Older but Bitter
Colorado Springs babysitter Wanda Crawford was 66 years old in 1994 when she was found guilty of shaking a nine-month-old infant so severely that the baby was left brain-damaged and permanently disabled. So abhorrent was the crime that, despite Crawford's age and the fact that it was her first felony conviction, El Paso County District Judge James Franklin handed down an eighteen-year prison sentence.
But Crawford hated prison, and her husband, 63-year-old James Darnell, didn't like living alone. By last December, after Crawford had been behind bars just over a year, the couple had had enough. So, according to state investigators, the two sexagenarians hatched a plot they figured would solve all their problems and get Crawford back home in time for Christmas.
All they had to do was hire someone to murder a mother and her three-year-old child.
The victims were to be Selina De La Rosa and her daughter, Stephanie, the same little girl whom Crawford had nearly killed more than two years earlier. According to court documents, a hired killer was to use "whatever methods necessary" to force Selina to write a confession saying that it was she, not Crawford, who had hurt the baby. Only then was Selina to be shot. Stephanie was to be killed, too--Darnell and Crawford allegedly wanted the slayings to appear to be a murder-suicide.
The plot was foiled when someone snitched and an undercover agent from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation played the part of a hired killer. Darnell and Crawford, whose attorneys have failed to return phone calls seeking comment, are now behind bars, awaiting trial on murder conspiracy charges.
Selina De La Rosa and her husband, Troy, still live in a tiny house near the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. The wood-paneled wall above their living-room sofa is covered with large, framed pictures, most of them of Stephanie. The photos depict a dark-haired infant with a smile that splits her face. Only on close inspection can a visitor spot the vacant look in Stephanie's eyes.
But unlike the photographs, in which Stephanie looks like most other children her age, there is no mistaking the devastation wrought by the injury when seeing Stephanie in person.
Stephanie lays in a child-sized recliner that her parents bought for her at a discount store. Doctors' fears that she was deaf have proven unfounded and, with a jerky motion, Stephanie turns her head in the direction of voices. She smiles when she hears her mother. She laughs when her father kisses her on the nose. But she is a three-year-old infant, a newborn in almost every sense of the word.
Stephanie's cognitive abilities are that of a two-month-old, her physical abilities that of a five- or six-month-old. She cannot sit up; she cannot crawl. She is legally blind, though she can now make out shapes and shadows thanks to the thick eyeglasses she got a few weeks back.
Stephanie cannot reach for and hold a bottle or a toy, so on this day her parents have fastened a terrycloth bracelet-toy to her wrist. A stuffed dinosaur sits to the right of her, another toy to her left. At her feet is a hollow plastic ball containing a myriad of small objects that would intrigue most children nearing the age of four.
Stephanie, however, pays no attention to any of it.
Troy and Selina say they are unable to understand how someone could be so cruel as to try to harm their baby. But Wanda Crawford and her husband allegedly planned the killings with a coldness that shocked even seasoned investigators.
At a bond hearing for James Darnell, El Paso County prosecutor Dave Gilbert says, the CBI agent who'd posed as a hired killer testified that Darnell told him Stephanie would prove easy to kill. "He said," Gilbert relates, "that the little girl wouldn't be much of a problem because she couldn't run."
Troy and Selina De La Rosa, both 27, met in 1989 and married three years later. They knew right away that they wanted kids, disagreeing only about the number. Selina wanted "a bunch," Troy says. He wanted two. When Selina became pregnant, the couple spent hours sprucing up the nursery with a Sesame Street decor.
Selina planned to take two months off from work after the baby was born, but after that, she knew, family finances would require her to return to her job as a word processor for Karman Sciences Corporation in Colorado Springs. Her obstetrician advised her to begin looking for a suitable daycare provider as soon as possible.
Selina began her search at the public library when she was six months pregnant, pulling up a computer database that included the names of licensed daycare providers in the Colorado Springs area. She found approximately twenty providers who lived near her home, then made up a list of pertinent questions to ask the sitters. If she liked a person's answers, Selina says, she would pay a visit to the person's home.
Selina made several such forays before landing at Crawford's door.
Wanda Crawford had taken up child care as a profession in 1975, about a year and a half after she settled into a two-level, five-bedroom house on Rushmore Drive in southeast Colorado Springs. She liked children, Crawford told the county caseworker who reviewed her application for a daycare license, and she didn't have any of her own. She was looking for something to do with her time, and she was tired of rattling around in that big old house all alone.
Besides, Crawford told the caseworker, it would be a good followup to her career as a nurse. (Crawford would later claim that the original caseworker and all those who reviewed her biennial license renewals had misunderstood her words--she'd simply been a nurse's aide for a now-defunct psychiatric hospital in Walnut Creek, California. But from 1975 until 1994, Crawford never bothered to clear up her records, in which caseworkers noted variously that Crawford had been a registered nurse, a psychiatric nurse and a hospital supervisor.)
Child care might seem an unlikely career path for a woman like Wanda Crawford, who has told law enforcement officials that she received little care or nurturing from her own family. Her mother worked in a nightclub in California, Crawford told a probation officer who conducted her pre-sentence interview in Stephanie's child-abuse case. Her father was an alcoholic. And when she was still small, Crawford told the probation officer, her parents placed her in a California orphanage. (Crawford's mother, Goldie Stone, who now lives in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, declined comment for this story.)
Though she told the probation officer that she had problems with men because she was "too outspoken," Crawford married early and often. In 1979, on her fifth try at wedded bliss, she said "I do" to James Darnell, a man five years her junior who held down a civilian electrician's job at Butts Airfield at Fort Carson. Darnell moved into Crawford's home on Rushmore Drive.
In hindsight, Selina says, Darnell appeared to be cowed by his wife. "He was very passive," she says. "Wanda runs the show in that family. He does whatever she says, when she says it and how she says it.
"Wanda," she continues, "made [Darnell] sound like a blankety-blank, always putting him down and saying how stupid he was and how she had never wanted to have kids with him because he was too dumb."
But in late 1992, when Selina first came to visit, Crawford was on her best behavior, and what Selina saw impressed her. Crawford's sprawling ranch home--just five minutes from the De La Rosas' house and Selina's office--was immaculate. There was plenty of room for the children to play, both inside and out, and Crawford's fees were just $65 per week.
Selina and Troy also liked the fact that Crawford was older than some of the other daycare providers they'd spoken to. Troy calls it "the Grandma effect."
One of Selina's few concerns was that Crawford smoked cigarettes; Selina didn't want to subject her baby to secondhand smoke. Crawford assured Selina, however, that she didn't smoke around the kids, that she had two air purifiers and that she was giving up the habit, anyway.
When Crawford's references gave her glowing reviews, the De La Rosas decided they'd found the perfect place for their baby.
Selina gave birth on Christmas night, 1992. "The doctor said she was one of the healthiest babies that he'd seen in a long time," Troy testified at Crawford's trial. The infant had dark hair and doe eyes. They named her Stephanie Marie for the sole reason that they liked the name. After the nurses whisked the baby away and cleaned her up, they placed a red stocking cap on her head in honor of the holiday.
Selina's two-month maternity leave ended March 1, 1993, forcing her back to the 8-to-5 world. Troy, however, was working evenings and weekends at a northside liquor store, which meant he and his wife could split child-care duties and that Stephanie required only a sitter on a part-time basis.
"In the beginning," Selina testified at Crawford's child-abuse trial, "I thought it was nice. Her house was very clean, and the children seemed happy. When I first started taking Stephanie, I never had any indications that [she] would cry. She was fine when I dropped her off."
But things changed in early July, when Troy accepted a job as an insurance agent. His hours would be much the same as his wife's. Stephanie would have to go to Crawford's house five days a week. It was after that, the couple says, that they began noticing problems with Crawford's care.
Selina began to worry that her daughter wasn't getting enough to eat while at Crawford's; the baby wasn't gaining weight and never had dirty bibs at the end of the day. Selina knew, too, that Crawford was still smoking, despite her claims to the contrary. In addition, Stephanie was getting diaper rashes during the week. The condition would clear up over the weekends, Selina says, only to reappear after Stephanie had spent a day or two back at Crawford's.
At Crawford's trial, a former friend with whom she'd had a falling out testified about what life was like at the house on Rushmore Drive once the parents left. Gladys Richards, who lived with Crawford for a few months and sometimes served as a substitute babysitter, told the jury that Crawford seemed to care more about keeping her house clean than she did about interacting with the children. "It irritated Wanda that I would lay on the floor and play with them," Richards told the court. "She said it spoiled them." Richards also testified that when Stephanie would cry, Wanda would take her and put her in a playpen in another room and close the door. Crawford held an equally disapproving view of Selina De La Rosa--annoyed, said Richards, by Selina's habit of talking "baby talk" to her child.
The little problems they'd noticed nagged at Troy and Selina until, in early September, they decided to find a new babysitter. They knew from experience that the process would take a while. They didn't want to make another mistake.
Their determination to replace Crawford was reinforced October 1, when Selina picked up Stephanie from daycare and discovered a red mark about the size of a nickel below Stephanie's left eye. Crawford told Selina that the baby had hit her face while crawling underneath an iron table. Stephanie, Crawford said, had cried for several hours afterward.
Unbeknownst to the De La Rosas, their complaints about Crawford at the time weren't the first. Neither were they the most serious. In fact, Crawford's daycare license had been suspended for six months in 1988 after a six-month-old boy she'd been babysitting was diagnosed as suffering from Shaken Baby Syndrome.
According to records on file with the Colorado Division of Child Care Services, at approximately 3:45 p.m. on November 13, 1987, Crawford made an emergency phone call to the infant's mother. The boy, she said, was lethargic--possibly comatose. His pupils were dilated, and he'd thrown up a large amount of white fluid.
When doctors at the Fort Carson hospital examined the baby, they found evidence of retinal hemorrhaging and subdural hematoma (bleeding between the brain and skull).
Infants' heads are large in relation to the size of their bodies, and their necks are weak. If a baby is shaken violently, its head will rock forward and back like a rag doll. When that happens, says Dr. Michael Thompson, an emergency specialist at Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs, the baby's brain "literally rattles inside the skull."
In some cases, doctors say, a baby who's been violently shaken will remain conscious but within hours may become lethargic and vomit repeatedly. Often there is no sign of external trauma to the child. But a medical exam will reveal hemorrhages in the retinal area of the eye, the result of pressure inside the skull.
If the shaking is severe enough, the blood vessels supplying the baby's brain will rip and tear, and their contents will spill into the space between the skull and the gray matter of the brain. Nerve cells may be broken off or sheared.
With such injuries, a child will lose consciousness. A coma or death may result. If the child lives, permanent brain damage is likely.
Within days after the boy was rushed to the hospital from Crawford's home, the El Paso County Department of Social Services ordered Crawford's daycare license suspended while the case was investigated. Medical records and other information were forwarded to the Kempe Center, a Denver-based facility specializing in the prevention and treatment of child abuse.
Suspicion was cast on Crawford and on the child's mother because of their differing stories. A report in Crawford's Child Care Services file says she claimed that the little boy had been ill when he arrived at her home that morning. His mother denied that account, claiming that the child was fine earlier but was critically ill when she came to pick him up.
The results of the investigation were inconclusive--doctors were unable to determine when the boy was hurt and by whom. In a letter to the county social services department, the director of the Kempe Center advised that the department keep an eye on the boy's family and on Crawford's daycare business. Selina De La Rosa says she has since talked to the mother of the injured boy, who told her he has developed normally.
Because authorities couldn't prove what happened, Crawford's daycare license was reinstated in June 1988.
The complaints against Crawford didn't stop, however. El Paso County Social Services investigated Crawford's business again in 1990 after a woman complained that her three-year-old son returned home from a day at Crawford's with bite marks and bruises on his body. In addition, the mother charged, Crawford was caring for eight children under age four (Crawford's license allowed her to care for no more than six children.) Social Services declared the charges unfounded.
At 4 a.m. on October 8, 1993, Troy De La Rosa awoke to the sound of whimpers coming from the next room. Nine-month-old Stephanie was teething, and it was Troy's turn to see to her. Selina rolled over to catch a little more sleep as her husband padded into the baby's room. From their bed, Selina could hear Troy talking to Stephanie.
Stephanie calmed and quieted after her father gave her a little milk, allowing the grateful Troy to go back to bed.
At 5:45 Stephanie began to fuss a second time. "It was her 'Come get me out of bed cry,'" Selina later testified, and it was a call to which her parents were pleased to respond. "She's very happy in the morning," Selina explained. "She kicks and smiles."
Like most young couples with a new baby, the De La Rosas had worked out a closely choreographed schedule to get them--and Stephanie--out the door in time each workday. One of them would watch the baby while the other went about getting ready for work.
Sometimes, after the baby ate her breakfast and while Selina was still in the shower, Troy would read to Stephanie from a Dr. Seuss book or show her flash cards. Troy would hold up a card and say "giraffe," or "nose" or "knee." He'd read somewhere that if parents read to their children at a young age, they grow up smarter.
That morning, however, Troy sat Stephanie down on a blanket in the living room--she'd only recently begun sitting up by herself--and gave her some toys before turning on the television, dialing in a children's cartoon show.
When Selina finished with her shower and entered the living room, Stephanie was busily chewing on a toy. But when she spotted her mother, Selina testified at Crawford's trial, Stephanie "waved her arms and smiled and giggled and babbled and spit."
Troy was the first to leave the house that morning. When he turned to go, Selina was holding the baby. At her mother's urging, Stephanie said "dada" and waved "bye-bye."
It was the last time Stephanie would be able to do either.
When Selina was ready to go, she strapped Stephanie into a car seat in the passenger side of her Honda and headed south for the five-minute drive to the sitter's home. Selina arrived at Crawford's house at approximately 7:45 a.m. and took Stephanie to the family room, where Crawford was seated on the sofa. Selina removed Stephanie's jacket, gave her daughter a toy and lingered for ten minutes or so before leaving, just like always. The only difference between that day and any other was that Marshall Hughes arrived at the house while Selina was still there.
Hughes, a serviceman, usually dropped off his two children, aged six months and two years, at 5:30 a.m. on his way to work. But he had taken some time off from work that week to remodel his house, so he brought the children in later than usual. "I remember [Stephanie] smiling," Hughes testified at Crawford's trial, "and I may have patted her on the head as I left." The baby, he said, seemed alert, happy and well.
Two hours after leaving Stephanie, Selina was working at a colleague's desk when another co-worker rushed to her side. Crawford had called, the woman told Selina. Something was wrong with Stephanie.
Selina ran to the phone and called the sitter. "Wanda said that Stephanie fell and hit her head and that she was not breathing," Selina testified at Crawford's trial. "Then she handed the phone to a paramedic who said [Stephanie] might have aspirated. He told me to meet them at Memorial Hospital."
"She was in a bed with just a diaper on," Selina told the jury. "A doctor was squeezing a thing into her mouth for her to breathe, and she was laying there not moving. She was really, really cold.
"I touched her hands and I touched her feet," Selina continued. "I was always making sure that she had socks on because her feet would get cold. And she was just like a block of ice. Motionless. Her eyes were closed and she just laid there."
It seemed to Selina that there were a dozen people in the room with her and her daughter. Wires and tubes snaked in and around the tiny body--an IV, a heart monitor. When a priest entered and began to pray over Stephanie, Selina testified, the doctors told her she should leave the room. "I went," Selina said. "Actually, they had to escort me out."
When Troy arrived at Memorial a short time later, having been summoned by one of Selina's co-workers, a hospital aide grabbed him by the shoulder. "She said Stephanie was in the emergency room," Troy testified, "and that 'your wife needs you more than your daughter needs you right now.' I believe her words were, 'Help your wife.'"
Troy then rounded a corner and saw his wife slumped on the floor, crying. When he looked up at the emergency-room table, he saw a priest standing over Stephanie, giving her the last rites.
The doctors who treated Stephanie that day suspected almost immediately that the baby had been shaken. Emergency-room physician Michael Thompson testified at Crawford's trial that he was skeptical of the babysitter's explanation of how Stephanie was injured. Crawford had told paramedics that Stephanie was walking around with a baby bottle in her hands and had fallen backward onto the carpeted floor when she tipped her head back to drink. After that, Crawford told the paramedics, Stephanie had lost consciousness and suffered a seizure.
But Stephanie wasn't walking at the time; she couldn't even stand without help. And from their experience, doctor after doctor testified, babies who fall over onto a carpeted floor do not suffer cardio-respiratory arrest. "You've got to understand that in Shaken Baby Syndrome, this isn't [the result of] just playing a little rougher than usual," said Dr. Susan Reichert, director of the Child Protection Center at the Children's Hospital in Oakland, California. "It isn't throwing the baby up in the air; that's not the kind of shaking we are talking about. This is shaking using a much larger degree of force than is seen in the ordinary care of children. It's excessive. It is violent."
And it had to have been committed by an adult, Reichert said. The only way another child could create enough force to cause such injuries would be by throwing the baby out of a second- or third-story window.
Stephanie had other earmarks of the syndrome as well, including subdural hematoma and retinal hemorrhaging. She was comatose when the paramedics wheeled her into the emergency room, and she was experiencing intermittent seizures.
The severity of Stephanie's condition led doctors to believe that her injuries had occurred mere moments before she lost consciousness. "If a baby is going to arrest," Thompson testified, "it will happen right after the brain injury." Stephanie's decline would have been dramatic and fast.
If she'd been hurt before 8 a.m. and someone waited until 9:45 to phone the paramedics, Thompson testified, the ambulance crew would have found a dead baby on their arrival.
The doctors carefully checked Stephanie for signs of external trauma, particularly because of their suspicions. In child-abuse cases, Thompson testified, "we frequently will find bruising or scarring, sometimes cigarette burns, sometimes deformity of the extremities where fractures have healed or where a fracture has occurred." Stephanie had no sign of injuries, either new or old.
By 2 p.m. on the day Stephanie was hurt, police investigators were already focusing on Crawford as a suspect, and they told the De La Rosas so. The words had barely left a detective's mouth when Crawford walked into the pediatric intensive-care unit and sat down next to Troy. Troy says he walked out of the room. "I didn't want to have anything to do with her," he notes.
Selina, however, tried to question Crawford about the incident. "[Crawford] said that Stephanie had fallen and hit her head and that she didn't know what happened," Selina testified. "She seemed to be kind of matter-of-fact. She wasn't upset or anything. I asked her if she did CPR on Stephanie, and Wanda said no, that she had been too scared."
Crawford stayed only a few minutes before abruptly departing--she said she had an appointment. It seemed to Selina that she'd stopped by only to drop off Stephanie's diaper bag. Crawford didn't even ask how Stephanie was faring, Selina says. And at that point, the prognosis was pitiful.
The doctors thought at first that Stephanie wouldn't make it through the night. Days later, when her condition improved a little, the experts told Troy and Selina that they could expect their daughter to remain in the hospital for two months. And they cautioned that she would probably never regain the mental and physical abilities she'd had before the injury. She was legally blind, they said, as well as deaf. They referred to her physical condition as "spastic paraplegia," which means she had little control over her movements.
The De La Rosas and their families refused to give up hope. "My father brought in an intercessor. That's a go-between to the Lord," Selina explains as she sits in her living room at home. "And she prayed over Stephanie, and it was amazing. In a week, she opened her eyes. And then she got off the ventilator. We were so excited!
"The doctors said she was not going to live. They said she was going to be a vegetable. And look at her." Selina, her voice tinged with pride, gestures toward the child-sized recliner where her daughter lays. "She has some disabilities, but she certainly isn't a vegetable."
Stephanie was able to go home nineteen days after she was injured. But when the De La Rosas brought her home, Troy says, she was a "totally different baby" from the one who'd waved goodbye to him less than three weeks earlier. "We'd put her in the crib and she wouldn't move," he testified in court. "She'd just lie there."
Although the De La Rosas were ruled out as suspects soon after Stephanie was hurt, the investigation of Wanda Crawford went slowly. Her daycare license was summarily suspended while Colorado Springs police detectives collected medical data and looked closely at the previous complaints Crawford had accumulated during her eighteen years as a daycare provider.
Some of the most incriminating evidence against Crawford, however, came from Crawford herself--her story about the events leading up to Stephanie's injuries changed numerous times.
When paramedics first responded to Crawford's 911 call, Crawford told them Stephanie had been walking around the room before she fell. Later, Crawford allegedly changed her story to include the claim that Stephanie had hit her head on a refrigerator as she was falling.
In yet another version of the incident, police and paramedics testified at trial, Crawford told them she had been in another room changing a baby's diaper when the "accident" happened. She said she learned Stephanie had fallen when a two-year-old girl came to her and reported that Stephanie was "kicking." When she went to check on Stephanie, Crawford told them, the baby appeared to be choking or having a seizure.
Crawford was arrested January 8, 1994, and was quickly released on a $2,000 cash bond to await trial on charges of child abuse. She relinquished her daycare license soon afterward.
Crawford's trial, which began in late September 1994, was packed with emotion. Prosecutor Lisa Kirkman Werner was then three months pregnant and wearing maternity clothes, a fact that the jury couldn't help but notice.
"Stephanie can't see," Kirkman Werner said in opening arguments. "There is a question about whether or not she can hear. She will never walk. She will never talk. The prognosis for Stephanie's future is extremely bleak. What this case is about is what happened to Stephanie."
It was clear from the beginning that Crawford's attorney, Scott Sells, was fighting an uphill battle. The weaknesses in his case were evident even in his opening argument.
The comment Crawford made about Stephanie walking around before she fell, Sells told the jury, "is going to be one of the real unanswerable questions about this case, because everybody knows that Stephanie couldn't walk. Stephanie could barely sit up."
The doctors who testified for the prosecution were firm in their diagnoses and just as certain that, given the time parameters involved, neither Troy nor Selina could have shaken the baby. And much of the doctors' testimony was excruciatingly painful to hear.
Colorado Springs neurosurgeon Michael Brown, who'd analyzed a January 1994 CAT scan performed on Stephanie, told the jury that her brain was "basically shrunken and dying." The amount of shrinkage and atrophy, he noted, indicated an extensive amount of injury, leading him to believe that any gains Stephanie might make "would be minimal at best."
California's Susan Reichert, who examined Stephanie's records and watched videotapes of the baby's development, told the court she had been struck by the differences between Stephanie at nine months and Stephanie at twelve months.
At nine months, Reichert said, Stephanie was crawling and sitting up by herself, "very much on target." At twelve months, however, Stephanie could no longer hold up her head, let alone sit up. "She is not utilizing her face muscles in the same way," Reichert testified. "She has a vacant stare in her eyes. She does make noises, but they're more like moans.
"She is a devastated baby."
None of the doctors seemed to think it likely that Stephanie would ever walk or talk. And though her pediatrician, David Baswell, testified that Stephanie's condition had improved somewhat since her injury, he said he sometimes found Selina's expectations of more significant strides to be unrealistic.
"When I meet with [Selina]," Baswell said, "she points out things to me that she places a great deal of weight on as very favorable things. I look at them as very minimal changes in the child's status.
"I think [Selina] reads into things excessively," he continued. "I think she hopes, prays and wishes her child will return to some degree of normalcy. We all hope that, but I think, realistically, that will not happen."
When the doctors were done, the prosecution played for the jury an edited video of Stephanie's life that had been culled from the many hours of tapes her parents had shot of her. There was Stephanie on her six-month birthday, her baptism, her christening. She was a smiling, happy baby.
Wanda Crawford never took the stand. On October 12, 1994, the jury found her guilty of child abuse resulting in serious bodily injury.
At her sentencing hearing the following month, Crawford did speak, pleading with the court for leniency. "I pray to God every day and every night that he will lay his hands on [Stephanie]," Crawford said. "If I could make that child well by taking my own life, I would."
Judge Franklin was unimpressed by Crawford's claims, or by the letters he'd received from her friends attesting to her good character. The sentencing guidelines called for a minimum prison term of ten years. The judge ordered that Crawford serve eighteen, a virtual life sentence for a woman her age.
With Crawford behind bars, the De La Rosas tried to pick up the pieces of their life. They shuttled their daughter to speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy and to appointments with neurosurgeons and pediatricians. Selina quit her full-time job in order to spend more time with Stephanie, though she continued to sell Mary Kay cosmetics.
But there were still legal matters to take care of. The De La Rosas planned to sue Crawford to help defray the costs of Stephanie's medical care. If they died before Stephanie, they worried, who would care for her and how?
A trial date was set for February 1996. But Crawford would be back in court before then.
In a pre-sentence investigation of Crawford completed before Judge Franklin slapped her with eighteen years, Crawford told a probation officer that her health was generally good and described her mental health as "excellent." The only thing that bothered her, Crawford said, was her arthritis and occasional shooting pains in her head.
Somehow, though, by late 1995, Crawford was serving her time in the San Carlos Correctional Facility in Pueblo, a new prison specifically designed for the incarceration and treatment of chronically mentally ill inmates. Crawford's attorney, Dick Tegtmeier, didn't return calls seeking comment. But earlier this month, according to the El Paso County District Attorney's office, Tegtmeier entered dual pleas for Crawford in the murder conspiracy case: not guilty by reason of impaired mental ability and not guilty by reason of insanity (Darnell's attorney has entered a standard not-guilty plea for his client.) According to court records, Tegtmeier also has asked the court to allow Crawford to undergo a daylong "confidential neuropsychological evaluation" at the University of Colorado's Health Sciences Center.
"I don't know what they have up their sleeve," says Selina De La Rosa. "I think her attorney is trying to say she has Alzheimer's, which is why she did what she did."
However she had wound up there, Crawford didn't much like San Carlos. And though her marriage to Darnell might not have been idyllic, she apparently discovered that she preferred life with him to life inside prison. On December 6 of last year, CBI agents allege, Crawford approached fellow inmate Desiree Archuleta with an idea that she hoped would set her free: She offered Archuleta $10,000 to kill Selina De La Rosa. Before shooting her, Crawford wanted the killer to force Selina to write a suicide note implicating herself in Stephanie's abuse.
Archuleta, 21, is no murderer. She's serving three years on a burglary rap. But CBI agents say she thought over the offer for a while, anyway. Three days later, however, Crawford reduced the offer to $5,000. By then, Crawford had decided, Stephanie would have to die, too.
On December 10, whether inspired by Crawford's penny-pinching or her own conscience, Archuleta told prison-based CBI agent Ron Jones all about Crawford's scheme. And when Archuleta next spoke with Crawford, she was wired for sound.
In a probable-cause affidavit, Jones wrote that he listened in as Crawford offered Archuleta $5,000 for the murder-for-hire. Archuleta accepted, per the CBI's instructions, telling the older inmate that her cousin, "Mario Lara," would do the deed. (The part of Lara would be played by CBI agent Luis Torres.) Crawford told Archuleta that her husband would meet with Lara and give him $200 to buy a "clean" gun.
Crawford phoned her husband the following day to make the arrangements, the affidavit says, and James Darnell agreed to meet Lara on December 14 at the Country Kitchen restaurant in the town of Security.
On the specified date, the affidavit says, Darnell handed Torres an envelope containing $210 and then drove him to a bank, where Darnell withdrew a $1,000 "down payment" for the crime. After that, Darnell drove his white Thunderbird past the De La Rosa home to show Torres where the family lived and to point out what kind of cars they drove. Torres said that Darnell was surprised to see Troy's car in the driveway as well as Selina's.
Ordinarily, Darnell told Torres, Troy wasn't home at that time of day. But if Troy happened to be home when Torres arrived to kill Selina and Stephanie, Darnell said, Torres was to murder him, too.
Darnell was arrested a short time later when he drove the agent back to the Country Kitchen. Crawford was quickly moved out of San Carlos to the maximum-security penitentiary in Canon City, where she was locked down in her cell 23 hours a day.
After the arrest, Jones wrote in an affidavit, he questioned Darnell about the murder plot. "James Darnell told me," Jones wrote, "that he and his wife, Wanda Crawford, had been planning the murders of Selina and Stephanie De La Rosa for about two weeks.
"Darnell told me," Jones's affidavit continued, "that he was tired of living alone and that Wanda Crawford was tired of living in prison."
Selina had noticed the white Thunderbird slowly cruising by her house about 1:45 that afternoon. "This is a little neighborhood," she says, "and I knew it didn't belong." But she was getting ready to take Stephanie to a play group at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind, and she didn't give it much more thought.
An hour or so later, while Selina and Stephanie were still at the school, Troy arrived at the classroom accompanied by a pair of investigators from the state Department of Corrections. They took Selina aside and told the De La Rosas the story of Crawford's plot.
"At first," Selina says, "I started laughing. I thought there was a hidden camera or something. I didn't understand. It took about a half-hour for it to sink in." But when she finally realized the seriousness of the situation, fear set in. "I didn't know if [Darnell] would make bail and then come out and get us," she says. Selina took Stephanie and left town that same day, missing a candlelight vigil outside Memorial Hospital that was designed to call attention to the plight of abused children.
The De La Rosas had planned to attend the vigil as a family. Troy went alone.
El Paso County authorities charged Darnell and Crawford with two counts of attempted murder, two counts of solicitation to commit first-degree murder, two counts of conspiracy and one count of retaliation against a witness. Two months later the De La Rosas went to court on the civil suit.
Crawford was brought in from prison for the civil trial, but as in the criminal proceedings, she chose not to testify.
Although state law forbids plaintiffs in a civil suit from asking for a specific dollar amount, attorneys can guide the jury by presenting evidence about a person's medical bills and wage-earning potential. The De La Rosas' attorney, Steve Ezell, figured that sum to be in the range of several million dollars.
"That was based on a range that depended on life expectancy," Ezell says, "and how long a child in [Stephanie's] condition could live was disputed. The other side argued that she would not live long--less than twenty years."
The jury awarded Stephanie damages of $1.8 million.
Crawford's daycare business had been insured for $500,000. The rest of the money, Ezell hoped, would come from Crawford herself, in the form of assets--her $100,000 house on Rushmore, for example.
But Ezell and the De La Rosas were mistaken if they thought they'd have an easy time collecting. Crawford, Ezell discovered, had placed the title to her home in a trust after she'd been arrested. She named a Colorado Springs attorney as trustee and designated that he hold the title for five years, at which time it would be released to her. "We think we can show that it was a fraudulent transfer intended to defeat her creditors," Ezell says. But that will take time.
The matter of Crawford's insurance policy is just as muddy. "The insurance company is trying to say that they don't owe us the money because [the abuse of Stephanie] was an intentional act, and they do not cover intentional acts," Ezell says. "It's our position that the criminal jury found Crawford to be reckless and the civil jury found her to be negligent."
It could be years before Ezell is able to recover any of the money due Stephanie.
After learning of Darnell and Crawford's arrest on murder conspiracy charges, Lisa Kirkman Werner asked her boss, El Paso County District Attorney John Suthers, for a favor. She wanted to prosecute the case. Kirkman Werner had won a conviction against Crawford once, and she wanted a second shot at her--even though she'd since lost a taste for handling such cases. As the former head of the DA's child-abuse unit, Kirkman Werner had burned out on the depressing business of dealing with battered babies. And after giving birth to a son three years ago, she found the duties even more stressful.
But she felt compelled to take the De La Rosas' case, says Kirkman Werner. She couldn't turn her back on the family after she'd seen what Crawford did to Stephanie. "When you look at her," the prosecutor says of the little girl, "it just breaks your heart."
A January 14 trial date has been set for Crawford and Darnell on the murder conspiracy charges. And the two have gotten their wish to be reunited. Today husband and wife both reside in the El Paso County Jail.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.
- Dear Mexican: Was Jimi Hendrix Part Mexican?
Mon., Aug. 31, 7:00pm
Thu., Sep. 3, 6:40pm
Thu., Sep. 3, 7:00pm
Thu., Sep. 3, 7:00pm
- History Colorado Announces Interim Leaders While Board Looks for New CEO
- Red Stop Sign Stamp for Pot Edibles Out, Red Diamond In — But Is It Better?