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Jewelry store killings accomplice dies in prison

FILE - This Feb. 8, 2005 photo shows Nicole Pearce as she is escorted into police headquarters in Mineola, N.Y.  Pearce, originally from California, died Oct. 7, 2011 while serving time at the York Correctional Center in Nyantic, Conn., for her role in a
FILE - This Feb. 8, 2005 photo shows Nicole Pearce as she is escorted into police headquarters in Mineola, N.Y. Pearce, originally from California, died Oct. 7, 2011 while serving time at the York Correctional Center in Nyantic, Conn., for her role in a string of jewel heists that left three people dead in New York and Connecticut.
Ed Betz, File, Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. — A California woman who moved across the country to follow the lure of heroin with her new boyfriend, then joined him in a string of robberies that left three East Coast jewelers dead, has died in a Connecticut prison.

Nicole Pearce was 30. She died of cervical cancer Oct. 7 at York Correctional Center in Niantic, her attorney and prison officials said Friday.

She was diagnosed with an inoperable tumor in late 2010, but chemotherapy slowed its progress long enough for her to testify on videotape from her hospital room and help convict her accomplice, Christopher DiMeo, who is in prison for life.

Her death ends a tumultuous life of drug addiction, imprisonments and participation in two "Bonnie and Clyde"-style crime partnerships with men in her life — first her former husband and, later, with DiMeo.

In the end, though, her attorney says Pearce was so remorseful that her last words to him were to thank the Connecticut jewelry store victims' adult children for showing her the compassion she had denied their parents.

"She got caught up. She was a horrible addict and got caught up in that severe addiction and this relationship," her attorney, Robert Berke, said Friday of Pearce and DiMeo. "They used drugs to unlimited amounts and ultimately made some rather significant decisions that affected her and others forever."

Pearce met DiMeo in September 2004 in San Marcos, Calif., where she was living with her mother and was on parole after serving prison time for burglaries she had committed with her previous husband, according to court records and trial testimony.

She'd once talked of becoming a dental hygienist, but had not pursued it.

DiMeo, a Long Island native, had moved to California to live with his grandparents while serving parole for burglary and robbery convictions in New York. He met Pearce through a friend at a bar.

They quickly bonded over their shared addiction to heroin, and when DiMeo stole his grandparents' car and decided to return to the East Coast, Pearce joined him. She testified they were only friends when they left, but by the time they reached the East Coast, they were a couple — and they were quickly running out of money for their voracious drug habit.

That's when they launched a robbery spree over several weeks in the New York area, running through their ill-gotten gains with dozens of bags of heroin each day and setting out, dopesick, for new scores when they ran low.

The robberies turned to homicide on Dec. 21, 2004, in DiMeo's hometown of Glen Head, N.Y., a quiet enclave on Long Island's North Shore.

According to court records, Pearce cased the store and warned DiMeo that the clerk was a big man who might put up a fight in the robbery attempt. DiMeo was later convicted of killing 48-year-old Thomas Renison, the owner's son-in-law, with whom he'd chatted casually about engagement rings before pulling out a gun he'd stolen at a previous burglary.

Pearce later testified they holed up after that shooting until their heroin started running low, then set off again — this time to Connecticut, where they cased a few downtown Fairfield jewelry stores until settling on the Celtic-themed shop run by Kim and Tim Donnelly.

Both were shot multiple times and killed in the robbery on Feb. 2, 2005, less than two months after the New York homicide. Pearce and DiMeo fled and were soon apprehended at a motel in Atlantic City, N.J.

DiMeo was given a life term in the New York killing and Pearce was sentenced to 20 years for robbery. DiMeo's mother, Maryann Taylor, is serving 15 years for driving the getaway car.

Pearce had agreed to testify against DiMeo when she accepted a 2008 plea bargain that would have given her 50 years in the Connecticut case, in which DiMeo faced the possibility of the death penalty.

Then, shortly before his trial started, she was diagnosed with an inoperable tumor on her cervix. She told her attorney she still planned to testify, though, and gave her testimony on video from her hospital room at the University of Connecticut Health Center last winter.

The Connecticut Post, which first reported Pearce's death this week, said she had been scheduled for sentencing on Oct. 4 for her role in the Fairfield case, but was in a coma-like state. The case was delayed indefinitely that day, and she died three days later.

Berke said that had his client been able to attend her sentencing, she planned to say again how sorry she was for her involvement in hopes of giving the victims' families "some degree of closure."

The Donnelly family, including the victims' adult son, declined to comment as they left the courtroom last week after Pearce's condition was disclosed and the case was placed on hold. Pearce's family could not immediately be reached Friday.

Brian Garnett, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Correction, said Pearce never posed any disciplinary problems while in prison, where other inmates trained in hospice methods provided palliative care in her final days.

He said her body was turned over to an unspecified funeral home after her death.

Information was not immediately available about whether family members in California planned to bury her there or whether the state of Connecticut would bury her, as is the case with prisoners for whom other arrangements have not been made.