The family and friends of a murdered South Jersey softball star filled a Burlington County courtroom Tuesday afternoon and had trouble controlling their emotions while waiting for the killer to be sentenced.
The drama began when Gina Ayres, the mother of the victim, came into the courtroom cradling a green and white urn that contained the ashes of her daughter, Nicole. She sobbed loudly and remarked angrily about the killer, Stephen Headley, as she sat across the aisle from his teary mother, grandmother and sister.
When sheriff's officers tried to calm her and then whispered that they wanted to examine the urn, she protested and wailed as they removed her from the room. Later, Nicole's brother, Rick Ayres Jr., was ejected - for a few minutes - after standing up and cursing at Headley.
Many of the 20 relatives and friends wore buttons bearing a photograph of Nicole's face or t-shirts that stated 30 years was not a long enough sentence. The judge had considered a 30-year term, but in the end gave Headley 50 years, a sentence that is harsher than what many murderers in New Jersey receive.
Nicole's father, Rick Ayres, was given an opportunity to address the judge to explain what her loss meant to the family. Then, he turned to Headley and said that he never hated anyone until now. As his voice quivered, he vowed to hate Headley as long as he lives and even after that, if possible.
Headley said nothing. When it was his turn to speak, he said simply that he was "terribly sorry for what happened."