Vanessa Jenkins secures Alford plea deal, capping sentence at three years
A Craig mother whose 3-year-old son died in a 2018 Christmas Eve house fire took a plea bargain that will cap her sentence at three years, according to transcripts obtained by the Craig Press Wednesday.
According to arrest records, 26-year-old Vanessa Allison Jenkins was arrested Wednesday, April 3, on a charge of child abuse negligently causing death.
A 13-page redacted arrest warrant affidavit obtained by the Craig Press in April details the circumstances surrounding the fire, in which Jenkins found herself waking up on the couch to her home ablaze and her child, 3-year-old Lane E. Cullen, screaming as the room he was in was engulfed in flames.
Jenkins told police she began crawling on her hands and chest in an attempt to get underneath the smoke and flames and reach her son. She offered proof of her injuries to police, though she refused transportation to the hospital.
“I saw no visible injuries or signs of any burns on her chest,” an investigator said in the affidavit. Friends and family interviewed also said they didn’t notice any visible burns on Jenkins in the moments and days following the fire.
At least three Craig officers were first on the scene and tried to enter the home, without success.
Once search crews sifted through the burned bedroom where the boy was last seen, police said they noticed no signs of an electrical fire, but found “a melted, but intact, BIC style lighter,” which the affidavit said was found near the child’s body.
“This location would have been directly below where (redacted) was found by the rescue team,” the affidavit said.
Police said an autopsy later showed high concentrations of carbon monoxide in the boy’s blood, suggesting he was alive when the fire started. His death was originally ruled as accidental.
Several of Jenkins’ family members, as well as witnesses interviewed by police, said they were aware Jenkins’ boy had learned how to play with lighters whose safety devices had been removed.
A Moffat County judge set Jenkins’ bond at $10,000, which she posted about eight hours after her bond hearing Thursday, April 4. County court clerk staff said Jenkins forfeited $1,500 in assets to a local bonding agent to secure her release.
Jenkins’ Alford plea
According to court transcripts, Jenkins was able to secure an Alford plea on a charge of criminally negligent homicide on Tuesday, Nov. 26. An Alford plea is essentially a plea of guilty by a defendant who proclaims their innocence, but admits the prosecution has enough evidence to prove they are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
“There’s no agreement about the sentence that will be imposed, except there’s an agreement that you won’t be sentenced in the aggravated range, meaning that the maximum sentence that could be imposed would be three years,” Judge Michael O’Hara told Jenkins Nov. 26.
At least one of Jenkins’ other charges would also be dismissed under the plea deal, O’Hara said.
“On the offense of criminally negligent homicide, the District Attorney’s Office would have to prove certain things beyond a reasonable doubt before you could be convicted of that crime at trial,” O’Hara explained to Jenkins. “These are the things that you’re admitting to today by pleading guilty — that on or about the date charged in Moffat County, Colorado, you caused the death of another person by conduct amounting to criminal negligence. Do you understand all of that?”
“Yes, your honor,” Jenkins replied.
O’Hara said any prison term served under the agreement would be between one and three years followed by two years of mandatory parole, “which could result in additional time in prison and you could be fined up to $100,000.”
Having previously explained all the rights Jenkins was giving up by pleading guilty, O’Hara asked Jenkins for her plea.
“Guilty or not guilty?” O’Hara asked.
“Guilty,” Jenkins replied.
Then came time to schedule a sentencing date. Jenkins defense attorney said a full pre-sentence investigation into Jenkins criminal history would need to be conducted as part of the plea agreement, which would only be conducted within the 14th Judicial District.
The 14th Judicial District prosecutor reminded the court they wished to comply with the Victims Rights Act and requested the biological father of the victim be present and speak at Jenkins’ sentencing.
Jenkins was also advised she must secure permission from a bonding agent before leaving the state to visit family in Wyoming.
The court scheduled Jenkins’ sentencing for February 10, 2020 at 1 p.m.
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