Blaming The Babysitter

Toddler Dead, Teen Charged After Weekend Of Babysitting

This story originally aired on Feb. 4, 2006.

On a long holiday weekend in January 2005, 13-year-old Ashley Howes was asked to babysit the daughters of a family acquaintance. A rite of passage for many teenaged girls, the assignment would be "fun," Ashley thought.

But on that Sunday night, the fun ended when Ashley frantically called 911 to report that 19-month-old Freya Garden, a toddler in her care, lost consciousness.

Within hours, the toddler was dead and Ashley would find herself accused of second-degree murder.

Correspondent Harold Dow reports on this shocking case, and the stunning courtroom development that would change everything.

At age 13, Ashley Howes may officially be a teenager but she is truly a kid at heart.

"She just displays more of a younger character," says her father, John Howes.

Ashley is the youngest of John Howes' and Mary Rowe's three daughters. They live in a small town near Seattle and, if it were up to her dad, Ashley would stay young and innocent forever.

"I'm very protective of my girls. I have a 'no spend the night' policy. They only spend the night with family," says Howes.

So it was very unusual when Howes agreed to let Ashley spend a weekend in Seattle acting as a mother's helper for family acquaintance, Morningstar Garden.

Howes says he never wanted Ashley to go in the first place. Why did he change his mind?

"Because my wife thought that it would be good for her to get out of the house," he says.

Ashley would be babysitting for Morningstar's two daughters, Madeline, age 5, and Freya, 19 months old.

Morningstar Garden says she thought Ashley was a nice girl. "I knew that she did well in school. She's smart. She was funny. She was friendly," she says.

So on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend in January 2005, Ashley came to Seattle to babysit while her father and stepmother attended a party with Morningstar and her boyfriend, Gracian Cline. The plan was for the kids to stay at a nearby motel while the adults were at the party. Ashley's 16-year-old stepsister, Shauna, would be in charge.

"I was gonna be watching them but not in charge," says Ashley. "That way, I wouldn't have to make decisions. I just play with all the kids. Because that's what I do."

But plans changed. Instead of checking into the motel that Friday night, they all ended up at a house that Cline owned, but no longer lived in.

Ashley remembers the house being sparse. "It was kind of small. It didn't have much food in it. There was no bed in the room that we had. There was just like a couple of blankets down and my sleeping bag and a little baby's sleeping bag."

Except for a television and a DVD player, there was very little for Ashley and the girls to do, which left Ashley in a bind, she says, since Morningstar and Cline spent most of the day, Saturday, behind a closed bedroom door.

"They would stay in that room all day," Ashley says. "They never, ever came out. It's like they didn't have to go to the bathroom and they didn't eat anything. They just sit in there and when they went out, they just walked out."

Come Saturday night, the night of the party, Ashley's parents were shocked to learn that their daughter was on her own, across town, with the two small children.

Asked if he would have allowed Ashley to babysit, knowing that she was the primary sitter for Freya and Madeline, Howes says he would not have given permission.

But when Morningstar assured Ashley's parents that she had everything under control, they felt slightly better.

"She (Morningstar) came up to me and told me, 'Wow, you have such a beautiful daughter. And she is so good with kids,' " says Howes.