For 18 years Toni Bachman’s family held out hope that she was still alive somewhere, hiding, perhaps, from an abusive husband who was upset that she planned to leave him.

They continued hoping even after that husband, Norman A. Bachman Jr., was arrested this past April and charged with murder in connection with her disappearance in April 1997.

“Why wouldn’t you?” said her brother, Jody Reineccius.

They had no confession. They had no body.

But Friday afternoon, hope gave way to a brutal reality, when Toni Bachman’s loved ones finally heard the grisly details from Norman Bachman himself as he pleaded guilty in Ramsey County District Court to first-degree manslaughter in her death.

Unshaven and clad in a red jumpsuit, Bachman sat on the witness stand and confessed matter-of-factly: He and Toni Bachman scuffled and he squeezed her neck with two hands until she died. He dragged her into a “cold room” in the basement of their White Bear Township home, and days later, used a filet knife and hand saw to decapitate her and remove her arms and legs.

He later buried her body parts at “a location from my childhood,” he said.

He told the court that he removed her arms, legs and torso from black garbage bags when he buried them in the dark of night. But his wife’s head, he testified, remained in a bag.

“I didn’t want to look at her,” he said.

Toni Bachman, 38, had become romantically involved with a man from West Virginia in January 1997. The two met online and communicated almost daily via e-mail.

Norman Bachman was aware of the flirtation and her desire to end their 10-year marriage, which he said Friday was strained by four miscarriages and the birth of a son who died minutes afterward.

His testimony Friday at times contradicted information his sons previously shared with authorities.

His middle son told investigators in 1997 that he saw his father go into Toni Bachman’s room on Saturday, April 26, and that she screamed.

In 2003, his youngest son told police that he saw his father go into the room with an X-ACTO knife and then heard “a muffled sound like someone trying to say something from under a pillow,” according to the charges.

‘I … looked in amazement’

Friday, Bachman went to great lengths to paint Toni Bachman as the aggressor, saying that the afternoon she died — Sunday, April 27 — she hit him in the chest and grabbed him because he failed to drain her boil. He said that he strangled her in an attempt to stop her from hurting him.

“I stood there and looked in amazement,” he said of the moment he realized she was dead.

At one point, Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Andrew R.K. Johnson appeared to doubt Bachman’s truthfulness when he testified that days after the killing, he hauled a cooler of venison to a family farm in Verndale, Minn.

His sons were on the trip, and had told authorities that the car smelled of a human corpse, that there was a shovel and that their father left them with an aunt in Verndale and disappeared for about two hours.

Johnson noted that neither Bachman nor his sons had previously mentioned the venison to authorities.

“But your memory is better now?” Johnson asked.

Norman Bachman said it was.

The sons said the trip to Verndale occurred on Wednesday, April 30. Bachman testified that he dismembered the body on Tuesday, and left about 12:30 a.m. Saturday, May 3, to dispose of the remains.

Toni Bachman’s sister, Edie Campbell, and her brothers, Jody, Gary and Timothy Reineccius said Friday that the plea gave them some closure, but it didn’t erase all of their doubts. (Another brother couldn’t attend the plea; Toni Bachman’s parents are deceased.)

“He’s a liar,” Campbell said.

“I don’t think he’s sincere,” Jody Reineccius said.

As part of Bachman’s plea deal, a count of second-degree murder without intent was dismissed. He agreed to a prison term of 13⅓ years, an upward departure from sentencing guidelines. That term would be cut to 10 years if he helps authorities recover Toni Bachman’s body.

Many searches

Prosecuting attorney Johnson said in court that Bachman had provided information about where he buried the body, and once accompanied authorities on a search. However, Johnson said, five searches of the area and nearby locations yielded nothing.

It’s unclear, Johnson said, whether Bachman’s memory is faulty, or whether authorities are using the wrong technology.

“I think it’s a game,” Campbell said of the information Bachman is giving authorities.

Ramsey County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Ty Sheridan, a lead investigator on the case, said after the plea hearing that authorities conducted five, two-day searches in the past two months. He said they searched outside of Ramsey County, but declined to provide more specific information. (Bachman testified Friday that he had planned to bury the remains “Up North.”)

Authorities used imaging technology, dogs and people on foot in the searches, Sheridan said, adding that they’d search again “if we get credible information to direct us to another search.”

“I wouldn’t want to close the door on anything,” he said. “We’re going to do as much as we can to find Toni. We’re not going to search the same areas we’ve searched.”

Dogs searched the Verndale property in 1998 but found nothing.

Bachman is scheduled to be sentenced on Dec. 11.