A 32-year-old St. Paul man was sentenced in Ramsey County District Court Tuesday to 34 years in prison for the death of a young mother whose body was left in a crawl space of her apartment.

Corey Dean Thomas pleaded guilty in October to second-degree intentional murder of Megan Neely, his 27-year-old estranged girlfriend. Just before her death, Neely told the father of her child that she intended to break up with Thomas and "expected drama."

Judge Kathleen Gearin's sentence represents the maximum allowable term under the plea agreement.

Neely's mother, Terri Neely, read a victim's impact statement telling how the slaying has left her grieving, and forever changed. A sister and a friend also wrote letters during the court proceedings, telling of a gentle, artistic woman who is deeply missed.

Megan Neely is also survived by her two young daughters.

"Although it will not bring the victim back to her family, we are pleased with the judge's sentence in this case," County Attorney John Choi said. "A daughter, sister and a mother was tragically taken from our community as a result of the defendant's actions."

Thomas, who had a history of abusing women, claimed the death was an accident, but the judge didn't buy it.

He had been released from prison in June 2011. By Oct. 19, 2011, two days after Neely's body was found, he was arrested in Miami and identified by police as a "person of interest" in her death.

He has been in custody since authorities brought him back to Minnesota from Florida.

Thomas had told investigators that scratches on his neck and arm were cuts he suffered at a warehouse where he worked. But a manager there reported seeing no such injuries.

DNA found in semen on Neely's body and under her fingernails tied Thomas to the slaying. His history includes assault with a dangerous weapon and theft.

The Ramsey County medical examiner determined that Neely was manually strangled sometime before 2:45 p.m. on Oct. 16, 2011.

The victim's sister, Samantha Neely of St. Paul, had grown worried as early as Oct. 15, 2011, a Saturday. She had told police that her sister hadn't picked her daughter up from the child's father, and that the two sisters had plans with their children but she couldn't reach Megan.

Knowing that Thomas had assaulted a prior girlfriend, Samantha called her sister's cellphone about 20 times that Saturday, and Thomas finally answered.

Thomas told her that he and Megan Neely had gotten into a fight, that he was going back to Chicago, and that he took back the cellphone he had bought her.

Samantha Neely called police about 8 that night and provided them with a key to Megan's apartment. A preliminary search of the apartment by police didn't find the body.

By the next day, Samantha and other friends and family again called police because nobody had heard from Megan. Police investigators spoke with Thomas later that Sunday afternoon, when he stated that he and Neely "got into it" and she broke up with him, court papers say.

On the morning of Monday, Oct 17, 2011, Thomas sold his car to his brother and within hours was on a bus to Miami.

Police returned to the apartment that afternoon and found Megan Neely's pajama-clad body in the cubby hole, covered with a comforter

On Oct. 19, 2011, Miami police, alerted by St. Paul police, arrested Thomas on a probation violation at a motel near the Miami International Airport.

On Tuesday, in a St. Paul courtroom as she sentenced him to prison, Gearin also ordered Thomas to pay $7,800 in restitution. She credited him for 422 days served.

Joy Powell • 651-925-5038