BEND, Ore. - (Update: Comments from sentencing judge, parents)
A Bend woman who grabbed world headlines after her arrest for leaving numerous young children alone at her unlicensed day care, giving them melatonin to sleep while she went for a tan or to work out, was sentenced Friday to more than 21 years in prison after a long litany of sorrow and anger from many tearful parents — and her own tearful apology to them.
Deschutes County Circuit Judge Wells Ashby imposed a sentence of 21 years and four months on January Irene Neatherlin, 32, at the close of an emotional day of testimony by the parents and family of numerous children suffering lingering issues with sleep cycles, trust and more. Prosecutors had requested a 35-year prison term.
“I failed you all. I let you all down,” January Irene Neatherlin, 32, told the crowded courtroom.
“I let all of you down that trusted me, and no one is at fault but me,” she said. “I know you may never forgive me, but I ask you consider it.”
Neatherlin, speaking through tears, said despite what she had admitted doing, she thought of “all my day care kids as my own, and I believe they loved me.”
“Everybody makes mistakes, but not everybody takes responsibility for those mistakes,” she said. "With that said, I pray that the court and the parents accept my apology, It was never my intention to put any of your children at risk of injury or harm. I truly loved them all, but I made a very poor call that has forever changed my live, and maybe even has ended it."
She also noted she failed her own children, who she hasn’t seen since her arrest nearly a year ago. ‘I have abandoned my children, because of my actions.”
“I have a lot of demons to face. I have a lot of things pushed down inside of me that I was scared to face,” Neatherlin said. “I lost a part of me long ago, and I haven't been the same since. I lost all focus on what was right from wrong, thinking things through before doing them.
"I had tunnel vision, so I didn't have to face the reality of my life. ... I was being selfish, thinking only of myself, not thinking of people I could be putting in jeopardy, and not of the people I could be potentially hurting. All I could think of was trying to keep my mind from facing the reality. I had one mindset and didn’t think about the consequences in the long run."
Ashby said the day's testimony gave him a clearer understanding of what he called a "very tragic situation" that resulted in "sheer terror" and guilt for parents who trusted a child to someone who they thought was trustworthy.
"You (as parents) find a way to blame yourself, even if it's not your fault," the judge said, noting the "carnage" left by the case, including a number of couples who said jobs were lost or marriages or partnerships ended "because of the tidal forces of this case. They couldn't withstand the forces -- and how could they?"
The judge said it was good that Neatherlin has taken responsibility for her actions, but said she still has a "very long way to go."
Ashby said a judge is supposed to strike a balance, looking at all the factors, but said he "will not take a risk on community safety."
Neatherlin told one girl’s parents that the girl did fall out of her chair but she “didn’t think she hurt herself that bad.” She said she tried to reach out to them, but police said not to contact them, and she apologized to them as well.
Ashby rejected that explanation of injuries prosecutors said were consistent with shaken baby syndrome.
"There is a pattern with you of lying repeatedly, of repeatedly putting children at risk," the judge said.
"There is something broke and something missing in you," he said. "I don't say that to be mean to you -- simply a gap there. It is the court's hope you can make yourself whole again."
The judge directed photographers not to show the faces or reporter to identify the family members who testified. But some parents spoke with us outside the courtroom after the sentencing.
"I'm glad that there is some kind of closure," Kevin Hord said, his voice trembling at times. "It's going to be tough, but we'll make it through. And I think justice was served. I think the judge was right on with fully understanding the extent of the charges and making a judgment that will hopefully make somebody like that think twice, if they make it out."
Audrey Torrance said, "To hear these other testimonies is absolute heartbreak." Asked what's next for her family, she smiled but said tearfully, "We move on, we -- I go home, I hug my kids and we move on."
The emotional, daylong sentencing hearing came nearly a year after police investigators found seven children under age 5 drugged and unattended at Neatherlin's Little Giggles Day Care while she was at a tanning salon.
Neatherlin entered negotiated guilty pleas last month to a dozen of the 122 charges against her, including 11 counts of first-degree criminal mistreatment and one count of third-degree assault.
Deputy District Attorney Kandy Gies laid out the details of how the case came to light last spring, after a former roommate who stayed home sick saw kids being left home alone.
Police conducted surveillance and on March 15 of last year, knowing she had again left, entered the home. Officer Devin Lewis testified they were shocked when they walked in and saw seven young children -- and no adult present. He said he went into “father mode” and had to change a couple of diapers. One baby, he said, had vomit on the neck and face, and Lewis said that child could have suffocated if police had not intervened.
Each parent had put their trust in Neatherlin, Gies said, calling the situation “each parent’s nightmare.” The case is different, she said, and not a typical matter of criminal mistreatment.
The prosecutor listed each of the children there at the time and what happened to them – one with bruises, one with burns and a third that led to the assault charge, with injuries consistent with shaken baby syndrome.
That baby had bleeding and swelling in the head when the injuries came to light in January 2014 The child was 11 months old and now is 5. In fact, the prosecutor said, the baby was taken away from the parents and placed in foster care for seven months when state child welfare investigators thought the parents were at fault.
The girl’s father and both sets of grandparents of the girl spoke next, saying the injuries came to light when they picked the girl up and she was lethargic, then threw up and was acting groggy. They took her to the hospital, where bleeding on the brain was found. A doctor told them it appeared there had been a previous injury.
The family members said the little girl needed therapy for several years and that they remain worried about long-term impacts, but so far she’s a normal 5-year-old. The allegations of abuse also tore the family apart, they said, asking that the judge impose the full 35-year sentence sought by the state.
The grandparents cried during their testimony. Neatherlin wiped her eyes and removed her glasses, before a break in the proceedings was called.
The baby’s mother then testified, saying Neatherlin gave them fraudulent documents and that Neatherlin did not respond to repeated calls. She said the baby was shivering and shaking after being picked up from the day care and could barely roll over after the injuries. She said they had to take an ambulance to a Portland hospital, as a Life Flight helicopter could not fly due to the weather – and that they probably will never know exactly what happened.
Another mother said she met Neatherlin when her daughter was 9 months old and she seemed nice and that she’d researched her name – though she gave the wrong name – and the family was in a pinch. A year later, they learned she had shoved scalding hot milk into the girl’s mouth, burning her mouth and shoulder.
Neatherlin also had asked the family to watch her own child once, and she said when her husband went to the home, they found 16 children in the home. She said Neatherlin also told the family to give her (Neatherlin's) own daughter melatonin. That’s when she looked up Neatherlin under a different name and learned what was going on. She said her daughter came down with severe pneumonia and a doctor asked about abuse. She removed her child after 10 months in Neatherlin’s care.
Another mother said they had been friends for over a decade when she placed a child with her. She said she’d tried to get the place shut down three years ago and was sorry her voice wasn’t heard.
“She is a danger to society and all of our children,” the mother said. “She cannot be rehabilitated. She is and always will be a habitual offender.”
Another mother said her baby was in Neatherlin’s care from 3 to 9 months of age and often was crying.
The woman said they had been lied to and their child was mistreated. But she also said that “finding child care is a parent’s nightmare” – that she’d contacted 20 days cares before finding Neatherlin, who knew the struggles parents face finding day care.
After time in Neatherlin's care, she said her child didn’t sleep through the night until after he turned a year old, having been fed melatonin for months.
She said she and her husband attended therapy to cope with their loss of trust in people. Despite that, she said, "We will never feel safe leaving our children with anyone."
Another mother told of how Neatherlin said she was licensed and could provide documentation – also assuring her that her daughter would be the only infant in her care.
She said their daughter went to Little Giggles five days a week starting in August 2016, as both parents are teachers. Neatherlin told her to let her know when she was on her way to pick up her child.
The woman said Neatherlin often said her baby could be tired because she hadn’t slept well. She said her daughter was always constipated and cried constantly. The mother, in tears, said what happened caused her to lose trust in people and the community.
Her husband said Neatherlin repeatedly administered sleeping agent to children “and drove off in her car to fulfill her narcissistic needs. January had no respect for human life,” he said. “The community will be safer without her in it.”
The afternoon session continued with more parents telling of their kids having lasting issues -- a mother said her daughter came home with broken blood vessels in her face and neck, and Neatherlin said it was from screaming. Her son, 4 years old at the time, remembers police entering the home and asks about Neatherlin.
While the family feels betrayed and manipulated, the mother said, "I want to teach my kids about forgiveness and understanding."
The children's father, crying and angry, called it "unbelievable that any person on this Earth ahs the capacity to make children a target."
"In my opinion, your honor, 100 years would not be enough for this person," he said. "There is no place in this world for monsters like January."
Ashby thanked each parent for their comments, telling this father: "It's great to hear your strength, and it gives this court a lot of confidence that your children are going to do well. So thank you for being here."
Another mother said her children would start crying the moment she turned down Neatherlin's street, and their time in her home changed their behavior - her son trying to ransack the refrigerator and cupboards. The kids later told counselors she would hit or kick them and yell at them.
"I will always wonder how this damage will shape who they will become," she said, before her husband called Neatherlin "an absolute manipulator."
Neatherlin " has a lengthy criminal history of scamming people for her own financial gain," Gies and fellow Deputy District Attorney Errol Laure said in their 13-page sentencing memo, filed Wednesday, requesting the 35-year sentence.
"She has repeatedly demonstrated that stealing is a way of life in her world," they wrote, noting her past theft and ID theft convictions. "This defendant has now taken her criminal scams to a new level and she has placed the lives of children in danger -- not once, not twice, but numerous times, day after day."
In her day care operation, the prosecutors said Neatherlin "would tell parents what they wanted to hear, that she was licensed and certified to care for children and that she had CPR training. When a parent expressed concern about her child's medical needs, (Neatherlin) responded that would be fine, she could handle it, she was a trained RN (registered nurse). None of this was true."
A former roommate and a former boyfriend, as well as other adults and children, "detailed atrocious behavior" by Neatherlin, prosecutors said, including "regularly giving melatonin to the children to put them to sleep while she would leave ... multiple children alone on numerous occasions," to go to a gym and tanning salon, as well as to take her own children to school.
The prosecutors said one thing they found "important and disturbing ... was the ease with which she would lie. When parents were seeking out day care for their children, (she) always had the answer the parents were looking for," going so far as to "create her own certificate stating that she was licensed to provide day care. She was not."
Parents were told they could not pick up or drop off children between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. "because this was 'nap time' for the children," and it would disrupt all of them.
The prosecutors also said Neatherlin, since her arrest, had contacted other inmates in various ways "and has tried to get them to report they were working for her and helping with the day care services." In a letter to a former inmate, turned in to the DA's office, Neatherlin asked others to bring her bail money, "promising she had offshore accounts worth a lot of money" she would repay them from -- "yet another example of her denial and her scams."
The prosecutors also laid out Neatherlin's criminal history, with at least five convictions before the day care investigation began, including several cases of theft and ID theft, such as buying a trampoline at Walmart, taking an old, rusted one, putting it in the box and returning it, as well as stealing from co-workers at St. Charles Bend.
They also said three of the young day care victims were injured, one a burn to her lips because she heated a bottle in a microwave and didn't test it before forcing the girl to drink from it. The prosecutors said several of the children regularly given melatonin had "significant trouble sleeping through the night' until only recently.
"The parents placed their children in (Neatherlin's) care, believing her lies, expecting their children would be cared for,” they wrote. “The defendant violated this expectation and trust."
In her guilty plea petition, Neatherlin acknowledged she could face a maximum of 60 years in prison and a $1.5 million fine for the dozen guilty pleas. She will have 30 days to appeal her sentence to the Oregon Court of Appeals, if she wishes, and could challenge the sentence by petition on constitutional grounds such as inadequate defense within two years.