Becky Heupel watches while her lawyer confers with the deputy prosecutor during her court hearing today.
By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
CHEHALIS – Koralynn Fister’s mother pleaded guilty today to her role in the circumstances that led to the Centralia toddler’s death.
Becky M. Heupel’s short term live-in boyfriend James Reeder has been convicted of the abuse, sexual and otherwise, that led to the child dying last May, but Heupel today agreed to pay with prison time for not acting on clues something was amiss.
“Guilty,” she answered when asked by the judge.
And when Judge James Lawler concluded all his questioning and pronounced the 31-year-old guilty of criminal mistreatment in the second degree, she began to dab at her eyes with a tissue.
Heupel was free to leave after the 30 minute hearing in Lewis County Superior Court. Her sentencing won’t take place until next month.
Prosecutors haven’t suggested the mother of two participated in any way or witnessed the 25-year-old unemployed boyfriend harming the 2-year-old girl in the weeks before she died. In fact, Deputy Prosecutor Shane O’Rourke confirmed today there was no evidence she did.
If there was, she would have been facing the same kind of sentence as Reeder, O’Rourke said.
But when Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer charged the mother last month, Meyer said spoke of Heupel’s inaction.
Meyer said he believed Heupel put her relationship with her new boyfriend ahead of the well-being of her child, ignoring warnings from others he was abusive and ignoring injuries on Koralynn she said would have prompted her to call police if they were on someone else’s child.
Koralynn died on May 24 of head injuries and drowning; Reeder told police he found her face down in the bathtub when he stepped out to get a towel. Heupel and her 4-year-old daughter had left the house about two and half hours earlier.
Reeder had moved into the household only about 10 weeks earlier. Prosecutors have said he suggested parenting duties be divided up and as a result, he spent a significant time alone with the little one, changing her diapers and giving her baths.
Prosecutors indicated a lengthy list of injuries, some old and some new found on the child’s body, such as palm-sized pieces of skin missing from her buttocks, signs of penetration, bruising, a missing toenail and more.
Last May, after Reeder’s arrest, Prosecutor Meyer called it the worst case of child abuse and neglect he’d seen in his career.
Heupel’s attorney, Paul Strophy, said today his client did see some injuries, but not any that suggested to her sexual abuse was occurring. In the final weeks, Heupel didn’t see Koralynn’s private areas, he said, adding that he believed her.
He suggested Reeder was a predator.
“On the surface, in her presence, he appeared very attentive, a good father figure,” Strophy said.
He offered to take a more hands on approach, and she appreciated it, he said.
“Obviously she now feels like she didn’t do enough and didn’t see the signs” Strophy said. “Had she known or realized what was going on, she would have put a stop to it, or got help from law enforcement.”
O’Rourke today said Heupel saw the injuries, or should have. Anybody who’s a regular parent would have, he said.
“There has to be some recognition, the fact that when you’re a parent, you watch out for this,” O’Rourke said.
Attorneys on the two sides have agreed to recommend a so-called exceptionally high sentence, but only by one day. They will suggest to the judge she go to prison for a year and one day.
Today, when Judge Lawler queried Heupel, and asked if she realized he would still be free to impose the maximum penalty of five years, she faltered.
“No,” Heupel said.
Her response prompted a 10 minute recess, during which she and Strophy left the room to talk alone.
It was after their return, and Heupel agreeing with the judge she understood that he pronounced her guilty.
She admitted to second-degree criminal mistreatment – recklessly creating an imminent and substantial risk of death or great bodily harm by leaving her child in Reeder’s care.
She will be sentenced on May 16.
For background, read “Koralynn Fister: Dead toddler’s mother pleads innocent to putting little one in harm’s way” from Friday March 22, 2013, here