updated 2/26/2009 6:44:51 PM ET 2009-02-26T23:44:51

For more than two decades, only Joseph Geiger knew how David Reed had died — a fatal punch to the 13-year-old he suspected of stealing his marijuana plants.

He kept to himself the panic that pushed him to bury the teen's body in a thicket of branches and leaves.

On Thursday, six months after state police cracked the case of Reed's 1985 death, Geiger pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and three lesser charges in a deal that will send him to prison for one to two years. With time already served, he could be paroled in August.

Prosecutors agreed to drop a third-degree murder charge in exchange for the plea.

The eastern Pennsylvania man was 20 years old when he confronted Reed while the two were smoking pot inside a parked caboose. Geiger punched the teen in the face, causing Reed to hit his head on the metal wall behind him and die. Panicked and scared, Geiger dragged the teenager's body into a thicket where it was left to the elements and torn apart by dogs.

"Obviously, you should have faced up to the situation back when it occurred, and it's just a shame a young life was lost apparently because of a fight over illegal drugs," Schuylkill County Judge John Domalakes told Geiger, 43.

Geiger also pleaded guilty to abuse of a corpse, tampering with evidence and simple assault and will serve three years of probation after his release. He didn't have any reaction to the sentence and didn't speak in court other than to answer questions from the judge.

Prosecutors don't believe Geiger intended to kill Reed. But medical experts believe that if he had sought help for Reed immediately, the brown-haired, blue-eyed teen might have survived, according to Assistant District Attorney A.J. Serina.

Geiger used to visit Reed's grave and even got a job at the cemetery where he was buried, indicating remorse, Serina said.

"I think there's a sense of relief for Joe Geiger," he said.

'Totally disgusted with him'
Reed's family expressed gratitude toward police but disappointment at the sentence. Geiger deserved more time in prison, they said.

"I'm totally disgusted with him. It's not something that can be forgiven," said Reed's cousin, Pam Schappell, 35, of Pottsville, who attended the hearing. She said she doesn't believe Geiger meant to kill Reed but that he should have sought help.

Another cousin said Geiger didn't show any remorse. "I think he's sorry he got caught," said Rhonda Sheriff, 32, of Schuylkill Haven.

Serina said a third-degree murder conviction would have been difficult to obtain because Geiger didn't throw multiple punches, kick Geiger or use a weapon other than his fist.

Prosecutors left the decision on whether to proceed to trial to Reed's family, who decided to accept the plea to a reduced charge rather than risk an acquittal.

Until last year, Reed's death had been classified as "undetermined." State police exhumed the body in January 2008 after turning up new evidence. After studying the remains, officials ruled in early July that the case was a homicide.

Police arrested Geiger on Aug. 21 — the 23rd anniversary of Reed's disappearance after leaving his home on his bicycle.

The boy's badly decomposed remains were found in Schuylkill Haven in December 1985, about a half-mile from the bike. Two experts had initially theorized the boy might have succumbed to an undiagnosed case of diabetes.

Reed's relatives had welcomed the renewed attention from state police, saying the original investigation by police in Schuylkill Haven, a largely blue-collar town 75 miles northwest of Philadelphia, was inadequate.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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