The tiny little boy whose death shook the foundations of the state’s child welfare system and inspired the governor and others to seek reform will not get his case heard before a jury.
Carole Ann DeLeon, 52, decided to plead guilty late Friday to two lesser charges rather than face the potential of life in prison on a charge that she starved her adopted son, Tyler DeLeon, to death on Jan. 13, 2005.
Just two days before they were set to select a jury in Okanogan, Stevens County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen and defense attorney Carl Oreskovich reached an agreement to drop the homicide-by-abuse charge against DeLeon.
“Carole wanted to go to trial and be exonerated for the allegations made against her,” Oreskovich said. “However, the risk in terms of having a … jury making a determination based on emotion instead of based on fact, with the severe consequences, made it impossible in my mind to go to trial.”
Instead, DeLeon entered an Alford plea to one count of criminal mistreatment in the first degree for Tyler, who weighed only 28 pounds when he died on his seventh birthday.
She also entered an Alford plea to criminal mistreatment in the second degree for her care of Steven Miller, another boy who prosecutors alleged was severely malnourished by DeLeon. Four months after leaving her home, Steven gained 18 pounds and grew 2.5 inches, according to court records.
In an Alford plea, DeLeon does not admit guilt but acknowledges that she could be convicted at trial.
Rasmussen said he expects Superior Court Judge Al Nielson to sentence DeLeon to a combined 72 months, or six years, in prison at the hearing scheduled for 9 a.m. Friday in Colville.
“Tyler’s life was worth more than 72 months,” Rasmussen said. “But 72 months is about the length of time he lived with her. And sending her to prison for about the same amount of time that Tyler lived with her, there is some justice in that.”
Rasmussen filed a motion earlier in the week to drop the homicide-by-abuse charge. But DeLeon still could have faced life in prison, based on aggravating factors, for the remaining charges of second-degree murder or first-degree manslaughter, he said.
The real shift in the case occurred when both attorneys began interviewing witnesses in preparation for what was expected to be a three-week trial, Rasmussen said. To prove the homicide charge, Rasmussen would have relied on testimony of the other children who were living with DeLeon to convince a jury that the former paralegal had tortured Tyler.
“It became clear to me in the last two weeks that it would re-traumatize three children who don’t want anything to do with Carole DeLeon, ever,” Rasmussen said. “I felt that by making this offer was the right thing to do for the survivors. And I traded their well-being for punishment potential for Carole DeLeon.”
But Oreskovich, who said he’s been negotiating a settlement for about a month, ripped Rasmussen for filing homicide-by-abuse charges in the first place.
“I think their desire to put pressure on Carole was the motivating factor for filing those charges,” he said. “She’s been tragically saddened and hurt by Tyler’s death. And she has been the target of allegations by people who really didn’t have an understanding of Tyler’s behavior. Carole was anxious to have those facts brought before a jury and brought before the public.”
He added: “The fact that they chose to eliminate (the homicide-by-abuse charge) days before trial is indicative of their own recognition that they couldn’t prove those charges.”
Rasmussen blamed the weakness of his case on the state Department of Social and Health Services, which has already publicly acknowledged that it didn’t do enough to protect Tyler. A total of $55 million worth of civil claims has been filed by the families of children for whom DeLeon provided care.
“In many ways, this case was compromised from the very beginning by the failure of (Child Protective Services) to recognize or do anything about what was going on in the DeLeon home,” Rasmussen said. “Law enforcement was not notified by CPS of Ty’s death for almost a week. The crime scene had been compromised. The house had been cleaned, and law enforcement didn’t have a fair opportunity to investigate the circumstances of his death.”
Tyler’s tale began in May 1998 when the state placed the 4-month-old boy in a home where he never should have been. Carole DeLeon lied in 1996 on her application to become a licensed foster parent, state records show. She failed to report allegations of abuse against another foster child in 1988.
In that case, 12-year-old Mary Shuhart, now Mary Dees, moved with DeLeon to Stevens County from Wyoming. She was scheduled to testify about how DeLeon tied her up in the basement and regularly deprived her of food and water.
CPS then removed Mary from DeLeon’s home, but the state inadvertently destroyed the records documenting those allegations as part of routine file maintenance. Those files were discovered after Tyler died when a Stevens County deputy remembered that he had saved copies.
Had that record been known, state officials have said, they would never have issued a new license to DeLeon in 1996.
After adopting Tyler in 2000, DeLeon repeatedly warned school officials to limit his food and water intake and to make sure he didn’t drink water out of the toilets, court records state. But a later state investigation couldn’t find any medical documentation that supported her claim Tyler had eating or drinking disorders, the records say.
Another girl, Amber Lynn Daniels, now 18, was expected to testify about how she lost more than 70 pounds during the two years she lived in DeLeon’s home. According to court records, DeLeon prevented Daniels from getting water even when she was working outside. She “had to drink out of the dog bowl to get water,” according to court records.
Rasmussen said Steven Miller, now 9, could have suffered the same fate as Tyler. “Thankfully, (Steven) was removed from her care and is a happy and healthy child.”
Steven wasn’t the only boy to leave DeLeon’s home to go on and prosper.
DeLeon’s biological son John DeLeon filed a court petition in 1988 to be removed from her home, where, he said, he suffered severe beatings, according to court records.
He later attended Harvard Law School and now works as an attorney in Wyoming where he represents state-placed children like those who were in his mother’s care.
Despite the allegations, Oreskovich said Carole DeLeon intends to try to get back four adopted children who were removed from her home after she was arrested. Rasmussen said he doesn’t believe that will happen.
“I offered the plea because I thought it fairly fit the evidence that was before us without the emotional overtones,” he said. “And it represented closure and resolution for many people.”
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