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Juvenile Killer Re-Sentenced for 1978 Murder of Levittown Girl

October 5, 2017

Contact: Jennifer M. Schorn, 215.348.6337, jmschorn@buckscounty.org

John Lekka
         John Lekka

John Lekka, who at age 17 helped his best friend murder a high school classmate in Levittown, was re-sentenced today to serve 45 years to life in state prison.

Lekka, 56, had been serving a life sentence since 1979 for the slaying of 17-year-old Diane Goeke. He was the first of six inmates from Bucks County serving mandatory life sentences for murders committed as juveniles to be re-sentenced.  

Similar proceedings are being held throughout Pennsylvania as a result of recent federal and state appellate court decisions. Those decisions declared mandatory life sentences for juveniles to be unconstitutional, requiring new hearings to reconsider those sentences.

Having served 39 years since his arrest, Lekka will be eligible for parole in six years.

On Nov. 13, 1978, Lekka and his best friend, Robert Buli, killed Buli’s former girlfriend in what Bucks County Common Pleas Court Judge Rea B. Boylan today called “the most brutal of murders.”

Goeke was beaten repeatedly with a two-by-four board and metal pipes, was left for dead in a small, underground fort, and, after the murderers returned hours later to find her still alive, was fatally crushed by a 220-pound piece of concrete dropped on her head.

In 1979, Lekka and Buli pleaded guilty to a general charge of homicide, and were convicted of first-degree murder at a degree-of-guilt hearing. Both received  mandatory life sentences without parole, plus a consecutive five to 10 years for conspiracy.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory sentences of life without parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders.

In 2016, the Supreme Court further held in Montgomery v. Louisiana that its findings in Miller v. Alabama should apply retroactively. That decision meant more than 2,000 juvenile lifers nationwide would have to be re-sentenced.

In June 2017, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in Pennsylvania v. Batts that there is a presumption against imposing a sentence of life without parole for a juvenile offender. The ruling placed the burden on the Commonwealth to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the juvenile offender is incapable of being rehabilitated before he or she can receive a life sentence.

In imposing Lekka’s new sentence, Boylan credited him with having done “extremely well” in prison, where he took extensive steps to turn his life around and “made extraordinary efforts to help others during his incarceration.”

She cited unrefuted testimony that there is little chance that Lekka will re-offend.

However, the judge said, she could not ignore the brutality of Lekka’s crimes or his apparent lack of insight into why he committed them.

Lekka repeatedly expressed guilt and shame during this week’s hearing, Boylan said, yet he “has not offered a true explanation for why this happened.”

Goeke’s body was found Nov. 14, 1978, by children from a nearby school who were gathering autumn leaves. The girl lay curled in a hole that was three feet deep, her head and upper torso obscured by a massive chunk of concrete.

Months earlier, Goeke had given birth to a daughter fathered by Buli. The baby was put up for adoption, and Buli was punished by his parents and forbidden from seeing Goeke.

Two weeks before the murder, Goeke claimed to be pregnant by Buli again, and threatened to tell his parents. Saying that he would kill her before allowing that to happen, Buli enlisted Lekka in a plan to murder the girl.

Lekka testified that until the day of the murder, he didn’t take Buli’s plan seriously. “I honestly thought it wasn’t going to happen,” he said.

When Goeke approached Buli, wanting to talk about resuming their relationship, Buli and Lekka walked her to a wooded area near their homes in the Cobalt Ridge area. There, Buli put Goeke in a headlock and began spinning her around.

Thinking it was horseplay, Goeke laughed while Buli signaled silently to Lekka to strike her. Lekka smashed Goeke over the head with a two-by-four, breaking the board and felling her.

The boys then set upon her with a metal pipe, striking her repeatedly as she screamed and then fell silent. At one point Buli dragged the stricken girl back out of the hole so that Lekka could hit her again with the pipe before they left her for dead in the hole.

The teens left, brought a birthday card to Lekka’s sister, attended a girls’ gymnastics meet, and then returned that night with the sister’s boyfriend to the wooded area. Hearing Goeke still struggling to breathe, the three lugged a 220-pound chunk of concrete 50 yards to the hole and placed it over the opening.

Buli then stomped on the concrete, causing it to fall into the hole, crushing Goeke. He and Lekka were arrested a few days later. The sister’s boyfriend never was charged.

“The victim was, in fact brutalized,” Boylan said, but might have survived had her assailants sought help for her after returning to the scene.

“She was left, alive, in a grave,” said the judge, who characterized the murder not as a single act, but as a series of separate assaults.

Defense attorney Stuart Wilder called multiple witnesses who described Lekka as a model inmate who had been a calming, inspiring influence on other prisoners.

Lekka initiated and worked in prison organizations that raised money for a number of charities, assisted with religious activities, and accumulated credits toward a college degree in business administration. During the Camp Hill prison riots in the late 1980s, Lekka remained in his cell, refusing to participate in the uprising.

Lekka’s prison conduct was so exemplary that he was “unique among inmates in the state system,” Wilder told Boylan in his closing argument. “If Mr. Lekka doesn’t become immediately eligible for parole, I don’t know who does.”

Wilder asked Boylan to consider that at the time of his crime, Lekka was immature for his age and easily influenced by Buli. He claimed that Lekka was affected by abuse inflicted on his mother and sisters by an alcoholic father, who abandoned the family when Lekka was not yet 10.

Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Schorn countered that Lekka, despite having 39 years in prison to reflect on his crimes, still had no good explanation for what he had done to Goeke.

"I don’t know,” he replied when asked by Schorn why he killed the girl. He later added: “The only explanation I can think of, and I’ve thought about it for about 40 years, is that I didn’t want [Buli] to go through with his family what I went through with my family. But the way it turned out was 1,000 times worse.”

Schorn disputed the extent of domestic violence in Lekka’s home, and noted that most children who grow up in abusive homes do not become murderers. She asked Boylan to focus instead on the brutal nature of Goeke’s death.

“It is hard to imagine an offense more grave,” Schorn said.

Lekka apologized in court to Goeke’s relatives and friends, some of whom wore shirts bearing her image throughout the hearing. He said he feels “the guilt, remorse, regret and shame for what I have done” every day.

Lekka said he recognized he was seeking “a second chance … that Diane and the Goekes will never receive,” but told Boylan that he had “truly changed.”

Bespectacled, his hair beginning to gray, Lekka appeared in court in a gray suit and tie that made him look more like a banker than a lifer.

“The 56-year-old who stands here today is not the same as the 17-year-old who functioned on the level of a 12-year-old,” he told Boylan. “I humbly ask you to give me this chance, knowing I am a different person.”

Wilder said he and Lekka were disappointed in the judge’s sentence and may file a motion for reconsideration.  

“We knew today was going to be a very difficult and challenging day for the victim’s family members and friends,” Schorn said. “Unfortunately there was a pretty clear road map from the higher courts as to what had to happen, so we knew that today would never be what the family feels would be just, which would be life.”

Schorn said she appreciated that Boylan considered the horrific nature of the crime in crafting Lekka’s sentence.

“The judge described just how depraved this crime was, and that it was hard to think of facts that were more heinous,” Schorn said. “I was very gratified that the judge explained that on the record today when imposing the sentence.”

Approved for release by Jennifer M. Schorn, Deputy District Attorney.

Office of the District Attorney
Bucks County Justice Center
100 N. Main Street
Doylestown, PA 18901 
Phone: 215-348-6344 
Fax: 215-348-6299

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