Crime & Courts

Man pleads guilty to first-degree murder, arson

A homeless man has pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and two counts of arson in the killing of a woman in her south Wichita apartment last year.

James Williams, 42, entered the plea in Sedgwick County District Court, avoiding a trial that was scheduled to begin Monday.

Rhonda Thomas, 52, was beaten to death in her apartment at the Riverwalk Apartments, 2703 S. Topeka, on Jan. 29, 2010. Her apartment was then set on fire, fire investigators have testified.

Thomas' body was discovered in her bedroom by a firefighter who went there to open a window and provide ventilation as a crew battled the fire in a smoke-filled living room, according to testimony at a preliminary hearing.

Williams was homeless, and Thomas had taken him in.

Police found a security video of Williams at a QuikTrip, buying a plastic gasoline container and fuel, which were later found in the burning living room of Apartment 207, where Thomas lived.

Her truck was missing the day of the fire. It was found broken down near I-135 and I-235. Police detectives testified at the preliminary hearing they heard Williams describe how he took a bus from Wichita to Emporia.

Authorities were later alerted to Williams' presence just north of Delia in Jackson County. He was captured as he attempted to wade through Cross Creek, then was taken to a Topeka hospital for treatment of frostbite.

Williams' sentencing has been tentatively set for Sept. 29.

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