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Missouri man pleads to ‘evisceration and dismemberment’ murder of woman photographed in cage and bound to gantry crane ‘commonly used for deer’

James David Phelps and Cassidy Rainwater (Dallas County, Missouri Sherif's Office)

James David Phelps and Cassidy Rainwater (Dallas County, Missouri Sherif’s Office)

A 60-year-old man in Missouri will spend the rest of his days behind bars for killing, eviscerating, and dismembering a 33-year-old woman who was also photographed in a cage and bound to a gantry crane.

Dallas County Judge Jill Porter on Friday sentenced James David Phelps to life in prison without the possibility of parole after he entered an Alford plea to one count of first-degree murder in the brutal 2021 slaying of Cassidy Rainwater, court records reviewed by Law&Crime show.

An Alford plea is functionally equivalent to a guilty plea in that it results in a conviction, but it allows a defendant to maintain their claim of innocence while conceding that the state has sufficient evidence to convict them at trial.

Phelps’ alleged co-defendant, Timothy Leroy Norton, has pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping, and abandonment of a corpse. He is awaiting trial and next scheduled to appear in court for a pretrial hearing on Tuesday, records show.

Rainwater was last seen alive in July 2021 and first reported missing that August. Investigators were able to track one of her last known locations as Phelps’ home located in the 300 block of Moon Valley in Lebanon, about 170 miles southeast of Kansas City.

When speaking with Dallas County Sheriff’s Office detectives regarding Rainwater’s whereabouts in September 2021, Phelps initially said that she had been staying with him until she got back on her feet, but had left in the middle of the night about a month before, according to a probable cause affidavit. Investigators said Phelps claimed that he had not seen Rainwater since.

But a break in the case came when an online tipster provided the FBI with several disturbing photographs that appeared to show Rainwater’s harrowing death, including the gruesome aftermath.

“The photos depicted a partially clothed female in a cage who we recognized as Cassidy,” the sheriff’s office said. “The other photos depicted Cassidy’s body bound to a gantry crane, commonly used for deer processing, and her evisceration and dismemberment.”

Investigators executed a search warrant on Phelps’ property and recovered “physical evidence including the gantry device, cage, and items from the freezer that appeared to be human flesh with a date written on them of 7-24,” the sheriff’s office said. Skeletal remains later confirmed to be Rainwater were located at the home next door to Phelps’ residence.

Investigators also recovered digital evidence from electronic devices that authorities say included text message conversations between Phelps and Norton in which they planned Rainwater’s murder.

The two were arrested and charged in connection with Rainwater’s death.

Authorities said that after his arrest, Norton confessed to the horrific spate of crimes.

“Norton told FBI agents that Phelps had him come over while Cassidy was sleeping in the living room floor, so he had easy access to attack Cassidy,” the sheriff’s office said. “Norton stated, after entering the house, he held Cassidy’s legs down while Phelps strangled her and placed a bag over her head … Norton stated that Phelps bound her to the gantry crane and Phelps began the evisceration and dismemberment of Cassidy’s body. Norton stated he helped Phelps carry Cassidy’s body into the house and placed her into the bathtub.”

Phelps’ home in October 2021 burned down while both he and Norton were in custody. Investigators said that the fire was an act of arson caused by an “incendiary device” in a mortar tube with a “trip wire” attached to it.

Marisa Sarnoff contributed to this article.

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.