By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A Massachusetts steelworker pleaded guilty Thursday in the death of his former girlfriend, whom authorities found shot in the head in her southern Wisconsin home.
Phillip Byrd pleaded guilty to second-degree intentional homicide in connection with the February death of 43-year-old Cheryl Gilberg. He had told detectives she pointed a gun at him and was shot as they wrestled for the weapon. Investigators have questioned whether such a struggle took place.
Prosecutors had initially charged Byrd with first-degree intentional homicide but reduced the count Thursday in exchange for the guilty plea. His attorney, public defender Murali Jasti, said Byrd feels sorry that Gilberg died and took the state’s offer because “he wants to accept his responsibility and he wants to do it in a timely fashion.”
Byrd, 40, sat quietly in handcuffs during the half-hour proceeding. He answered Dane County Circuit Judge’s John Markson’s questions about whether he understood what he was doing with simple “yes” responses.
Gilberg’s family looked on from the gallery. They left the courtroom without speaking with reporters.
Markson ordered a pre-sentence investigation but did not set a sentencing date. Byrd avoids the mandatory life sentence that comes with a conviction for first-degree intentional homicide but now faces up to 60 years in the state prison system, with up to 40 behind bars and up to 20 on extended supervision.
Assistant District Attorney Corey Stephan said prosecutors are free to recommend the maximum sentence but declined to comment further.
Sheriff’s deputies discovered Gilberg’s body in a bedroom in her Mazomanie home on Feb. 23, according to a criminal complaint. Investigators learned Byrd was her former boyfriend and arrested him the next day in Janesville for outstanding child support warrants as well as an operating while intoxicated warrant.
Byrd told investigators he was at Gilberg’s house when she pointed her revolver at him, forced him onto his knees and put the gun in his mouth.
He said he knocked the gun out of his mouth and they fought over it, rolling off the bed. The weapon went off twice. He said he saw Gilberg lying on the floor but thought she was still alive. He became frightened, grabbed the gun and fled to another woman’s trailer, stopping along the way to throw the gun away, the complaint said.
Byrd told investigators he felt he and Gilberg had magical chemistry but he had a bad feeling that day after everything that had happened between them during the previous week. He told investigators he could barely live with the guilt and he wished Wisconsin had the death penalty.
The complaint doesn’t elaborate on what may have driven Gilberg to pull her gun on Byrd, if she did. Investigators wrote in the complaint that prescription bottles and soda bottles on the bed’s headboard shelf as well as a bowl of food on a TV stand next to the bed were all undisturbed, suggesting the struggle Byrd described may not have taken place as he said.
Jasti declined to comment on what led to the fight. Stephan declined to comment on the case as he left court and didn’t immediately return a voicemail.