DOYLESTOWN, Pa. — A jailed man who has been the focus of an investigation into the disappearances of four men admitted on Thursday that he killed them and agreed to plead guilty to four murder counts, his attorney said in a surprise development.
Cosmo DiNardo, 20, confessed to the commission or participation in four murders, attorney Paul Lan said outside court, where DiNardo had met with investigators. DiNardo also told investigators where the bodies are.
‘‘I’m sorry,’’ a shackled DiNardo said as he left the courthouse.
In exchange for the cooperation, Lang said, prosecutors were taking the death penalty off the table. There was no immediate comment from prosecutors.
The mystery of the four men’s disappearances has transfixed the Philadelphia area over the past week, taking a grisly turn when human remains were discovered in a 12½-foot-deep grave on a farm. But what sort of evil befell them, and why, had remained shrouded in secrecy.
The prosecutor, who has held twice-daily briefings, made it clear Thursday he knew a lot more than he was saying, citing the need to protect the investigation. That only added to the speculation and rumors before DiNardo’s confession.
‘‘It’s been very unnerving. It’s very spooky,’’ said Laura Hefty, who lives a few miles from the gravesite in Solebury Township, where farms bump up against new residential developments.
Many people, she said, were trying to convince themselves this is nothing that could ever happen to their kids.
‘‘They feel incredibly sad. Some people are pretty angry, too,’’ and are asking, ‘‘How did it get this bad?’’ she said.
The four men, all residents of Bucks County, disappeared last week. At least three knew each other. The remains of only one, 19-year-old Dean Finocchiaro, have been identified, though authorities said other remains were found in the hole as well.
DiNardo, the son of the farm property’s owners, was being held on $5 million cash bail before his confession, accused of trying to sell one of the victims’ cars.
District Attorney Matthew Weintraub parried one question after another by saying he couldn’t — or wouldn’t — answer.
Police were back at the farm Thursday, digging away in the dust and the 90-degree-plus heat and using plywood to shore up the deep, tent-covered trench that they excavated at the spot where Weintraub said dogs managed to ‘‘smell these poor boys 12½ feet below the ground.’’
For days, TV news helicopters trained their cameras on the excavation, creating an unsettling racket but allowing the public to follow the forensic work from their office computers. On one day, viewers could watch investigators haul up buckets of dirt and sift it through hand-held screens in what looked like an archaeological dig.
Susan Coleman told news outlets that she and her husband were in their backyard last Saturday afternoon when they heard several rounds of what they believed was shotgun fire coming from the direction of the DiNardo farm.
‘‘This person was going bananas,’’ she told phillyvoice.com.
Eric Beitz, who said he had hung out with DiNardo in recent weeks, told philly.com that DiNardo routinely sold guns and on multiple occasions had talked ‘‘about weird things like killing people and having people killed.’’
DiNardo, whose parents own construction and concrete businesses in the Philadelphia area, has had a few brushes with the law over the past year.
He was arrested on Monday on an unrelated gun charge dating from February, accused of illegally possessing a shotgun and ammunition after being involuntarily committed to a mental institution.
His father bailed him out, but he was jailed again later in the week on the stolen-car charges, and bail was set much higher, after a prosecutor said he was a danger to the community because he had been diagnosed as schizophrenic.