Finding the Girl in the Box: As Ame Deal's Living Hell Ended, It Began for Police Officer
Zac McDonald photo illustration

Finding the Girl in the Box: As Ame Deal's Living Hell Ended, It Began for Police Officer

It was a case that decimated a family, shocked a city, haunted hard-nosed cops, helped overhaul a broken child-welfare system, and consumed legal teams for six years. It made executioners of stand-in parents, turned a little girl into a prisoner, and a prisoner into a corpse. Her tormenters, in turn, became the prisoners of the state, and now the condemned.

Yet the case began like so many others: an emergency call to something seemingly very different.

Police Officer Albert Salaiz was the first to respond to the call of an injured child in southwest Phoenix.

Salaiz had joined the Phoenix Police Department in 2000 after a long career in the Air Force, flying politicians to Europe. He was working patrol again, after a stint on a squad that took on violent crime syndicates.

That morning, July 12, 2011, Salaiz left the Estrella Mountain precinct to tell county prosecutors what he knew about a high-profile home invasion involving rival drug gangs, a big shootout and gangsters posing as SWAT teams.

Then came the injured-child call. Salaiz was a couple of blocks away, so he went. How could he not? A child in danger. On his beat. All the natural instincts of a veteran cop kicked in.

When he got there, Salaiz instantly recognized the house. He’d been there a week or two earlier to respond to reports of kids throwing rocks. He’d seen a large gaggle of children there.

This time, he sprinted from his patrol car to the front door. Just when he reached it, the door suddenly swung open and a Rottweiler charged him. He thought the dog was sure to bite him.

He remembers a woman telling him “Don’t shoot the dog!” The dog backed down.

Salaiz’s adrenaline was pumping. It didn’t strike him until later: The woman was more concerned about the dog that the hurt child he was there to help.

He vaulted a wall and rounded a corner.

That’s when he saw her.

A girl was prone on a carpet in the garage, curled up with her legs near her chest. She had “claw-like hands,” Salaiz recalled.

“Then it hit me. I knew this girl,” he said.

“I never, to this day, will forget what she looked like. That image is ingrained on my mind.”

He’d seen her on the rock-throwing call earlier.

And he already knew she was dead. You just know.

But what Officer Salaiz didn’t know that morning was that Ame Deal’s life ended before it began. She never was granted any real chance to live.

John Allen (left) was convicted of first-degree murder for the death of Sammantha Allen's cousin, 10-year-old Ame Deal. Sammantha (second from left) had already been convicted. Judith Deal and Cynthia Stolzmann (right), Deal's grandmother and aunt, are already serving lengthy sentences for their involvement.
John Allen (left) was convicted of first-degree murder for the death of Sammantha Allen's cousin, 10-year-old Ame Deal. Sammantha (second from left) had already been convicted. Judith Deal and Cynthia Stolzmann (right), Deal's grandmother and aunt, are already serving lengthy sentences for their involvement.
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Ame Deal was found dead on July 12, 2011, two weeks shy of her 11th birthday.

She suffocated in a padlocked plastic storage box, soaked in her own urine and sweat.

The last of her killers was sentenced Thursday in Courtroom 5A in Maricopa County Superior Court. John Allen will join his wife, Sammantha, on death row. The Allens are the first married couple in Arizona sentenced to death.

The Allens had turned Ame’s prison into her tomb. With Thursday’s verdict, Ame’s death has entombed the Allens in state prison. Salaiz remains a prisoner to his memories.

In a sense, the Allens themselves had been trapped by a violent, domineering, insular household, with four children when they were just 22 years old. Later, John Allen would tearfully tell the sentencing judge he was sorry and the death was an accident.

Already, three other family members were serving prison sentences from 10 to 24 years for their roles in the torment of Ame, who came to be remembered as "the girl in the box."

The brief and hellish life of Ame Deal was recounted over six years in police and news reports, in court records and action.

“In my entire career, I can’t say I’ve ever seen a worse case,” Judge Erin O’Brien Otis said during Thursday’s court action, admonishing John Allen. “This was one of the most unnecessary deaths of a child I’ve ever seen.”

The girl who wound up in that box was born on July 24, 2000, in Pennsylvania to David and Shirley Deal. It was their third child but, despite legal documents to the contrary, David Deal insisted the girl was not his.

By the time the couple ended up in Texas with David’s large, roving, extended family, Shirley couldn’t take the stress and abuse in the chaotic home anymore. She abandoned her daughter.

The Deals continued to bounce around the country. They stayed for a time in Minnesota, Utah, and different parts of Arizona. Always in the poor parts of town. Always schooled at home. Always keeping to themselves. Always leery of new members of the family. Always disciplining the gaggle of children in their own special way.

In Utah, the state investigated the family for possible child abuse. Those suspicions didn’t follow the family to Arizona.

By the time the Deals replanted themselves in a house near Broadway Road and 35th Avenue, Ame’s cousin Sammantha Allen was caring for her. It was Sammantha’s 20th home in 18 years. She had never gotten past fourth grade.

She took all her cues from her mother, Cynthia Stoltzmann, who was Ame’s legal guardian.

“Her world was small and very isolated and it was dominated by her family,” said her defense attorney, John Curry. “That’s all she knew. That’s all she knew.”

Sammantha knew discipline was a fact of life. And it was harsh. But that’s how you grew up. So when Ame came along, nobody in the house questioned her punishment.

Punishment is the wrong word for it. It came from a wooden paddle named “butt-buster.” Or routine belt lashings. Or when the family made Ame walk barefoot for 15 minutes on the pavement in 114-degree heat, until neighbors saw the fright flash in Ame's blue eyes. Or when John Allen made her put her hands and feet on the floor and arch her back unnaturally for three hours at a time.

When she complained it hurt and collapsed, he’d lift her into the arch again.

Family disciplinarians sometimes made Ame eat hot sauce, but she got used it. So they forced her to eat dog feces.

Ame was treated differently from the half-dozen other kids in the fetid, overcrowded house. Other kids were put in a small chair for a timeout; Ame was sent to the storage box.

The box was a plastic locker 31-by-12-by-14 inches. It had latches to secure the lid. As Ame neared her 11th birthday, she stood just 48 inches tall.

On July 11, 2011, someone in the house said Ame had gone to the freezer and taken a Popsicle without permission.

When the Allens crammed Ame in the box, nobody thought twice. Everybody knew, family members later told police, “Ame lies. Ame steals. Ame needs to be punished.”

Ame weighed less than 60 pounds. She was hungry. She didn’t get the same food the others got. She wasn’t one of their own. Not one of the tribe. Not deserving.

And besides, Ame had been in the box many times before. John Allen would roll and throw the box around with Ame locked inside. Sometimes they’d throw the box, Ame and all, into the swimming pool. Other times, Cynthia Stoltzmann would sit on it while Ame whimpered inside.

The night of July 11, the Allens stuffed Ame into the locker and snapped down the latches.

She’d been known to push on the lid with her feet to get air. The only airways were some small holes under the handles. Otherwise, it was airtight. They put the box in the garage where there was no air-conditioning. The mercury never dipped below 95 that night.

Sammantha warned her husband that the girl could escape. John went to a gate in the back yard, grabbed a padlock, locked the box, and took the key.

The couple had planned to go to bed and check on Ame in an hour. They didn’t.

“I just didn’t get up,” John later told police interrogators.

He could have saved Ame’s life, but it meant so little to him he never had a reason for killing her, county prosecutor Jeannette Gallagher would later explain in court.

The morning after the padlocking, around 8 a.m., when the family went to take Ame out of the box, she wasn't moving. She wasn't breathing.

About half an hour later, someone called 911.

Officer Salaiz was the first cop on the scene. He and  other police officers and firefighters arrived to a house that reeked of urine. Used tampons and cockroaches littered the floors. Salaiz doesn’t remember the filth and stench, only what he saw first.

Ame lay on a blue carpet next a wet urine stain. Her lips were the color of the carpet. Her skin was starting to discolor. Her body was twisted unnaturally in the position of a kid play-acting like a dead dog.

Ame wasn’t acting. She was dead.

And treated worse than any junkyard mongrel. Her body was already stiffening. It looked like one of those body casts of ancient Pompeii residents buried in ash. It looked like she’d been trying to push the lid off her plastic coffin.

Salaiz remembers John Allen standing above Ame as a woman tried CPR. Somebody was talking about a hide-and-seek game gone awry. The girl had locked herself in the box. Herself.

Not much later, Salaiz’s sergeant rolled up and asked him what happened.

“I told my supervisor, ‘They fucking killed her.’ He got pissed. ‘You can’t be saying that. You don’t know that for a fact,’ ” Salaiz recalled.

He went to get an initial statement from John Allen, who sat on a swing, acting “like nothing happened.”

Allen said he and his wife went to bed at 1 a.m. as Ame, a 12-year-old and his 3-year-old daughter played hide-and-seek. The next morning they found Ame in the box, dead. The story struck Salaiz as odd. A 3-year-old playing hide and seek at 1 a.m.? Not likely.

Odder still was Allen’s demeanor.

“The was no emotion from him or the grandma, either. That’s what bothered me. There was no emotion,” Salaiz  said. “I’d never seen anything like that.”

He had been a cop 11 years.

He went to hear the 12-year-old’s story. She was a few doors down the street. As he walked toward it, Cynthia Stoltzmann walked toward him.

“She said, ‘Yeah, they found Ame dead,’ and she keeps walking past me,” Salaiz recalled.

He didn’t think at the time: How could she know that Ame was dead, minutes after paramedics declared it?

The 12-year-old had the look of a scolded child who didn’t want to be there, and really didn’t want to talk. She stood, stiff as board, never looking Salaiz in the eye, as he asked her what happened.

She told the same story, except for one detail. She went to bed at 9.

“I felt the 12-year-old ... knew what happened. She knew about the box,” Salaiz said.

The Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office determined that Ame died of asphyxiation, after suffering heat exhaustion and dehydration. Forensic investigators with the office ruled it a homicide.

But long before those results, on the morning Ame died, John Allen wrote out his thoughts in a spiral notebook.

“Ame found passed away in box. They (the kids) were playing hide-and-go-seek. We believe she fell asleep and suffocated,” he wrote.

And that’s the story everybody in the house, even the kids, told police. The 3-year-old loved to lock things as a prank and run away giggling. She must have trapped Ame in the box by accident.

Police were having none of it. Suspicions turned to arrests a little over a week later. When detectives asked John what he thought about his wife’s arrest, he replied, “It should have been me.”

In interviews, he confessed to all of it. Jurors saw it all on videotape. They also saw and read how he admitted nothing until detectives told them they already had the evidence in their pockets. John’s story would change and change again. He was covering for Sammantha.

During breaks in the questioning, the couple conferred alone in an interview room. They didn’t know police watched and listened.

Police watched, listened, and recorded for the benefit of a future jury when the Allens learned their contrivance about hide-and-seek had crumbled.

“We should have come up with something very solid, all together as a family, and nobody would have to take the fall,” John told his wife.

Detectives scribbled it down.

Bit by bit, John relented. He admitted to clamping Ame in the box. Under questioning, he confessed he had jostled her about it in. He told detectives after 10 or so previous confinements, Ame would emerge sweaty, but “not fainting, not out of it.”

That indicated he knew there was no air and the box was inherently dangerous, prosecutor Gallagher later concluded.

Detectives asked John where the padlock went. After deflecting, he finally told them he hid it.

Finding the Girl in the Box: As Ame Deal's Living Hell Ended, It Began for Police Officer (3)
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Within days of Ame’s death, as the horrors emerged, public outrage erupted. People demanded to know why nobody had protected Ame, how no one in the state child-welfare agency knew what went on in that squalid house, where 24 people lived at one time.

Officer Salaiz, riddled by guilt, played the events through his increasingly troubled mind. He had been to the house days before to check out a report of those unruly kids in the neighborhood.

An investigator said to him, “When you went to that house a week earlier, please, please tell me it wasn’t a child-protection call, or that she was being abused.”

State law makes it a crime for a person in authority not to report child abuse. By now, all the cracks in the child welfare system had gaped open and the public was clamoring for better protection of vulnerable kids. Blood was in the water.

“I’m going through my mind: Why didn’t I see something? Why didn’t I notice something? I beat myself up. You have no idea. That was my area that I patrolled every day,” Salaiz said. “People were coming out of the woodwork to tell stories of abuse at that house. That upset me even more because why didn’t anybody pull me over on the beat and tell me?”

He changed. He no longer was the happy-go-lucky cop who loved his job and never had disciplinary trouble. Now, he was distraught, morose, and everyone saw it. He sought counseling.

“That case changed my life. It took some of the joy out of life for me,” Salaiz said

When a bad injury and unsuccessful surgeries ended his police career, he took medical retirement three years after Ame’s death.

“I wasn’t the same person. I’m still not. I’d wake up and say: What’s my purpose? Why am I here?” he said. “I failed.”

Salaiz was not the only one who felt the pain of Ame’s torture and death.

Her case became a lightning rod for everything that was wrong with Arizona’s crippled, overburdened child-welfare systems. The state launched investigations, legislators wrote dozens of bills, found millions of dollars, and overhauled the agency.

Justice for Ame came slower. One by one, juries found her relatives guilty and judges sent them to prison in 2013.

First came David Deal, Ame’s father. Ten years for attempted child abuse. Then came Cynthia Stoltzmann: 24 years for child abuse. Then Judith Deal, Ame’s grandmother, who got 10 years for the same.

The murder cases, stemming from that humid July night in 2011, would crawl forward for three more years.

Sammantha Allen went on trial in July 2017. In August, she received the first death sentence for a woman in Maricopa County since Wendy Andriano was convicted in 2004 of first-degree murder, for bludgeoning her terminally ill husband with a bar stool and stabbing him to death.

Only one woman has been executed in the state. Eva Dugan hanged in 1930 for killing a man she worked for in Pima County. She had been married five times, and all her husbands reportedly had disappeared. The noose tore off her head, which rolled to the feet of spectators, some of whom fainted. That prompted Arizona to replace the rope with gas and, most recently, lethal injection.

John Allen's trial began in November. Prosecutors displayed images of Ame’s twisted corpse on courtroom screens for up to 40 minutes during trial. Jurors weighing the guilt of Allen could barely peel their eyes from it at times. It haunted them, as the memory of it haunted Salaiz.

The taped confessions lay at the heart of the case against and for Allen at trial.

His defense attorney, Rob Reinhardt, said the statements showed a man who didn’t hide.

“I’m not going to tap-dance around John’s statements. You saw the video. You read the transcripts. There was no screaming or beating a confession out of him. John accepted responsibility for his actions,” Reinhardt said in his summation.

He asked jurors to ponder whether Allen was only guilty of negligence or recklessness, insufficient to convict him of murder.

Prosecutor Jeanette Gallagher painted a very different portrait as she rolled Ame’s plastic prison around the courtroom and as Ame’s disfigured, discolored corpse loomed on the courtroom screens.

She questioned why Allen hid the padlock if he didn’t know he’d committed a crime. She asked the jury of 10 women and two men why he’d told Sammantha he was planning to turn himself in if there was no crime. How, she mused, did Allen know Ame suffocated weeks before the autopsy results?

Salaiz, now 55, was among those who testified. The prosecutors showed him the picture. That picture. He broke down. He had never erased the image of Ame’s distorted corpse. But he’d faced down his torment.

“When I came out of that courtroom, it felt like a ton of bricks had been lifted. I didn’t have to think about this anymore. I’d done my duty,” he said.

The jurors did their duty quickly. They deliberated fewer than 24 hours before finding Allen guilty two weeks ago on all counts. During the trial, they never looked at him. And he never looked at them.

On Thursday afternoon, Allen entered the courtroom, flashed a brief half-smile to his family, and sat at the defense table, dressed in a grey button-down shirt and olive-green slacks and tie.

Then jurors filed into the courtroom, stone-faced.

Ame’s family, present through much of the trial, was not there for the final act.

Within five minutes, it was all over. Jurors unanimously confirmed their finding that John Michael Allen deserved the death penalty. Allen and his family members began sobbing.

Shaking and blubbering, Allen told the court he was sorry and that Ame’s death had been an accident. Allen needed more than five minutes to compose himself enough to be led out of court.

Nobody wept for Ame on Thursday.

But Gallagher and her team embraced, tightly. They had sent five family members to prison, two of them to death row. They had ended a six-year legal ordeal, a torment of its own to many.

Prosecutors had achieved justice at last for Ame, and her mother, Shirley Deal.

“The death penalty is too good and too easy for you. I want you to suffer till death,” Shirley Deal wrote of Ame’s tormenters in 2013. “The only thing you deserve is where you are going when you leave this Earth."

For Officer Salaiz, the outcome left more conflicted emotions.

“I’m overjoyed that they were convicted because that’s what they deserve for what they did to that little girl. But I’m distraught my testimony puts two people to death,” he said. “Do I have sympathy for them? I don’t. Because of what they did.

“Here I am, the cop who first arrived on the scene, who knows exactly what happened, who knows they are monsters. I should be doing cartwheels, because not only did they destroy Ame’s life, and her family’s life, they destroyed my life. They made it hell for six years.”

Ame's living hell lasted almost twice that long.

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