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April 18, 2019

Mother was ‘mastermind’ behind rape and murder of ‘hated’ teen daughter, lawyers say — but she claims she got ‘wrapped up’ in boyfriend’s fantasy

March 22, 2019
A photo of Grace Packer on display in New Life Presbyterian Church in Glenside, Montgomery County, before her memorial service on Jan. 16, 2017. (HANDOUT / THE MORNING CALL)

Editor’s note: This story contains content that may be disturbing to some readers.

Jacob Sullivan’s lawyers billed Sara Packer as the “mastermind” behind the rape and murder of her 14-year-old adopted daughter, and they said she would admit that in court.

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But that’s not what happened.

Wearing a red prison jumpsuit and a slight smirk, Packer took the witness stand during Sullivan’s sentencing hearing in Bucks County Court on Wednesday, saying it was Sullivan’s idea to rape Grace.

“I got wrapped up in Jake’s fantasy,” she told the jury. “I didn’t think I could tell him no without losing him.”

Packer also told the jury that killing Grace was not part of their original plan. She and Sullivan intended to imprison the teen in the attic of their rented Richland Township home “for years” so that Sullivan could rape her whenever he wanted, Packer testified.

“I think he just panicked,” she said, about Sullivan strangling the teen hours after the rape. “The reality of what he had done set in, and there was no going back. So he decided that it was time for her to die.”

Sullivan, 46, pleaded guilty last month to 18 crimes, including first-degree murder, rape of a child and kidnapping. Jurors are now deciding whether Sullivan will be sentenced to life in prison or death.

Moments after Packer entered the courtroom, Sullivan dabbed his eyes with a tissue. She looked first at him, then around the room, smiling at times as defense attorney Jack Fagan asked her questions.

Packer told the jury that she “hated” Grace and had wanted her out of her life for years.

“She had become a nonentity to me,” she said.

When Sullivan began the rape by punching Grace in the face, Packer told the jury, her daughter asked her for help.

“I can’t help you anymore,” she said she told Grace. “This is your life now.”

As part of his guilty plea, Sullivan admitted that he and Packer plotted Grace’s rape and murder for months and carried it out on July 8, 2016, to fulfill a sexual fantasy. In a taped confession, Sullivan said that as Grace was being raped, she looked pleadingly to her mother, to no avail.

“She wanted Grace to see that she wasn’t going to save her. She got off on that,” Sullivan told a detective. “I did too, to tell you the truth.”

Grace spent her last 12 hours gagged and hogtied in a sweltering attic closet. Sullivan said he strangled the teen when she did not succumb to the sleep medication he and Packer fed her in hopes of poisoning her. Sullivan admitted that they kept Grace’s body in cat litter for months, then dismembered and dumped her remains in Luzerne County, where they were found by hunters on Halloween 2016.

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Sara Packer, 44, is expected to plead guilty to first-degree murder and other crimes after Sullivan’s case is complete. As part of a plea deal, which Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub explained to the jury Wednesday, she will avoid the death penalty and serve life in prison.

Packer — who had lived in Allentown when she and her then-husband, David Packer, adopted Grace and her younger brother in 2007 — spent about an hour on the stand Wednesday. Earlier in the day, the jury heard statements from Grace’s family members.

In a letter, Grace’s younger brother, Josh, now 14, asked jurors and the community to honor his sister by helping other abused kids.

“Today, Grace can become a hero,” he wrote.

He and Grace, who had been with the Packers since they were toddlers, had a “hard life” and moved around a lot, he wrote.

David Packer was sent to prison in 2010 for molesting Grace. By 2013, Jacob Sullivan had moved in with Sara Packer and the children in Allentown, then they moved to several apartments in Montgomery County.

“I want everyone here to make sure you watch out for all the kids,” Josh wrote in a letter read by Abington police Detective Cindy Pettinato, who began the investigation into Grace’s disappearance in 2016. Josh was not in the courtroom.

He asked jurors “to help kids when they cannot help themselves. … If all of you do this, it makes Grace’s life have value, and it will help me heal,” he wrote.

Jurors also heard testimony from Grace’s grandparents, several aunts and uncles and a cousin.

Warren and Evelyn Packer, of Northampton, told the jury that Grace loved spending weekends at their home, fishing, playing miniature golf and riding her bike at a nearby park.

Evelyn Packer said Sara never bought her daughter new clothing but made her wear hand-me-downs. Grace was often dressed in clothes that were “overused and ready for the ragbag,” her grandmother said.

Evelyn Packer recalled hearing Sara tell her daughter, “You’re only with me because no one else wanted you.”

Warren Packer brought several jurors to tears with his testimony, speaking about all the milestones the family would miss with Grace, including her high school graduation and wedding.

“We will never hear that happy little girl giggle again,” he said.

Grace’s cousin, Karie Heisserer, talked about the fun times she had with Grace when the teen lived with Heisserer in North Carolina for 11 months in 2014-15.

“It sickens me to know that Grace was abused, tortured and literally thrown away like she was a piece of trash,” she said. “Grace is in a better place now, free from evil and pain.”

Photos of Grace during happier times were projected on a screen as family members testified.

Weintraub spoke to jurors Wednesday morning and addressed some of the legal issues that prevented him from seeking the death penalty against Sara Packer.

He said that at the time he made the deal, which required Packer to cooperate with the investigation, prosecutors still did not know the full nature of her involvement in Grace’s death.

To qualify for capital punishment, Weintraub noted, Sara had to physically carry out the murder. The law does not allow for an accomplice to receive the death penalty.

“I am not permitted to make legal judgments of who should be eligible for the death penalty based on how evil they are,” Weintraub said.

The hearing will resume Friday.

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