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A West Wendover teenager has pleaded guilty to killing his schoolmate and childhood girlfriend, accepting a plea deal that will spare him the possibility of a death sentence.

Kody Cree Patten, 19, appeared in Nevada's Elko District Court on Wednesday morning and entered the plea to first-degree murder with a deadly weapon for the March 2011 slaying of 16-year-old Micaela Costanzo.

"It was the sensible thing to do," defense attorney John Ohlson told The Associated Press last week, in anticipation of the plea. Ohlson said that if some details about the killing came out at trial, "it would be difficult to avoid the death penalty."

Police and prosecutors say Patten and his girlfriend, 19-year-old Toni Fratto, took Micaela from West Wendover High School, where she had just finished track practice, to the desert west of the border town. There, according to prior testimony, Patten and Fratto hit Micaela with a camping shovel. Patten then cut Micaela's throat with the shovel and a knife before burying her in a shallow grave. Fratto and Patten then went across the border to Utah, where they burned Micaela's possessions.

Defense attorneys and prosecutors had previously worked out a plea deal, but Patten eventually rejected the agreement and began moving toward trial. On Wednesday, Micaela's mother, Celia Costanzo, stayed away from the Nevada courthouse for fear her presence might again cause Patten to change his mind.

With the plea, Costanzo said her family feels closer to relief.

"After his sentencing, our family can begin our healing process," she told The Tribune.

Fratto pleaded guilty earlier this year to a lesser charge of second degree murder and was sentenced last month to up to life in prison, with parole possible after 18 years. At sentencing, Elko County District Attorney Mark Torvinen called the slaying as "horrific a murder as I suspect you will ever see."

As part of Fratto's plea deal, the woman spoke at length with prosecutors about the slaying and had agreed to testify against Patten if he went to trial.

Fratto and her family have said Fratto suffered emotional and physical abuse at Patten's hand and that she feared for her own life the night of Micaela's slaying.

Micaela's family disagrees and believes that Fratto was jealous of Micaela and Kody's friendship, Kristina Lininger, the slain girl's sister said last week in a taped episode of Anderson Cooper's syndicated talk show. "I believe that Mr. Patten would never have harmed my sister if Toni never wanted it."

When Patten is scheduled to be sentenced July 31 before Judge Dan Papez, he faces three possibilities: life with the possibility of parole, life without parole, or up to 50 years with parole possible after 20 years.

"I will be asking the judge for life without parole," Celia Costanzo said.