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A man who may have confessed to as many...

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- A man who may have confessed to as many as 16 slayings was sentenced to life in prison Thursday for the 1978 murder of a 4-year-old boy, a crime for which another man served four years in prison.

Charles Hatcher, 54, who is awaiting trial Jan. 9 in the 1982 death of Michelle Steele, 11, pleaded guilty Thursday to murder in the death of Eric Christgen, prosector Michael Insco said.

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A Buchanan County Circuit judge ordered the immediate release of Melvin Lee Reynolds, convicted of killing Christgen on the basis of a confession he later retracted. Reynolds served four years in prison for the crime.

Hatcher was sentenced to life imprisonment, with no possiblilty of parole for 50 years, in the abduction and slaying of Christgen, son of a St. Joseph lumber executive. Insco did not seek the death penalty.

Hatcher, who is in the Buchanan County Jail, has pleaded innocent by reason of mental disease or defect in the Steele case.

Insco, who prosecuted Reynolds' case in Oct. 1979, called Reynold's jailing a 'terrible tragedy' and said he would present a writ to a circuit judge to secure Reynolds' release.

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Reynolds said he first learned about Hatcher's alleged confession last Saturday from his mother, Wanda O'Meara.

'She said that I'd be getting out soon, because my lawyer called her and told her that someone else had confessed,' said Reynolds. 'I figured they'd find the right guy.' Reynolds expects to be released early next week as soon as paper work is completed.

The imate said he never determined why he became a suspect in the murder in the first place, other than he was in the general area when the child disappeared. He said his confession -- the one he later retracted -- had been obtained under duress by two state highway patrolmen.

'The highway patrolmen questioned me from 8 a.m. one day until 1:30 a.m. the next day,' Reynolds said. 'They threatened me and said if I didn't confess to it they had other charges they would bring against me.'

Reynolds indicated he had no plans to sue. 'I just want my freedom,' he said.

Authorities reopened the Christgen case in late July when Hatcher sent the FBI a letter admitting the killing. A subsequent investigation convinced authorities Hatcher was the killer.

Nine months after he was arrested in Sept. 1982 and charged in the abduction and slaying of the Steele girl, Hatcher is believed to have provided a map that led to the remains of James Churchill, 28, of Lewiston, Ill., and to have told authorities he knew where 13 other bodies were located.

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There were similarities between the Steele and Christgen killings, Insco said. Both victims were abducted from the same St. Joseph shopping mall, sexually assaulted and suffocated, and both were found on the banks of the Missouri River near downtown St. Joseph.

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