SAN DIEGO -- A San Diego-area man at the center of a Panamanian murder investigation pleaded guilty in San Diego federal court Wednesday, admitting to fatally stabbing his girlfriend, dismembering her body with a machete and dumping her remains in the jungle.
Brian Brimager's plea comes weeks after the FBI Laboratory concluded that blood found under the handle of a machete he owned matched the victim's DNA.
The retired Marine pleaded guilty to a charge of second-degree foreign murder of a U.S. national, a crime rarely seen in the federal court system. He had originally been charged with a first-degree charge, which meant prosecutors would have had to prove premeditation if the case had gone to trial.
In the plea agreement, Brimager, 39, admitted stabbing Yvonne Baldelli in the left side of her back with a knife, using a machete to dismember her body, stuffing the remains in a green military-style backpack and hiding the bag in the jungle.
The plea agreement calls for a recommended sentence of 20 to 30 years, although U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller has the discretion to sentence him up to the maximum of life in prison. Sentencing has been set for May 25.
The couple moved to Isla Carenero off Panama in 2011 for a fresh start after Brimager left the Marines. Baldelli, with sewing machine in tow, had planned to start a bathing suit line in the tropics.
But paradise didn't last long, with witnesses later reporting that Brimager appeared to be abusing Baldelli. Shortly after arriving on the island, Brimager also began communicating with the mother of his child back in San Diego County, prosecutors said. Brimager promised to return to the U.S. to join them.
Baldelli was last seen November 2011.
Brimager admitted concealing and destroying evidence of the murder, including dumping a bloody mattress from their hostel in the ocean after the slaying, getting rid of Baldelli's beloved King Charles spaniel and giving away many of her belongings.
Baldelli's laptop included a search for "washing mattress blood stain," prosecutors said.
Over the next several months, Brimager sent emails from Baldelli's computer pretending to be her, telling her family and friends she had happily left for Costa Rica with another man, according to the plea agreement. Brimager even traveled to Costa Rica and withdrew money from her bank account, he admitted.
Brimager then headed back to San Diego, marrying the mother of his child within weeks and settling in north San Diego County.
Baldelli's family soon became suspicious and launched an investigation, eventually getting the FBI and Panamanian authorities involved. They traveled to Panama and organized search parties for her, coming up empty-handed but convinced she was dead.
Meanwhile, Brimager continued to obstruct the investigation, lying to the FBI when questioned about the disappearance, the plea agreement states.
Two years after Baldelli went missing, a farm worker clearing brush in a swampy part of the island uncovered her remains in the military-style backpack.
By then, Brimager had already been arrested in the case, on charges of lying to federal agents. A charge of foreign murder of a U.S. national was then added.
Trial had been set for the end of March, but a judge Monday agreed to lawyers' request to postpone it to continue processing physical evidence in the case. The request for a change of plea hearing was put on calendar late Tuesday.