In a tear-filled courtroom Tuesday, a man and woman admitted their roles in the death of an eighth-grade girl who died after inhaling helium at a 2012 party.
Katherine McAloon, 28, and Richard Mowery, 32, faced multiple charges in the February 2012 death of 14-year-old Ashley Long. Prosecutors said they provided helium at a party for teens and delayed medical care when Ashley collapsed from an embolism that ultimately killed her.
McAloon was convicted of criminal mistreatment charges after she agreed — in what is called an Alford plea — that the facts of the case would likely lead to a guilty ruling if it went to trial. She also pleaded guilty to a charge of delivering marijuana to a minor and three counts of furnishing alcohol to minors.
Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Mejia sentenced her to 28 months in prison, along with three years of post-prison supervision and about $300 in restitution. (Correction: see below)
She will be eligible for early release.
Mowery pleaded no contest to criminally negligent homicide, for which he will serve 90 days in the Jackson County Jail and three years post-prison supervision. He must pay more than $10,000 in restitution. Both were taken into custody immediately after their sentencing.
In a courtroom filled with Ashley's friends and family, her stepfather, Justin Earp, described her as a bright, compassionate girl who had a 3.5 grade-point average, aspired to be a marine biologist, and was loyal to her friends. "She was the type of girl that would befriend the kid in school that no one else would," Earp said.
Mother Lori Earp read a written statement to the court, saying the incident has altered her life forever. "This is all I have left," she said, holding up a lock of Ashley's hair in a small plastic bag.
Prosecutors and the defense said the sentence lengths are tied to the evidence, which showed the incident wasn't malicious, but a result of poor decisions.
"It's really the facts of the case," said Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert.
Police and prosecutors said Ashley was at McAloon's Alameda Street apartment, attending a party McAloon was throwing for a 13-year-old relative and that teen's friends. Ashley inhaled helium from a tank with the intent to make her voice higher-pitched, and collapsed after an air bubble entered her blood stream and blocked blood flow.
"Within just seconds, she collapsed," Heckert said.
An autopsy ruled the death accidental.
The tank was part of a floating toy at the home that had warning labels on it, pointing to the potential harm it can render to those who inhale it.
"Do not place nozzle in mouth or nose for any reason," a warning states. "Doing so can damage lungs and other bodily parts, which can result in serious personal injury or death."
Party attendees initially thought Ashley had passed out because of intoxication. A caller contacted poison control to see if someone could have an allergic reaction to helium, and later said — falsely — that Ashley was waking up. A 911 call was placed about eight minutes later. While they waited, McAloon administered CPR.
Evidence, including surveillance video from two stores, also indicated McAloon purchased and served alcohol at the party, along with distributing marijuana.
McAloon apologized to the family in a letter, which her defense attorney read.
"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about and pray for the Long family," the statement reads. "I hope other adults can learn from my mistake."
Mowery also apologized.
Justin Earp said one of the hardest parts of the incident was not being able to say goodbye. He read a letter to Ashley, written by her younger sister, that seemed to echo the sentiment.
"We all miss you forever, Ashley," the letter reads. "I wish I could give you a hug."
Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: The length of post-prison supervision has been corrected in this version.