BRYSON CITY, N.C. (AP) — A county social service worker in North Carolina admitted Monday to ordering that records be faked during the probe of a child's death, and she's agreed to cooperate with authorities who are continuing to investigate her co-workers.
Candice Lassiter, 30, pleaded guilty to three counts of forgery related to the police investigation of 15-month-old Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn's death in 2011.
In return, prosecutors dropped three counts of obstruction of justice against the former Swain County social worker who will be sentenced in August. She faces up to 45 months in prison.
Her attorney Zeyland McKinney declined to comment, saying his client wasn't interested in talking about the case.
But Aubrey's mother, Jasmine Littlejohn, said the case was far from over.
"She didn't do this by herself," she said.
A trial for another Swain County social worker, Craig Smith, was postponed until August. He has been charged with three counts of obstruction of justice.
Prosecutors say that after Aubrey's death, Lassiter ordered Smith, a subordinate, to falsify records to make it appear that the Swain County Department of Social Services had done a thorough job investigating allegations that the girl had been abused.
Aubrey's death sparked anger in the Native American community. She died after she was rushed to the hospital by great-aunt Ladybird Powell, who began taking care of Aubrey in 2010, shortly before the toddler's mother reported to jail in a marijuana-trafficking case.
Powell told doctors she had put the girl to bed and, when she checked on her a few hours later, she wasn't breathing. A state medical examiner said Aubrey died of undetermined causes, but noted bruises and broken bones.
Some in the tribe say the Swain County Department of Social Services didn't do enough to protect her. Led by Aubrey's great-aunt Ruth McCoy, family members and friends pushed police to investigate.
An Associated Press investigation found that police and social workers were aware of reports that Aubrey was mistreated while she was staying with the woman.
Powell, 39, of Bryson City has since pleaded guilty in the child's death and was sentenced two months ago to 12 years in prison.
Lassiter and three other DSS workers were suspended with pay. Tammy Cagle, the agency's director at the time, was fired for what county officials said were unrelated reasons
During Monday's hearing, Lassiter sat quietly by her attorney while Prosecutor Sybil Mann disclosed details of the cover up.
As part of the deal, which was approved by Aubrey's family, Lassiter has agreed to cooperate with investigators looking into the death.
"This is just the tip of it," said McCoy, who works for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. "It's just not one or two people. We know there were more involved in the cover up."
McCoy said Lassiter was one of the social workers whom police escorted to Powell's home one night in November 2010 to investigate a complaint that an 11-year-old boy was living in a trailer with drugs and no heat.
They removed the boy, placing him in McCoy's custody, but let Aubrey stay. The heat was off because the power bill wasn't paid.
David Wijewickrama, a lawyer representing Aubrey's estate, said getting to the truth is important to the family.
He has filed two lawsuits in connection with her death, at least one of which names the county DSS as a defendant, along with Lassiter, Smith and five other current and former social workers. The lawsuit asks for more than $10,000 in damages, and accuses Swain County of not doing enough to protect Native American children.
"From this day forward, the family feels that those who were involved need to go to jail, face professional charges, and be removed from any state agency for the rest of their professional careers," Wijewickrama said.
"If there was a conspiracy to destroy documents, hide the truth, and in some way profit from deliberate acts, those actions must be disclosed, reviewed and made public. At which point, the family prays, the state will take swift and meaningful corrective measures and enact transparent policy changes," he said.