SALT LAKE CITY — A judge refused to accept a plea agreement Tuesday that would have required no jail time and no admission of guilt from a former day care operator charged with abusing three children in her care.
Kami Kay Tollefson, 44, appeared in court Tuesday prepared to accept a plea deal in a case that has languished for six years in 3rd District Court.
Tollefson is charged with three counts of child abuse, a second-degree felony. She was offered a deal to admit to one reduced count of attempted child abuse, a third-degree felony, but be sentenced as if it were a class A misdemeanor. Prosecutors also agreed to recommend no jail time.
The plea bargain would also have required her to enter Alford pleas to two additional reduced child abuse charges. By entering an Alford plea, a defendant does not admit to a crime but acknowledges that there is evidence that could lead to a conviction at trial.
Judge Randall Skanchy rejected the agreement, however, after the mothers of the three children voiced their objections to the deal and described the injuries their children suffered.
Skanchy said "real and substantial injury has occurred" to the three children, noting that the three families understand there is a risk that Tollefson could be acquitted if her case now goes to trial.
One of the mothers, Megan Campbell, voiced frustration with prosecutors and praised the judge's decision.
"I think he actually listened to us," Campbell said. "We haven't gotten questions answered from day one, we've just been passed off."
The other parents echoed support as one of the mothers, Kelley Crandall, said she knows that going to trial is a risk, but she believes there is too much evidence for Tollefson to avoid a conviction altogether.
"There's too much rarity, there's too much uniqueness," Crandall said. "There's no way she would be acquitted on all three charges."
Spencer Banks, a victim advocate attorney for the families, said this is the first time he has been involved in a case where a bid to reject a plea deal was supported by a judge. Victims have a right to be heard before a plea deal is finalized, Banks said, but ultimately they aren't the ones who make the decision.
Speaking to the judge, Crandall said that after six years in court and eight years since her son was injured, the severity of the case warrants a more fitting plea agreement or a jury trial.
"He almost died," Crandall said of her son, Isaak, who sustained blunt-force trauma that severed a piece of his pancreas. "It wasn't attempted child abuse, it was child abuse."
The Deseret News profiled the cases in May after the latest jury trial for Tollefson was canceled in lieu of a third round of plea negotiations and the families chose to break their silence about the years and years of court proceedings.
Isaak was the first child reported injured while in Tollefson's care back in June 2008. According to police, when the 16-month-old boy's father picked him up from the unlicensed day care that Tollefson operated in her home, Isaak was lethargic and in pain. The boy was rushed to the hospital and underwent emergency surgery to remove part of his damaged pancreas. Tollefson allegedly said he had slipped on a toy car and fallen or been hit by another child while playing on a swing.
Tollefson continued operating the day care and in April 2009, when she told the mother of 18-month-old Aiden Campbell her son had woken up from a nap with a rash on his neck, police say. Doctors determined it was petechial hemorrhaging, a sign of suffocation.
Aiden's mother told Skanchy of her gratitude that her son is now healthy and has no lingering problems, but she argued that his recovery doesn't mean a crime wasn't committed or that there shouldn't be consequences.
"She's a serial child abuser, there has to be something," Campbell told the judge. "I want justice."
In February 2010, 13-month-old girl HaLee Miller was rushed by her mother from Tollefson's home to an emergency room when the woman arrived to pick her up and found her lethargic and vomiting. The girl was kept in the hospital for several days as it was discovered she was experiencing subdural hemorrhaging that appeared to be the result of a shaking so violent it detached the retinas in both her eyes.
After years of rehabilitation and worry, HaLee's mother, Shandee McEown, wept as she explained that any headache or episode of blurry vision brings back her fear for her daughter's health. Years of questions remain, the mother said, as HaLee has started school and is showing signs of lingering cognitive and social concerns possibly connected to the brain injury.
In light of the injury to her daughter and the others, McEown said she doesn't believe the plea deal was strong enough. Moving forward, she said she would support a plea deal with sufficient consequences and an admission of guilt.
But if not, McEown said, "I'm willing to go to trial."
Tollefson, her attorney and prosecutor Rob Parrish left the courtroom without comment immediately following the hearing.
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