They waited and wept.
More than 25 years after 7-year-old Diana Hernandez was raped and killed, a 47-year-old man pleaded guilty Monday to related charges.
Diana’s mother, Maria Samano; sister Estela Hernandez; and twin, Adriana Morales, sat nearby and watched with tears in their eyes.
“We weren’t ready to hear all this,” Samano said. “I wasn’t ready. I know it was going to happen, but you’re never ready.”
Diana’s family had waited 15 years before DNA and fingerprint evidence led to Gregory Wallen’s arrest.
In April 1994, as their mother paid rent at their apartment complex near Maryland Parkway and Flamingo Road, the twins ran outside. Diana raced off and was never again seen alive.
“Just look at me,” Samano said. “That’s what he took away. She could have been here with me.”
Police found Diana’s nude, lifeless body in a cardboard box in a complex trash bin a day after she disappeared. She had been raped, beaten and asphyxiated.
In January 2009, Las Vegas homicide detectives investigating the case researched Wallen’s background. Wallen, who had helped in the initial search, lived in the same apartment building as Diana and her family when she was killed.
The investigators also found records of Wallen’s 1992 arrest in Pahrump for sexual assault. Metro had registered him as a sex offender in 1999.
Wallen’s DNA matched that found on Diana’s body, and his fingerprint lined up with one pulled from the cardboard box.
For more than 10 years after Wallen’s arrest, Diana’s sisters and mother waited for a resolution as the case worked through the court system. His defense attorneys fought to spare him from the death penalty.
Deputy public defender Julia Murray said Monday that Wallen had “always wanted to resolve” his case.
Murray and fellow public defender Scott Coffee pointed to court papers that stated Wallen had suffered a traumatic head injury at age 3 or 4, and he had “exhibited social and adaptive behavior problems” since age 6. He was diagnosed with autism in 1985.
After prosecutors agreed to withdraw capital punishment, Wallen agreed to accept two sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole. He pleaded guilty to the original charges he faced: sexual assault with a minor under 14 with substantial bodily harm and murder.
Diana’s family wept as he entered his plea.
In less than 10 minutes, after District Judge Michelle Leavitt read a short, legal description of the allegations, Monday’s hearing was complete.
Samano, Hernandez and Morales walked out of the courtroom, crying and holding one another. They must wait two more months before Wallen is formally sentenced in October. Diana would have been 32.
“Everything’s still going to be the same,” her mother said after the hearing, still choking back tears. “But I hope he dies soon.”