Once she got into Kern’s blue Ford Explorer, Kern drove her to DeLand, not her school.

Danielle Pratt, mother of Justis Marie Garrett, bites her lip while watching text messages with District Attorney Megan Upchurch during Robert Kern's trial Wednesday, August 3, 2022 at the Volusia County Courthouse in DeLand.  He is accused of killing Justis, 16, in 2018.

At 7:26 a.m. on April 13, 2018, Kern texted Garrett’s mother, Danielle Pratt, saying he had dropped Garrett off at school. But by then Kern had taken control of the teenager through violence or drugs, Upchurch said.

“We know he’s a long way from Mount Dora High School,” Upchurch said.

Experts testified that Garrett’s remains showed she had a small broken nose.

Once in DeLand, Garrett’s phone is off from 8:12 a.m. to 9:17 a.m. in the area where his body was later found near a dirt road in a heavily wooded area off service roads and gasoline.

“We know that at this point she is being raped. We know she was killed,” Upchurch said.

after the murder

Shortly after, Garrett’s phone begins to move west towards Sorrento. A trace of Kern’s cell phone that day was unavailable. But at 9:52 a.m. Kern’s phone received an incoming call and during that brief moment investigators could see that his location was being tracked with Garrett’s phone, both in downtown DeLand.

Two video cameras at the former Ritter’s Towne drugstore and a Dollar General, both along State Road 44 in DeLand, captured video from Kern’s SUV coinciding with the time Garrett’s phone was followed in the area, prosecutors said.

At the time, Kern was busy covering up the crime, Upchurch said.

“He’s trying to figure out what to do with his backpack, he just killed her,” Upchurch said.

Kern drove to the Mount Dora High School area, turned off Garrett’s phone and got rid of it, Upchurch said.

Later, when Garrett didn’t show up after school, his mother wanted to call the police but Kern discouraged her from doing so, according to Upchurch.

When the teenager still doesn’t show up, Kern claims she told him she didn’t want to go to school and wanted to hang out with friends, Upchurch said.

“He’s buying time for that body to break down,” Upchurch said.

Investigators were able to obtain a lead for Kern’s phone on Monday, April 16, 2018, which showed he had returned to the site where the teenager’s body had still not been discovered. Kern stayed there from 8:05 a.m. to 9:19 a.m.

Upchurch said Kern spent that time covering up the crime, pouring bleach on Garrett’s lower body. Analysts found signs that bleach had been poured on his pants and shoes.

Garrett’s body was discovered by a member of a tracking group on April 18, 2018, who was in the area for a social gathering.

fake instagram account

The next day, DeLand police issued a press release about the body. That same day, Kern deleted his Gmail account, the same account he had used to create a fake Instagram account in which he posed as an 18-year-old man.

Kern used the fake account to message Garrett on his Instagram account. She never answered him.

“You are cute. How old are you?” read a message on February 10, 2018 from Kern.

“You have a boyfriend”, i.e. boyfriend, on February 10, 2018.

Kern sent a “Talk to me beautiful” message on February 11, 2018, to Garrett.

Upchurch reminded jurors of testimony that Kern researched the Internet in the months before Garrett’s murder about knockout drugs and the best drugs to knock someone unconscious.

Kern searched several sites with headlines about fathers having sex with their daughters, she said.

The phone also showed a search on February 22, 2018, for a sexy brunette forced to have sex in the woods.

Garrett’s mother initially told investigators she was with Kern when he dropped off her daughter. She did it because Kern had a suspended driver’s license and she didn’t want him to get in trouble, prosecutors said.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement scheduled an interview with Pratt and Kern for April 29, 2018. Before Kern went to the interview, he performed a factory reset on his LG cell phone to erase the data, said Upchurch.

Kern and Pratt went for a second interview, traveling separately, the next day with FDLE. But at the time, Pratt told FDLE that Kern was actually alone with the teenager on the day he was supposed to drop her off at school.

Kern was also confronted with Garrett’s cellphone location history showing that she was nowhere near Mount Dora High School when Kern claimed he dropped her off.

Kern then changed her story and said he dropped her off at a street corner not far from her home where she said a friend was supposed to pick her up, Upchurch said.

Kern was represented by Deputy Public Defenders Adam Dala and Cameron Brown. Dala’s argument lasted approximately 15 minutes.

Dala said prosecutors found no DNA evidence to support their sexual assault allegation. He said they had no evidence showing how Garrett died, whether she was strangled, stabbed or even died of natural causes. He said no drugs were found in the remains.

Assistant State’s Attorney Lewis countered that investigators had no DNA evidence because Garrett’s body had decomposed in the woods where he was also subjected to animals. Lewis said the medical examiner ruled it a homicide and not a natural death.

“The evidence in this case is overwhelming and the overwhelming evidence in this case shows that Robert Kern, sitting right here,” Lewis said as he walked over to the defense table and pointed to Kern, “is the one who murdered Justis. He raped. He kidnapped her. He took her to the woods. Every piece of evidence shows it.”


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