Iowa day care provider avoids life sentence under plea deal in 3-year-old girl's death

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File - In this Oct. 31, 2013 file photo provided by the Sioux County, Iowa, Sheriff’s Office is day care provider Rochelle Sapp of Orange City, Iowa. Sapp is charged with first-degree murder and child endangerment causing death in the October 2013 death of Autumn Elgersma. (AP Photo/Sioux County Sheriff’s Office, File)


ORANGE CITY, Iowa — An Iowa woman admitted Thursday to causing the head injuries that killed a 3-year-old girl at her in-home day care, but avoided a life sentence under a plea agreement with prosecutors.

Rochelle Sapp of Orange City pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment resulting in the death of Autumn Elgersma. Sapp told the court that she dropped the toddler to the ground. She also entered an Alford plea to child endangerment with multiple acts, meaning she did not admit guilt to that charge but conceded there was enough evidence to convict her of injuring the girl three other times over the prior eight months.

Prosecutors dropped a first-degree murder charge, which would've been an automatic life sentence for Sapp. Second-degree murder would've required a minimum of 35 years behind bars.

Instead, Judge Edward Jacobson sentenced Sapp to an indeterminate sentence of up to 100 years as called for in the plea agreement. That means there is no mandatory minimum, and it will be up to the Iowa Board of Parole to decide when to release Sapp.

Drake University law professor Bob Rigg said Sapp, 34, will serve "significant time" but her actual sentence might be around 15 to 20 years based on the board's prior practice.

Rigg said Sapp received a "significant concession" when prosecutors didn't pursue a murder charge, while giving them a concession by pleading guilty.

Rachel Lamfers, Autumn's aunt, told the Sioux City Journal that family members supported the deal to avoid a difficult trial but were disappointed Sapp didn't apologize.

Autumn's mother, Jennifer Elgersma, read a statement in court saying she had always believed Sapp's explanations for the bloody lips, the split chin and the black eye that Autumn suffered in her care.

"You used my trust and your skill as a master manipulator to take away one of the most precious things to me," Elgersma said.

The case dates to Oct. 29, 2013, when Sapp called Autumn's mother to say the girl was dazed after falling down the stairs when she went to play in the basement. Autumn's mother took the girl to a nearby hospital, where doctors diagnosed her with serious head injuries and had her airlifted to a South Dakota hospital. Doctors discovered a fractured skull and serious brain trauma. The girl died two days later, and a medical examiner ruled it homicide.

Court records show that after failing a polygraph, Sapp changed her story about the girl falling and told a detective she slammed the toddler to the ground after becoming angry because Autumn was having trouble taking off her coat.

Sapp had argued that confession — and incriminating text messages police discovered after she let them search her phone — should have been suppressed. She argued she had not been read her Miranda rights and had barely eaten or slept for two days.

But Jacobson ruled Thursday that the confession and the phone search were voluntary and admissible.

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