DENVER - A Colorado mother who fatally abused her 7-year-old daughter and lied about her health to get handouts from charities worth at least $100,000 was sentenced to 16 years in prison as part of a plea deal that threw out murder charges.
Judge Patricia Herron issued the sentence Wednesday after Kelly Turner pled guilty last month to child abuse resulting in the 2017 death of the girl, Olivia Gant, and to charitable fraud and theft.
Previous charges of first-degree murder, attempt to influence a public servant and forgery were dropped as part of an agreement with prosecutors.
Turner said nothing during her virtual sentencing hearing but wiped away tears as prosecutors played a video made by Olivia’s grandfather Lonnie Gautreau of Olivia laughing and smiling, baking a cake, dancing in a princess costume, playing doctor with her dolls and singing songs.
"This truth about Olivia has caused such a deep pain that it continues to ravage me every day," said a statement from Gautreau that was read at the hearing by a prosecutor. Gautreau attended the hearing by video with a picture of his granddaughter at his side, his eyes tearing up during the proceedings.
Authorities have said Turner lied to doctors about Olivia’s medical history while broadcasting her struggles to receive money and other favors from organizations like the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
The girl had received unnecessary surgeries and medications up until her death in Denver hospice care in 2017.
That summer, Olivia cheerfully sang Hakuna Matata from "The Lion King" as she was wheeled into hospice care in Denver wearing purple pajamas. "It means no worries for the rest of your days," she sang while her mother filmed. The girl died less than a month later.
The video put out by Turner was one of many clips highlighting the little girl's battle with disease and death, which authorities said was used by her mother to dupe doctors and call for favors and donations to help ease her daughter's pain.
Authorities have said Turner spent years fabricating her daughter’s illness, gaining sympathy from television news stories and charitable foundations. Make-A-Wish threw a "bat princess" costume party for Olivia at a hotel that cost $11,000.
The girl's cause of death was first listed as intestinal failure, but an autopsy later found no evidence of that condition. Authorities have not said what killed her but, according to the indictment, doctors went along with Turner’s push to stop feeding her daughter.
The amount of the theft from charity was between $100,000 and $1 million, according to prosecutors.
Psychiatrists have said that Turner's behavior seems consistent with Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a psychological disorder increasingly featured in movies and television in which parents or caregivers seek attention from the illness of their children or dependents and sometimes cause them injuries.
But experts said these types of cases are not easy to detect. She brought up the syndrome on her own during an interview with investigators and denied she had it.
Turner moved to Colorado from Texas with her three daughters and told doctors over the years, beginning in 2012, that Olivia was sick with numerous ailments and diseases, convincing medical professionals to perform surgeries and fill prescriptions for illnesses that she didn't have.
Several doctors said that Turner was the primary source of information for Olivia’s medical history, according to the indictment. Investigators discovered blogs, a GoFundMe site and news stories in which Turner described Olivia's various health conditions without medical proof — including claims that she suffered from a seizure disorder, a tumor and a buildup of fluid in cavities deep within her brain.
At Olivia’s first emergency room visit, a doctor thought she appeared to be growing normally. But the next year, a surgeon at the same hospital removed part of her small intestine and inserted a feeding tube.
The actions prompted a $25 million claim by Olivia’s grandparents and father against a hospital system that includes Children’s Hospital of Colorado, where the girl received years of treatments. They argued that the hospital failed in its duty as a mandatory reporter of child abuse. The case was resolved in August. A lawyer representing the grandparents said she could not comment further.
Before Olivia was admitted to hospice care where she died, doctors said she had only been receiving 30% of the required nutrition, according to the indictment.
Throughout Turner's campaign to bring attention to her dying daughter, she sought donations to help fulfill Olivia's dreams of catching a bad guy with police and being a firefighter.
A video put out by a suburban Denver municipal government shows Olivia riding on a truck, putting out a dumpster fire and telling firefighters to stand at attention — all of which are met with the little girl's smiles and laughter despite several medical tubes poking out of her backpack.
While Turner’s behavior raised suspicions along the way, it was only after Olivia died in hospice care in 2017 and Turner brought one of her other two daughters to the same hospital with bone pain that doctors decided to take a closer look.
The girl, 13, has not reported any additional medical problems or complaints of pain since October 2018 and is in her grandparents' custody. Turner's eldest child is an adult.
Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.