CONWAY — A Faulkner County jury took less than three hours Wednesday to sentence a 20-year-old Pine Bluff man to life in prison in the 2018 kidnapping and murder of a 72-year-old Wooster woman.
Jurors began deliberating at 2:10 p.m. and returned at 4:36 p.m. in the penalty phase of the trial against Tacori Mackrell, who was found guilty last Thursday of capital murder, kidnapping, aggravated robbery and theft of property in the July 7, 2018, death of Elvia Fragstein.
The jury had the options of life in prison without possibility of parole, or the death penalty.
“We got what we wanted,” defense attorney William “Bill” James Jr. said after the sentencing.
James and co-defense attorney Jeff Rosenzweig maintained from the beginning of the nearly 3½-week trial that Mackrell had indeed committed the crime, but they were hoping to convince a jury that Mackrell should not be executed for the killing.
The all-white jury of eight women and four men also sentenced Mackrell to 40 years for aggravated robbery, 30 years for kidnapping and five years for theft of property.
Faulkner County Circuit Judge Troy Braswell ordered that the sentences on the lesser charges be served consecutively.
Investigators believe Fragstein was shopping at the Conway Commons Shopping Center on July 7, 2018, when she was abducted by Mackrell, 18, at the time, and his cousin, Robert Smith II, who was 16 at the time. Smith is to be tried separately next month.
Her body was found in rural Jefferson County. An autopsy revealed that Fragstein had suffered eight broken ribs, a fractured cervical vertebra and a crushed throat.
Helmut Fragstein, Elvia’s husband, slapped his knees hard with both hands and let out a grunt when the jury’s sentence was announced.
As soon as Mackrell was guided out of the room, 20th Judicial Circuit Prosecuting Attorney Carol Crews made her way to Helmut Fragstein in a gallery pew. The elderly German immigrant sobbed as the two shared a prolonged embrace.
Mackrell showed no visible emotion as the sentence was read.
Later, Braswell asked Mackrell from the bench during sentencing if he had anything to say. Mackrell moved toward the lectern but was intercepted by Rosenzweig. The two men were joined by James for a hushed conversation before Mackrell leaned into the microphone.
“I just want to say to Mrs. Fragstein’s family that I am truly sorry,” Mackrell said.
Braswell began the day by reading from 55 pages of jury instructions, which included 53 pages of 151 mitigating circumstances the defense couched as reasons the jury should not give Mackrell the death penalty.
Among the mitigating circumstances was the fact that Mackrell was a “crack baby.” A medical witness earlier testified that Mackrell had tested positive for cocaine in his system when he was born.
His mother continued to use cocaine after Mackrell’s birth. Mackrell’s father took custody of him as a baby because the father was afraid the child would be taken into the foster system.
Mackrell’s dad — who had fathered at least 20 other children previously — was 62 years old when Mackrell was born. James said Mackrell’s dad was a hard-working man but was a “weekend alcoholic.” He would often dress Mackrell in outfits identical to his own and take him to bars and pool halls on the weekends. At 8 years old, Mackrell began driving his dad home from the bars or other locations because his father was too drunk to drive.
Mackrell’s father was physically and verbally abusive toward him as a child, even hitting him in the face with his fists and calling him a “crack baby” and an “ignorant bastard,” the defense maintained.
Mackrell’s father, Henry Mackrell, had an extensive criminal history, including a manslaughter conviction in 1989.
In 2013, both father and son were incarcerated at the same time for different offenses.
Tacori Mackrell had also experienced numerous deaths of loved ones in his childhood, including his mother in 2017 from cirrhosis of the liver and his dad in 2015 from a stroke.
James told the jury that Mackrell’s brain at 18 was not done growing and that he could still be rehabilitated. He pointed to an incident at the Faulkner County jail in December when Mackrell was the only one to step forward and save a guard as he was being strangled by an inmate.
“There’s only one decision left to make, and that’s whether Tacori Mackrell dies at the hand of the government or of natural causes in prison,” James told the jury.
Senior deputy prosecutor John Hout told the jury that Mackrell and Smith went on the “hunt” for a victim and found Elvia Fragstein. Hout repeated the testimony of Stephen Erickson, the deputy chief medical examiner at the state Crime Laboratory, who testified during the trial that Fragstein suffered a “multifactional, severe and prolonged assault.”
The injuries were consistent with someone “stomping” the victim, and the crushed vertebrae in her neck was likely caused by someone using an external instrument, such as a tire iron, Erickson had said.
Fragstein’s body was found by a farmer on July 11, 2018, on a rural road near Pine Bluff.
“She endured a severe — severe — amount of torture,” Hout told the jury.
Fragstein, who grew up in Colombia, was a woman who would’ve given help to anybody if they needed it, Hout said. Hout said the last words Fragstein said were repeated pleadings of “por favor,” a Spanish word for “please.”
“Over and over again,” Hout said.
Hout laid out pictures of Fragstein for the jury to see.
“The defendant asked you to spare his life,” Hout said. “So did Elvia.”
Crews told the jury that Mackrell had “every single available rehabilitative service” in juvenile court, but that he still killed a 72-year-old woman.
“He’s hoping you’ll fall for his story,” Crews said, pointing out that other people have had bad childhoods and did not grow up to become murderers.
“Like if you grow up in Colombia during a civil war,” she said, referring to Fragstein’s childhood.
Crews called Fragstein’s death “an unconscionable end to a really beautiful life.”
The couple met 20 years ago while both were on vacation in Spain. It was love at first sight, Helmut Fragstein testified earlier. They emigrated to America because it was “the safest country in the world.”
They retired in Wooster in 2002 after driving through Faulkner County, Crews said.
“Here is the safety. No more war zones,” Crews told the jury.
Crews showed the jury a photo of a wreath of white flowers in the ditch on a farm outside Pine Bluff where her body was dumped.
“Now all Helmut has left is a wreath a nice farmer on Grider Field Road let him put up to commemorate her beautiful life.”