Former Casper Cop Pleads Guilty To Child Abuse
A former Casper police officer pleaded guilty to mentally and physically abusing her two children during a change-of-plea hearing in Natrona County District Court on Tuesday.
Laura Starnes-Wells entered the plea of one felony count of inflicting mental injury on a child, and one misdemeanor count of child endangerment during a hearing before Judge Daniel Forgey.
Assistant District Attorney Dan Itzen and Starnes-Wells' attorney Tom Fleener said they recommended a one- to five-year term of supervised probation for the charges in a new amended criminal information that was filed with the court just before the hearing.
After the hearing, Itzen said in light of all the circumstances, a recommended sentence was most appropriate.
The court is not obligated to accept the terms of a plea agreement.
Forgey ordered a presentence investigation and will set a sentencing date later.
The Natrona County Sheriff's Office conducted the investigation because the police department could not investigate its own employees. Starnes-Wells and her husband, Todd, were placed on administrative leave.
According to an affidavit, the Wyoming Department of Family Services received a report on March 25, 2008, from the principal and social worker at the boy’s school. The report noted concerns for both children “due to extreme punishment by the mother.”
The children at one point had to “run stairs” as a punishment, and the girl reported throwing up from running up and down so many stairs.
The boy reportedly told the school social worker his mother was still mad the next day and punched him in the neck, making him fall back and hit the back of his head.
When the school social worker told the children that she would have to speak to their mother, court documents say, the children became “petrified” and said, “If you do, it will make everything worse.”
The social worker reportedly noted the girl was beginning to act out more and more, while the boy was increasingly withdrawn. The worker told a DFS agent that she was very concerned “about this one,” and it seemed as though Starnes-Wells was using her police training on the children.
The Natrona County Sheriff’s Office began investigating on May 31, 2016, after the girl told Centennial Junior High School officials that Starnes-Wells hit her over the previous weekend.
Court documents say the girl told a school counselor that Starnes-Wells slapped her. The counselor noticed the girl had a partially-black eye and a swollen lip. The girl was taken into protective custody that same day.
The girl also said Starnes-Wells grabbed her face and slapped the girl repeatedly, something that has occurred “her whole life,” the girl said.
She also described Starnes-Wells grabbing her by the hair, pushing her up against walls and slapping her or punching her in the chest. Starnes-Wells would allegedly shake the girl’s head to the point the girl got headaches.
According to an affidavit, the girl said she and her brother were required to run “hills” for any number of minor infractions. The girl said the hill in question is behind Starnes-Wells’ house and is about 250 yards from bottom to top.
The girl said she had run 146 “hills” in the past two weeks. She also indicated that she and her brother were required to do sit-ups as punishment.
"Table time" was another form of punishment.
A school employee later said when she was babysitting the children, Starnes-Wells had instructed her to enforce table time on the boy which consisted of him sitting at the table from the time he got up in the morning until he went to bed at night. The boy was reportedly required to ask permission to go to the bathroom or get food and was to have his back to the television at all times.
The children also said there were cameras in the house to track their movements, rooms were locked to keep children out and Starnes-Wells isolated the girl from her brother, according to an affidavit.
The boy was allegedly required to walk to school as a punishment. During his ninth-grade year, it took him two hours each way to get to and from Kelly Walsh High School. In his 10th-grade year, it took him an hour each way.
When he got home, the boy was reportedly required to sit on the front step in view of a video camera so Starnes-Wells could ensure he was waiting there. He was not allowed to go into the house after school until Starnes-Wells got home – usually between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. – or Wells got up and let him in.
Investigators learned that sometimes the boy had to go out his bedroom window to go get food from the kitchen, and he had reportedly stolen money from Starnes-Wells to buy food at school.
The boy said he was afraid to ask for snacks and would stutter due to fear. He implied that he got in trouble for stuttering, court documents say.
According to one report, a counselor tried several times to facilitate change in Starnes-Wells’ parenting style, but she always refused.
In April 2013, it was reported that the boy had finished writing 24,000 sentences. The counselor spoke with Starnes-Wells regarding other, more appropriate forms of punishment and made it clear that making the boy write that many sentences was inappropriate punishment for a child that age.
In March 2014, a doctor diagnosed the boy with, among other conditions, reactive attachment disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, adoptive parent-child relationship difficulties and “problems with primary support system.”