Details of Disappearance
Carlee was last seen in the 7000 block of west Bonnie in Westland, Michigan between midnight and 1:00 a.m. on August 20, 2010. She apparently left her apartment building to talk on her cellular phone, barefoot and wearing only her pajamas, never returned. She didn't take any belongings with her, including her money, purse or any extra clothes, and there's been no activity on her cellular phone since her disappearance.
In December 2010, four months after Carlee's disappearance, Nicholas Jay Cottrell and Justin Lee Yoshikawa confessed to killing her on the night she vanished. Both were charged with first-degree murder, which carries a sentence of life in prison without parole.
Cottrell's mother, Tina Marie Lowe, was charged with being an an accessory after the fact, a misdemeanor; investigators stated she knew about the murder and not only failed to inform police, but also interfered with the investigation. Photographs of Cottrell, Lowe and Yoshikawa are posted with this case summary.
In January 2011, Cottrell struck a deal with prosecutors. He agreed to plead guilty to second-degree murder and testify against Yoshikawa, in exchange for a sentence of 25 to 50 years in prison.
Both murder defendants knew Carlee and Yoshikawa had dated her in the spring of 2010, but they had an acrimonious breakup during the summer and, according Cottrell, Yoshikawa decided to kill her as a result. He hid inside under some clothes in the backseat of Cottrell's 1998 Ford Escort and Cottrell got Carlee to come outside and invited her into the car to smoke marijuana. He drove her to an isolated spot, then Yoshikawa jumped out and strangled her with a dog leash.
Together, the two men dumped Carlee's body, wrapped in garbage bags, in a trash bin behind a red brick church about an hour or two south of Westland. Cottrell said he couldn't remember exactly where, because he was in shock and under the influence of drugs. He said he thought Yoshikawa planned to kill Carlee's mother as well, and that he had killed other people. He said he had wanted to go to the police with his information before, but didn't because he was afraid for his life.
In November 2011, during Yoshikawa's trial, Cottrell took the stand but then reneged on his plea agreement and refused to testify. He said his guilty plea had been coerced and he wanted to withdraw it.
The judge allowed the transcript of Cottrell's previous testimony to be read to the jury. Before the reading was finished, Yoshikawa pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and admitted Cottrell's statements about the crime were all true. He was sentenced to 35 to 70 years in prison.
Carlee's body has never been located. Some agencies classify her as a runaway, but foul play is suspected in her case due to the circumstances involved.