SOUTH JERSEY -- Jennifer Whipkey had dreams.
The young mother from the Clarksboro section of East Greenwich, Gloucester County wanted to join the U.S. Air Force to serve her country and build a career to support herself and her 4-year-old daughter.
Brian Mertz snuffed those dreams.
In an attack the sentencing judge described as "particularly heinous," Mertz beat and strangled Whipkey, and then stabbed her 41 times and slashed her 22 times with a knife, cutting her carotid artery.
A newspaper delivery employee found Whipkey’s battered body in a wooded area off Woodbury Terrace in West Deptford on May 26, 2002. Whipkey, 22, was last seen alive at Adelphia nightclub in Deptford in the early hours of May 25. Her body was 160 feet from the door of Westwood Motor Lodge, where Mertz had been staying at the time.
On Oct. 25, 2012, a state Superior Court jury in Woodbury convicted Mertz, 34, of first-degree murder in Whipkey's death.
On Thursday morning, Judge Walter L. Marshall Jr. sentenced Mertz to 50 years in state prison.
The road to Mertz's sentencing on Thursday morning in Woodbury was filled with anguish for Whipkey's family and friends, dozens of whom filled one side of the courtroom gallery, wearing photos of her, in laminates pinned to their shirts.
Whipkey's slaying remained unsolved for several years.
Mertz became a prime suspect in her slaying after DNA from semen in her body matched a DNA sample Mertz had given after a cocaine possession conviction in 2005, according to the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office. But, at the time, there was not enough evidence to charge Mertz with Whipkey's murder.
Finally, after an exhaustive investigation that looked at more than 80 potential suspects, Mertz was arrested on murder and sexual assault charges on Dec. 21, 2008.
On Thursday, several of Whipkey's family members gave victim-impact statements before Marshall imposed sentencing.
"She was everything I always wanted to be," said Whipkey's sister, Jessica Perkins. "She radiated a positive vibe. Jennifer was a wonderful mother. She treated everyone with love."
Although Whipkey's family wanted Mertz to receive to the maximum sentence of life in prison, Whipkey's great uncle, Joe McNerney, told the judge, "Nothing you include in his sentence can change the evil that drove him to do what he did."
A framed photo of Whipkey sat on the prosecution table during the proceeding.
'My life ended as I knew it'
During her statement, Whipkey's mother, Elizabeth McCool, recounted how close she and her daughter were because McCool was a single mother, and that when Whipkey was just 18, she became a mother herself.
"Alyssa was the light of her life," McCool said of Whipkey's daughter, now 15.
McCool tearfully recounted the night police officers came to her home to tell her her daughter was dead.
"My life ended as I knew it when she was murdered," McCool said. "I had no idea how to live my life without her, and I didn't want to."
As a memorial video showing photos of Whipkey as a child, growing up, and then with her own daughter played on a screen next to him, Mertz stared down at the defense table.
First Assistant County Prosecutor Michael S. Curwin, who tried the case, told the judge, "He took all the life Jen had up to that point, and there is no more."
Mertz did not speak before Marshall imposed sentencing. Mertz's attorney, Bruce Warren, said his client was 24 at the time of Whipkey's murder, and that Mertz was addicted to crack cocaine.
Mertz, now the father of a 4-year-old son, "is redeemable," Warren said. "Mr. Mertz is not the same person he was at the age of 24."
Mertz, a former Woodbury resident, must serve 85 percent of his sentence, or about 42.5 years. Marshall gave him credit for time served for roughly four years Mertz spent in the Gloucester County Jail awaiting trial.
"Nothing we do here will bring her back," Marshall said before imposing sentencing. "Ms. Whipkey lost her life much too early."
(To view a photo gallery from the sentencing, go to Viewfinder: Brian Mertz Gets 50 Years for Murdering Jennifer Whipkey.)
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