BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A woman on a Montana American Indian reservation pleaded not guilty to murder Tuesday in the alleged beating death of a 13-month-old relative who was under her care, court officials said.
Janelle Red Dog, 42, is accused of striking and killing Kenzley Olson, then putting her body in a trash dumpster before reporting the girl missing April 19.
Judge Marvin Youpee denied bond for Red Dog and ordered her back into custody pending a May hearing, according to the Fort Peck Tribal Court clerk's office.
The defendant's mother, Rhea Starr, said she believes Kenzley's death was an accident and Red Dog had been caring for the baby when no one else would.
"That baby was passed along like yesterday's gossip," Starr told The Associated Press. "I don't think (Kenzley's death) was intentional. I think my daughter was trying to help the baby and panicked."
Kenzley's mother and other family members could not be immediately reached for comment.
The defendant's initial claim — that Kenzley disappeared from the house where Red Dog was caring for her — triggered an Amber Alert for an abducted girl that was broadcast in Montana and North Dakota. Authorities canceled the alert after Red Dog purportedly confessed a day later and drew a map that led them to the baby's body.
Red Dog also faces a misdemeanor charge of hindering law enforcement for giving a false report to police.
The Fort Peck Reservation is about 20 miles from the U.S.-Canada border. Funeral services for Kenzley originally were scheduled for Sunday, but they were postponed until Wednesday. Her obituary described the girl's "tiny fingers, baby soft skin and beautiful smile."
Kenzley had been under Red Dog's care for about two weeks, after her mother dropped her off and failed to return, Red Dog's mother and her lawyer said. The tribal jail confirmed the mother was behind bars on unspecified charges when Kenzley died.
Defense attorney Mary Zemyan said told The AP that from the limited information authorities have shared with her, the cause of the baby's death is unclear.
Additional charges could be filed in tribal court later, Fort Peck Tribes Chief Prosecutor Scott Seifert said. Tribal law allows for a maximum three-year prison sentence on any one charge, with a combined maximum of nine years in prison and a $5,000 fine per charge, he said.
The severity of the crime and age of the victim merit the maximum punishment, Seifert wrote in a notice filed with the court.
Separate federal charges that could carry a more severe punishment also are expected in the case.
Kenzley's death was the second major crime in recent weeks to hit the reservation, which is home to the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes and has a population of about 10,000.
In late February, a man allegedly abducted a 4-year-old girl from a park in the town of Wolf Point, sexually assaulted her and tried to kill her. The girl was found alive several days later.
Zemyan has said Red Dog admitted to authorities that she struck Kenzley on three occasions. But she said it was unknown if that's what killed the girl.
"I haven't seen any autopsy so I'm not sure," Zemyan said.
Starr said Kenzley had been sick in recent weeks, coughing and throwing up, and she speculated that illness could have played a role in her death.
An investigator testified during a probable cause hearing last week that an autopsy determined Kenzley died of blunt force trauma. However, the court has not released the autopsy results or an affidavit from prosecutors that was said to have further details on the case.
Fort Peck Tribal Chairman Floyd Azure has blamed Kenzley's death and the recent kidnapping on a rising drug epidemic that he says the reservation must address.
Starr said her daughter had been addicted to painkillers "quite a few years ago" but was unsure if she had recent involvement in drugs.
"One addiction leads to another," Starr said. "There's so much drugs on this reservation it's crazy," she said.
This story has been changed to correct the spelling of Red Dog.