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Man avoids death penalty by pleading guilty to fatal shooting

Crime Watch

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Jesse Gentle at his change of plea hearing. | Jeff Beery, Pool photographer

RIGBY — An Idaho Falls man has pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter for fatally shooting a 72-year-old man at a Jefferson County Home.

Jesse Gentle changed his plea to guilty Tuesday afternoon before District Judge Stevan Thompson. Gentle pleaded guilty to the charge in exchange for prosecutors amending the charge from first-degree murder.

“I just want to deeply apologize,” Gentle said at the change of plea hearing. He said the charge against him was accurate because he shot and killed Sorenson on Nov. 17, 2020.

Gentle had been facing the first-degree murder charge since November 2020 when investigators were called to the fatal shooting of Merle Jay Sorensen. Gentle was facing the death penalty before the charge was amended as part of a plea agreement.

“After careful review of developments in the Jesse Gentle case – including new information regarding circumstances surrounding the killing of Mr. Sorensen, the testimony of the lay witness at the preliminary hearing and the evidence that the State would be able to get admitted at trial – the State amended the charge against Gentle,” Jefferson County Prosecutor’s Office said in a news release.

Gentle now faces a maximum sentence of up to 15 years in prison.

A plea agreement stipulates defense attorneys will request he be sentenced to 10 years in prison followed by five years of parole. Prosecutors are going to ask for the full 15 years without the possibility of parole, according to the plea agreement.

The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office was called to a house on Nov. 17, 2020 and found Sorensen’s body in a bathroom. He had been shot in the head and investigators believe Gentle tried to use bleach to clean up the crime scene.

Gentle and Sorensen had been staying with Gentle’s aunt and the two reportedly smoked marijuana over the weekend. Gentle was also seen injecting himself with a substance but his aunt did not know what it was. An autopsy showed Sorensen had traces of methamphetamine in his system, but it could not be determined when he last used.

In addition to injecting himself, Gentle reportedly said “he has to kill five lives” two times, according to a probable cause affidavit.

While at the home, Gentle’s aunt told investigators she heard two gunshots. When the aunt asked Gentle why he was shooting, he said he was “shooting a mouse.” The witness yelled at Gentle for shooting in her house. She then turned and saw Sorensen kneeling in front of a futon with blood splatter on the back of his shirt.

The witness asked what was wrong with Sorensen and Gentle responded that the man had a nosebleed. The witness nudged Sorensen and it became apparent that he was dead, according to court documents.

At some point, Gentle moved the body from the area near the futon to the bathroom.

During a preliminary hearing for Gentle, Defense Attorney Jim Archibald called the killing a “drug-fueled” event. Archibald noted that both men had been using drugs.

Sentencing for Gentle is scheduled for Jan. 11, 2022.