BEULAH, Mich. (AP) — Friends and relatives painted conflicting portraits Monday of a Michigan woman who admits trying to kill herself and her autistic daughter, with two former in-laws describing her as selfish and manipulative but with supporters insisting she was a loving mom driven to despair.
Kelli Stapleton, 46, pleaded guilty last month to first-degree child abuse in a deal that averted a trial on an attempt murder charge. She acknowledged driving her daughter Isabelle, nicknamed Issy, to an isolated area of Benzie County in September 2013, giving her a sleep-inducing drug and placing two charcoal-burning grills inside a van in a planned murder-suicide.
Both survived, although Isabelle, now 15, suffered brain damage from which she has largely recovered.
Stapleton could get up to life in prison. During a sentencing hearing that began Monday and continues Tuesday, her stepmother, Sandy Johnson, said she was in shock after hearing what had happened.
"The person that committed that act is not Kelli," Johnson told Circuit Judge James Batzer, saying Stapleton was "broken, desperate" after struggling for years to get proper help for her daughter and enduring numerous physical assaults from Isabelle, some of which caused concussions.
But Eileen Stapleton, Isabelle's grandmother and Kelli Stapleton's former mother-in-law, said the defendant was trying to shift blame and portray an innocent child as "a monster."
"The truth is that Kelli didn't want Issy anymore," Eileen Stapleton said. She contended that Kelli Stapleton's exiting the van several times showed she was attempting to fake a suicide attempt.
"She is smart enough, strong enough and determined enough that if she wanted to kill herself she would be dead," Eileen Stapleton said.
The case has shaken the adjacent villages of Frankfort and Elberta in rural northern Michigan, where Stapleton and her former husband, Matthew, a school principal who recently obtained a divorce, were prominent figures in the community. A standing-room-only crowd packed the small courtroom and many onlookers wept during testimony. Kelli Stapleton, manacled and wearing an orange jumpsuit, cried frequently.
Sarah Ross, Isabelle's aunt, said the girl had made progress in recent years, particularly after receiving treatment at an autism center in Kalamazoo. She said the family had not run out of options or resources to continue treatment for Isabelle, even though Stapleton said insurance would no longer cover it.
Although Kelli Stapleton was an outspoken advocate for autism-related causes, Ross said her blog and travels to promote her books were self-serving.
Lisa Stieve, a longtime friend of the defendant, described frequently seeing Kelli Stapleton with black eyes and even broken bones from Isabelle's attacks but insisted Stapleton always reacted patiently and lovingly.
"Kelli was the one on the front lines. She's the one that bore the brunt" of Isabelle's violent outbursts, said Rick Stieve, husband of Lisa and pastor of the Lutheran church the family attended.
Defense attorney Heidi Hodek read a letter written by 13-year-old Ainsley Stapleton, the defendant's youngest daughter.
"I know what my mom did wasn't very forgivable. But I understand what she was going through," Ainsley wrote.