JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — (WARNING: Discretion is advised. Elements may be disturbing to some)
A Jacksonville mother charged with aggravated child abuse following the death of her five-year-old daughter has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.
Former Navy Petty Officer Brianna Williams pleaded guilty at her twentieth pretrial hearing Thursday. She appeared emotionless during the hearing.
Williams had been charged with aggravated child abuse, two counts of child neglect, lying to police and tampering with evidence.
The child abuse charge alleged that she “tortured, maliciously punished or caged” Taylor Rose Williams, between April of 2019, when the girl was last seen alive, and Nov. 6, 2019, when Williams called police to report her missing.
“The apartment of Brianna Williams was thoroughly searched, photographed and evidence was collected," prosecutor Lauren Anderson said in court Thursday. "Obvious signs of neglect and abuse were observed including soiled children’s clothing, soiled carpeting, blood and along with partially empty soup and fruit cans that had a tiny hole cut in them," Anderson said.
Blood stains on the carpet and walls matched Taylor's DNA.
Prosecutors said officers and cadaver dogs smelled decomposition from Williams' car during the search in Jacksonville. Detectives used her car computer data to track the location of Taylor's remains to Alabama.
Taylor's remains were discovered outside Williams’ Alabama hometown six days after she was reported missing. Her badly decomposed body appeared to have been stuffed in a garbage bag and buried in a shallow hole.
Anderson said in court Thursday that just 10 percent of Taylor's bones were found scattered around the scene in Alabama.
"A determination was made that some of the recovered remains showed evidence of potential malnourishment, trauma or disease," Anderson said.
The child’s exact cause of death could not be determined, due to the advanced decomposition of her remains, and Williams was never charged with murder.
It was not clear why she agreed to plead to the more severe charge of second degree murder Thursday, something that she wasn't initially charged with. In court Thursday, though, prosecutors discussed new information, including that Williams did computer searches related to starvation and malnourishment, something that could have more directly connected her to her daughter's death.
First Coast News reached out to the State Attorney's Office and asked about the plea. A spokesperson said they aren't commenting until after sentencing.
Sentencing is scheduled for May 11. Williams faces anywhere from 20.5 years to life in prison.
Case records show Williams drove round-trip from Alabama to Jacksonville three times in the three days before she reported the child missing. Nobody saw the child alive after May 2019.
Investigators believe Williams kept her daughter in a closet when she was not at home. Police reports show investigators discovered a closet in Williams’ Southside apartment reeking of bodily waste and human decomposition, as well as bloodstains on the carpet and walls that tested positive for Taylor’s DNA. They also found soup cans with holes punched in the lids that investigators believe may have been the child's only food source when she was confined.
Friends and family members told police that Williams complained about her daughter hiding food, and said she was punished with a “time out” when that happened. When police asked a former coworker at Norfolk Naval Base what she thought had happened to the girl, she answered, “Starved her, locked her in the room. Not feeding her. Starved her to death.”
A neighbor told police he once found the girl wandering in their Southside apartment complex in April 2019. When the neighbor walked the girl back to her apartment, he said it was "cluttered with trash bags and boxes stacked on top of each other," according to a warrant.
Williams was a Naval petty officer first class at the Tactical Operations Center at Naval Air Station Jacksonville. She stopped cooperating with police shortly after reporting her daughter missing. After she was arrested on base the day her daughter’s remains were found, she attempted suicide by ingesting laundry detergent.