Becky Heupel accepts hugs and farewells from her family and friends while waiting for a jail guard to arrive to take her away after sentencing.
By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
CHEHALIS – While the man convicted of a torturous death of a Centralia toddler sits in prison for possibly life, the little girl’s mother who failed to protect her daughter will continue her grieving behind bars for a year and a day, starting now.
Becky M. Heupel, 31, was handcuffed and taken into custody this morning, after a 30-minute hearing in Lewis County Superior Court.
Heupel pleaded guilty last month to second-degree criminal mistreatment, not for any abuse she inflicted but for her inaction.
Her short-term live-in boyfriend James Reeder was sentenced in March after pleading guilty to two counts of first-degree rape of a child, second-degree assault and homicide by abuse. And possession of methamphetamine. Two-year-old Koralynn Fister died from drowning and head trauma while in the care of Reeder on May 24 of last year at the home off East Oakview Avenue.
Today it was Heupel’s turn to be sentenced.
The deputy prosecutor stated that Heupel’s inaction was a gross failure of her parental responsibility but he spent more time explaining to the judge why he was not asking for a much harsher punishment.
“I think there’s a lot of people who think she should be charged right along with Mr. Reeder,” Lewis County Deputy Prosecutor Shane O’Rourke said. “There’s simply wasn’t any evidence she knew about the activity of Mr. Reeder or participated in any way.”
O’Rourke noted extensive deliberations with the prosecutor’s office and police on what her level of accountability was.
He spoke of Heupel’s past, her level of intelligence, of naivety and even stupidity. He spoke of her lifetime punishment of losing her child.
“There’s some degree of selfishness on her part perhaps, blindly putting her faith in Mr. Reeder,” he said.
She has no previous felonies, he added.
Defense attorney Paul Strophy went down the same path, only farther.
“She’s already suffered a horrendous loss from someone she let into her life,” Strophy said. “Some would argue that is punishment enough.”
Strophy noted his client’s long mental health history, OCD, PTSD, agoraphobia, major depression, lack of self confidence and a history of abandonment issues.
“With her learning disabilities, and hearing loss, all these things played a role in how she was used,” he said.
Hindsight is 20-20, Strophy said, about the couple of short months in question.
He told the judge that while Heupel was informed Reeder had a history of domestic violence, she never saw it coming against her children.
“None of the injuries gave her any indication what he ultimately did would occur,” he said. “Her biggest mistake obviously was giving his explanations too much credence and that’s why it’s reckless.”
And she was cooperative, he added.
Prosecutors have indicated a lengthy list of injuries found on the child’s body, some old and some new, such as a missing toenail, a missing patch of hair, palm-sized pieces of skin missing from her buttocks, signs of penetration, bruising and more.
Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer said outside the courtroom Heupel knew her child was being injured when she was with Reeder, and Heupel did nothing except to continue to leave her daughter with him.
“When you open your home to someone like Mr. Reeder, in this case, you’re going to be held accountable,” Meyer said.
The plea deal worked out was that both attorneys recommended Heupel go to prison for one year and one day.
While the maximum penalty is five years, the standard sentencing range for someone with no criminal history, such as Hepuel, is six to 12 months. They asked for the extra time so she could serve her time in state prison instead of in the Lewis County Jail.
Judge James Lawler said it gave him no pleasure to impose the sentence, but that it was appropriate in the case.
“It’s clear to me you were taken advantage of by Mr. Reeder,” Lawler said. “(But) your conduct constitutes a gross failure as a parent. You did what you did because it was easier to step back and do nothing instead of confronting Mr. Reeder.”
Heupel chose not to make a statement on her own behalf, after a long pause of seemingly considering it.
A crowded courtroom of mostly supporters formed a line to hug her before she was led away. Among them was Koralynn’s father, David Fister.
Fister said he’s forgiven the mother of his only child.
He said he agrees but mostly disagrees Heupel should be locked up.
“I don’t think that’s what should have happened to her, but I understand,” he said.
For background, read:
• “Mother of dead Centralia 2-year-old admits some responsibility in case” from Friday April 19, 2013, here
• “Centralia man gets maximum prison term for sexual abuse, death of toddler” from Wednesday March 6, 2013, here