His eyes glazed over and his voice a barely audible whisper, Levi Aron pleaded guilty Thursday to abducting, suffocating and dismembering 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky last summer, a grisly crime that rocked Brooklyn's insular and devout Jewish Orthodox community.
Aron, 36, admitted to the packed Brooklyn courtroom that he snatched Kletzky from a Borough Park street last July, eventually cutting up his body and putting parts of it in his freezer. The boy's disappearance sparked an intensive three-day search, with his picture posted throughout the city.
"I panicked," Aron said when asked by Judge Neil Firetog why he killed Kletzky.
Wearing a bright orange jumpsuit and a black kippah, Aron, a hardware store clerk, answered most of Firetog’s questions with a simple "yes." He agreed with Firetog that he found Leiby on 15th Avenue in Brooklyn and took the young boy to a wedding upstate before bringing him back to his apartment. Leiby remained there alone while Aron was at work for a day.
But after after seeing the neighborhood search for the missing boy, Aron drugged Leiby and smothered him with a bath towel in a panic, he told the judge.
When asked what he did next, Aron told the court he “disposed the body.”
"I put it in a suitcase," Aron said after his defense attorneys encouraged him to speak louder, one hugging him on the shoulder.
Police tracked down Aron two days after Leiby disappeared using surveillance footage of a man, believed to be Aron, following the boy before he was taken. When they arrived at his apartment, Aron pointed to his freezer, where police found Leiby's feet, bloody knives and a carving board. His legs were also dismembered, found with the rest of his body in a red suitcase tossed into a dumpster a few blocks from the apartment.
"In order to put it in the suitcase you had to cut the body?" Firetog asked, peering at Aron intently over horn-rimmed glasses.
"Yes," Aron said softly.
As part of the plea agreement, Aron will serve 40 years to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
Though Kings County District Attorney Charles Hynes said in a statement last August that there were "no circumstances which would lead me to accept a plea bargain,” the deal was reached after Leiby’s parents told the prosecutors they wanted to avoid a trial.
"We want to thank D.A. Hynes and his team for bringing this to a quick resolution as we requested -- for not forcing us to relive the terror that began when Leiby went missing," Leiby’s father Nachman Kletzky said in a statement read by state Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn) after the proceeding.
"Those three days of uncertainty were unbearable, but our community led a tireless search and allowed us the comfort of at least knowing the truth of our child’s fate," the statement continued.
Aron's lawyers in the past maintained they would pursue an insanity defense, but Firetog noted in court that the defendant had recieved a psychological evaluation that would make pursuing such a defense difficult.
During the hearing, Aron spoke only briefly and his lawyers often had to prompt him to answer the judge. But his lawyers said he was aware of the nature of his crime and his plea deal.
"He’s well aware of what the charges are against him and what he’s done," defense attorney Jennifer McCann said. "He’s unable to really express his emotions the way you and I would understand it."
When asked if they pitied their client, his three lawyers blanched.
"Is there anyone here who doesn’t?" attorney Pierre Bazile asked.
Aron is expected to be sentenced Aug. 29.
Levi Aron, Howard Greenberg, Pierre Bazile,
Levi Aron, center, listens to a plea hearing with his attorneys Howard Greenberg, left, and Pierre Bazile, in Brooklyn Supreme Court Aug. 9. Aron pleaded guilty to charges he abducted and dismembered Leiby Kletzky, an 8-year-old boy who became lost in Brooklyn after leaving a day camp. The plea will result in a sentence of 40 years to life in prison. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, Pool)
New York state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who's acted as Kletzky family spokesman, spoke after Levi Aron pleaded guilty Aug. 9. "The last thing they want is to relive the horror of losing their child," Hikind said. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
Levi Aron, Howard Greenberg, Jennifer McCann, Pierre Bazile,Julie Rendelman, Linda Weinman
Levi Aron, second left, sits with his attorneys Howard Greenberg, left, Pierre Bazile, and Jennifer McCann in Brooklyn court Aug. 9, 2012. Assistant District Attorneys Julie Rendelman, second from right, and Linda Weinman, listen to the proceedings. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, Pool)
New York Supreme Court Justice Neil Firetog presides over a plea hearing in the case of Levi Aron in Brooklyn court Aug. 9, 2012. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, Pool)
Levi Aron, Pierre Bazile
Levi Aron, right, with his attorney Pierre Bazile, arrives in New York state Supreme Court, for a plea hearing. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, Pool)
FILE - In this Aug. 4, 2011 file photo, Levi Aron, accused of abducting and dismembering Brooklyn boy Leiby Kletzky, is arraigned in Brooklyn criminal court in New York. Aron pleaded guilty in Brooklyn supreme court Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012, as part of a deal that would result in a sentence of 40 years to life in prison. (AP Photo/Jesse Ward, Pool, File)
FILE - In this July 14, 2011 file photo, Levi Aron is arraigned before Judge William Miller in Brooklyn criminal court in New York. The confession of Aron, charged with kidnapping, smothering and dismembering an 8-year-old boy, was coerced by authorities who took advantage of his fragile mental state, defense attorneys said Monday, Oct. 24, 2011. (AP Photo/Louis Lanzano, Pool, File)
FILE - In this July 13, 2011 file photo, people in protective clothing enter the house where suspect Levi Aron was apprehended in connection to the murder of a missing boy in the Brooklyn borough of New York. The family of the boy who was abducted, killed and dismembered has sued Aron, the suspect in his death and Aron's father for $100 million each. Aron's father owned the building where his son lived. The two civil lawsuits say he should've known what was going on and could've stopped it. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
Members of the Hasidic community listen as attorneys for Levi Aron speak to reporters after his arraignment in Brooklyn criminal court, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2011 in New York. Aron was arraigned Thursday in Brooklyn State Supreme Court on charges of murder in the death of Leiby Kletzky whose body was found stuffed in a suitcase in a trash bin. The boy's severed feet were found in Aron's refrigerator; carving knives and a bloody board were found in the freezer. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Prosecutors Julie Rendelman, left, Linda Weinman, center, and Kenneth Taub stand during the arraignment of Levi Aron in Brooklyn criminal court, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2011 in New York. (AP Photo/Jesse Ward, Pool)
The search for Leiby Kletzky.
Exclusive Photos: Alleged Killer Levi Aron
Levi Aron -- pictured here in an image pulled from his Facebook account -- is accused of kidnapping 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky as he walked home from summer camp in Brooklyn, N.Y. on July 11.
Exclusive Photos: Alleged Killer Levi Aron
Aron -- shown here in another Facebook photo -- was captured on surveillance cameras walking with Kletzky on the afternoon of July 11, according to investigators. Early on July 13, police say they recovered Kletzky's dismembered remains in Aron's freezer and in a dumpster in a nearby Brooklyn neighborhood.
Photos of Alleged Killer Levi Aron
When investigators confronted the 35-year-old suspect in his home in the neighborhood of Kensington, Aron reportedly made statements implicating himself in Kletzky's death. He pleaded guilty to kidnapping and murder charges Aug. 9, 2012.
Photos of Alleged Killer Levi Aron
Aron reportedly told investigators he spent hours with the boy and even brought him to a wedding in another Jewish community. But when he returned to Brooklyn, he claimed he saw leaflets featuring the child's face and panicked, killing Kletzky in his apartment, according to police.
Exclusive New Photos of Alleged Killer Levi Aron
Aron reportedly told his attorneys that he hears voices and experiences hallucinations.