MOUNT VERNON — Ashlee Smith pleaded guilty Wednesday to first-degree premeditated murder of his girlfriend’s step-grandfather.

Smith, 33, was charged with the February killing of 69-year-old Dean Jackson. Related cases remain pending against Smith’s girlfriend, 25-year-old Ami Morin, and their friend Phillip Jones, 30.

Authorities found Jackson’s body wrapped in a tarp with his deceased cat in a rural area north of Sedro-Woolley on Feb. 25, nine days after the Anacortes man was reported missing but more than two weeks after he was last seen.

A coroner’s report showed Jackson died of several blunt impacts to the head. Smith’s guilty plea says he hit Jackson four or five times with a wooden stick.

Morin and Smith are believed to have made fraudulent deposits into Jackson’s bank account and were seen driving Jackson’s minivan while Jackson was missing.

Suspecting foul play, detectives arrested Morin on Feb. 19 on suspicion of several counts of identity theft. A Feb. 22 search of Jackson’s residence showed evidence of a cover-up, including a bathtub full of water and chemical cleaner, resulting in a second-degree murder complaint being added against Morin.

Investigators also found blood in one of Jackson’s vehicles.

Smith turned himself in to the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office in March after authorities issued an arrest warrant for him.

In the months that followed, county prosecutors filed charges against Smith and Morin, who had been living with Jackson on Gibraltar Road in Anacortes when Jackson disappeared.

Morin was charged in March with second-degree murder, five counts of second-degree identity theft for the fraudulent deposits, and two counts of vehicle theft for allegedly taking Jackson’s two vehicles.

Smith was charged in April with first-degree premeditated murder, trafficking in stolen property, three counts of second-degree identity theft and two counts of vehicle theft. It was not immediately clear Wednesday evening whether those charges had been dropped in exchange for the murder plea.

Smith’s friend Jones was charged in April with two counts of rendering criminal assistance in the case. He is accused of helping the couple hide evidence in the killing. He and Smith were reportedly at the Sedro-Woolley-area property the night before Jackson’s body was found there.

Probable-cause affidavits filed in Morin’s and Smith’s cases detail tension between the pair and Jackson, who had restricted their use of his vehicles and tried to kick them out of the home.

Jackson was the caretaker for the Quaker Cove Retreat in the Anacortes area. While Jackson was missing, neighbors and friends said it was unlike him to leave for long periods of time without telling anyone.

Morin told detectives more than a month after her arrest that Smith killed Jackson at his home, according to documents filed in Jones’ case. Morin said Jackson did not like Smith, and that Smith had told her, “Well we could just get rid of him, and then we could be together,” according to the affidavit.

Morin told investigators that on the night of Feb. 6, she was outside on the phone when she heard Jackson yelling at Smith and the yelling suddenly stopped, according to court documents. She said they then drove to Mount Vernon to pick up Jones, who helped them clean the scene and move the body twice, according to court documents.

Smith’s criminal record includes four felony convictions. The murder conviction is his second strike under Washington’s “three strikes” law.

Based on this conviction and his criminal history, Smith faces a standard sentencing range of about 23 to about 31 years, with a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years. He could then serve three years in community custody.

Skagit County Superior Court Judge Michael Rickert will hand down Smith’s sentence at 11 a.m. on Nov. 27.

— Reporter Gina Cole: 360-416-2148, gcole@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Gina_SVH, facebook.com/byGinaCole

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