Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 19, 2013

Psychologist: Stapleton fit for trial

BY MATT TROUTMAN
mtroutman@record-eagle.com

---- — BEULAH — An Elberta woman is mentally fit to stand trial and face charges that she tried to kill her autistic daughter during a failed murder-suicide bid, a state psychologist determined.

Kelli Rai Stapleton, 45, is accused of attempted murder following a Sept. 3 incident in which she and her daughter Issy, 14, suffered carbon monoxide poisoning from being inside an enclosed van with two burning charcoal grills.

Stapleton is being held in Benzie County’s jail without bond. Her lawyers requested a mental competency evaluation, and a licensed psychologist with Michigan’s Center for Forensic Psychiatry met with Stapleton on Nov. 25 for a series of tests, said Benzie County Prosecutor Sara Swanson.

Swanson said the psychologist’s report states Stapleton is competent, able to stand trial and help with her defense.

“The judge actually has to enter an order to see if she’s competent to stand trial. I expect he will,” Swanson said.

A competency hearing is scheduled for today at 3 p.m. in 85th District Court and sets the stage for a preliminary examination that could lead to trial in 19th Circuit Court or settlement through a plea agreement.

Stapleton’s attorney Heidi Hodek didn’t find the competency result surprising, based on her own conversations with Stapleton. Hodek said she didn’t know whether it makes a pre-trial deal more likely.

“So far no (plea) offer has been made,” Hodek said.

A Benzie County sheriff’s deputy found Stapleton and Issy unconscious inside van parked on a wooded two-track south of Elberta hours after Stapleton’s husband Matt Stapleton reported them missing. Both were hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning, but Issy suffered brain damage after lingering for days in a coma.

Matt Stapleton’s sister Sarah Ross said Issy is doing well and continues to catch up on her academic studies, though she is not back in school.

“Physically, she continues to improve. We haven’t seen a lot of regression,” Ross said. “There’s been a few things that have come and gone, but in general things are trending upward.”

Matt Stapleton, principal of Frankfort High School, filed for divorce in September after the incident. Ross said Matt Stapleton and his three children, including Issy, are moving on together “in spite of the circumstances.”

“(Issy) loves Christmas,” Ross said. “She was recently able to attend the Benzie choir and band performances, which she really enjoys. And she’s looking forward to the holiday traditions with her family.”

Court documents state Kelli Stapleton told authorities that years of frustration with Issy’s behavior and autistic condition led her to believe the best solution was if they both “went to heaven.” Stapleton lured Issy into the van with the promise they would go camping and then drugged her with a larger-than-normal dose of autism medication before igniting the grills, the police report states.

Swanson said nothing has changed in the criminal case against Stapleton.

“The case has just been kind of on hold waiting for this (evaluation),” she said.