In a child-death case that split the community, both the defense attorney and the district attorney on Wednesday recommended probation.
But Sedgwick County District Court Judge Joseph Bribiesca wanted to hear from Ruthie Bell, whose 6-year-old daughter was killed in a Wichita house fire last summer, before handing down a sentence.
“Do you have anything to say?” the judge asked.
Last month, in a plea agreement, Bell was convicted on three counts of aggravated endangering a child after pleading no contest in a case that involved her leaving three of her children – ages 4 to 7 at the time – at home with her boyfriend.
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Bell also had pleaded no contest to aggravated interference with parental custody – a twist that involved her two youngest children, who were not in the house at the time of the fire.
Now it was her turn to tell the judge why he shouldn’t send her to prison.
Bell, 28, apologized for the events as she adjusted the microphone at the podium. Then she became passionate, tears interrupting her words.
“Every second, every moment you have a child is important,” she said. “My kids who made it through this, I want to love them like a mother.
“I want to be allowed to love them like a mother. Given a chance, I will put in my duties to make sure they grow up and not become another statistic in the world. I want you to know this is coming from my heart.”
Brisbiesca gave her 36 months of probation.
But that decision came with a stern warning. The judge told Bell that he would impose a 75-month prison sentence if she fails to meet probation conditions and lands in his court again.
“This is a no-tolerance probation,” he said.
District Attorney Marc Bennett was in the courtroom to explain the plea agreement to the judge. The short version was that it would be difficult to prove in a trial anything more than that Bell had left her children with her boyfriend to go to her state-paid job to care for her mother and that there was a fire.
After the sentencing, Bennett said his office had heard from people saying, “Why are you going after this mother? She’s suffered enough.”
Others said a child died, so it’s her responsibility, Bennett said.
“These are not easy questions,” he added. “My charge as district attorney is to respond to the facts objectively.”
Those facts also showed Bell had a criminal history that normally would have made it difficult for her to get probation. But that history came in 2001 when she was convicted as a 15-year-old for aggravated assault.
Given those factors, Bennett and defense attorney Doug Adams asked the judge to allow her to be eligible for probation.
After the sentencing, Bennett said the request is routine for similar circumstances.
“Why should we treat her any differently?” Bennett asked.
The end of the criminal case doesn’t necessarily mean Bell will be reunited with her surviving four children. That will be determined in an ongoing child-in-need-of-care case before another judge.
“Nothing has been resolved there,” Adams said, “but at least there’s a fighting chance.”
Judy Fowler, Bell’s attorney in the CINC case, told Bribiesca that Bell has complied with all requests by the other court, including alcohol assessment.
“Obviously, she can’t do some of it,” Fowler said, citing family therapy. “The children need to have contact with Mom to work through their issues.”
Among the stipulations of Bell’s probation is that she not have any contact with Adrian Johnson, a 24-year-old co-defendant and the boyfriend who was supposed to watch her children.
Prosecutors and Adams said Bell left her three oldest daughters with Johnson on July 11 at her southeast Wichita home while she went to her mother’s house. She is contracted by the state to provide home-health care for her mother, Bennett said.
At some point, Johnson left the house. It’s not clear from open court information where Johnson went, but the children were alone.
Ja’Kara Dickson, the 6-year-old, began playing with a lighter, authorities later determined.
She accidentally set her clothes on fire about 7 p.m., ran into her bedroom and pulled off her burning clothes. But her bed caught fire and the flames quickly spread.
The two sisters were not seriously injured. Ja’Kara died two days later.
Bell’s two youngest children – including an infant at the time – were not at the house. It wasn’t clear whether those two children normally lived with Bell.
Bennett would only say that they were Bell’s children.
The two surviving children in the house fire were placed immediately in the state’s custody. The other two children were to be put in state custody two days after the fire, Bennett said, but the state couldn’t find the children.
Bell and Johnson knew the children were with Bell’s sister out of state and had regular contact with them, Bennett said, but they didn’t let the state know until Feb. 14.
That resulted in the charges of aggravated interference with parental custody.
Johnson faces sentencing Thursday before Bribiesca after pleading guilty last month to the same child endangerment charges Bell faced, plus three counts of drug possession.
Meanwhile, Bell awaits the outcome of the other court case to see if she can regain custody of all of her children.
She told Bribiesca that she has a full-time job working third shift for a heating and air-conditioning company.
“There’s no such thing as a perfect mother,” she read from her handwritten paper. “I can’t become a good mother overnight. I have to learn from the past.
“I will take this with me the rest of my life.”