Update: A jury of 10 women and two men has found John “Bud” Allen guilty of first-degree murder when he locked 10-year-old Ame Deal in a footlocker and left her to suffocate in a pool of her own urine and sweat.
Allen, 29, is the last defendant in the case that began in 2011. The Maricopa County jury found him guilty of murder, three counts of child abuse and conspiracy to abuse Ame.
The panel took a day to reach its verdict. It hinged on whether Allen acted intentionally and knowing that locking Ame in a box with few air holes on a midsummer night was dangerous, or if he acted recklessly or negligently.
During closing arguments, Allen never looked at the jury and jurors rarely glanced at him. Rather, they were transfixed by photos of Ame’s discolored and disfigured body that prosecutors left to linger on the courtroom screen.
Jurors return to Maricopa County Superior Court Thursday to begin rendering judgment on the penalty Allen should get.
He faces the death penalty, the same sentence his wife Sammantha Allen got in August for her role in the death of Ame, the girl in the box.
It’s a story told many times in many courts over six years, but in the end, the ordeal to find justice in the 2011 death of Ame Deal, that girl in that box, ended the way it all began.
Ame’s family thought padlocking her in a footlocker was the best way for her to take responsibility when they said she took food and lied about it. On the day she died, she’d been accused of taking a popsicle without permission.
One by one, five adults who were supposed to care for her have now been convicted of murder, child abuse, or both, because of that twisted reasoning.
John Allen's trial, like those before, was heart-wrenching and disturbing. Ame, who weighed just 59 pounds only three weeks before her 11th birthday and measured 48 inches in height, died in a plastic storage tub 31 inches long. It was July 11, 2011, and the tub was put in a room with no air conditioning. The thermometer never dipped below 95.
Allen and his wife, Sammantha, went to bed, planning to check on her. They didn’t. They took responsibility, but then disregarded it.
The next morning, Ame’s lips were blue. It took half an hour before somebody in the squalid, overcrowded house on 35th Avenue and Broadway Road, overrun by cockroaches and stinking of urine, called 911.
Ame died of suffocation, complicated by heat exhaustion and dehydration, the autopsy later showed.
She cooked in the box.
John Allen’s defense team told jurors that every time police confronted him with allegations of his Dark Ages discipline, he’d cop to it. Allen took responsibility, jurors were told.
They were also told by prosecutors in a two-hour closing summation that Allen concocted a fiction about a hide-and-seek game, hid evidence, lied to police and only came clean when they told him they had all the evidence they needed.
“What he really wanted was that nobody would take the fall. He didn’t want anybody to take responsibility for what happened to that little girl,” Maricopa County Prosecutor Jeannette Gallagher told the jury.
Gallagher left on a courtroom screen for 30 minutes a picture of Ame’s discolored body, flayed out on a blue, urine-soaked rug, to remind jurors why they should hold Allen responsible. A handful of jurors couldn’t peel their eyes from the image.
Other images lingered. Another of Ame’s body, face up, contorted and stiffened by death. A close-up of the lock-box, urine and sweat pooled at the bottom.
Gallagher carried over out Exhibit 100, the tiny prison. She banged it on the floor in front of the jury box and rolled it around with her pumps.
“It’s been six years since Ame died in that box. It’s time for the defendant to be held accountable,” Gallagher said.
The case went to the jury Tuesday.
Jurors determined that Allen intentionally or knowingly padlocked Ame inside the storage box, fully understanding the dangers. Allen's defense attorney, Rob Reinhardt, had asked jurors to ponder whether Allen was only guilty of negligence or recklessness, insufficient to convict him of murder.
“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 25-minute summation.
Reinhardt mentioned the murder once.
“I told you at the beginning that you wouldn’t hear evidence that John deliberately killed Ame. There is no evidence of intentional murder,” he said.
Instead, Reinhardt focused on Allen’s state of mind.
“There is one question in this case that remains unanswered: Why?” Reinhardt told jurors.
If the jurors had found that Allen locked and left Ame in the box by accident or carelessness rather than purposefully, then he could not have been found guilty of the key underlying child abuse in the case, and therefore neither the conspiracy to commit it, or the murder that stemmed from it, Reinhardt argued.
Instead, Reinhardt spent most of his time talking about a paucity of physical evidence for one of the other child abuse charges, based on testimony from an admitted meth user that Allen tossed the box around in the air while Ame was locked inside.
Throughout the courtroom action, few jurors looked at Allen, who was dressed in a striped maroon and white shirt with matching tie.
He almost never glanced up from the table, on which he hunched forward most of the day. Once he conferred with one of his lawyers. Another time, after the jury left, she gently rubbed his back.
Throughout Tuesday’s closing arguments, Gallagher painted an ugly portrait of the man, who was 22 with four kids when Ame died. She used Allen's own statements to police, his writings, and a recorded conversation he had with Sammantha in the police station as detectives listened.
Together they depicted a man who inflicted pain on the girl and laughed about it to police, who only ever admitted anything when his interrogator already had the evidence, who showed no emotional reaction at all to Ame's death, and who tried to pin it on a 3-year-old girl.
In one exchange Gallagher read, Phoenix detectives asked Allen how he slept the night Ame died.
“Not well,” he told them.
The detective asked why he didn’t go and check on Ame, which he and Sammantha admitted to planning to do when they thought they were chatting privately in the interview room.
“I just didn’t get up,” John Allen answered.
“The defendant had the power to save Ame’s life,” Gallagher told jurors. “Ame’s life meant so little to the defendant he didn’t even have a reason.”
“We should have sent her to bed like we always do. I don’t know why we didn’t,” John Allen told his wife in the interview room.
Instead, Allen “chose to leave Ame to suffocate to death in her own sweat and urine,” Gallagher said.
In a videotaped interview with police, Allen explained that he put her in the box, but Sammantha said she could get out. So, he says on the tape played for the jury, he went to the back yard, took a padlock off the fence, and locked the footlocker with Ame inside as Sammantha watched.
When police arrived, kids told them one of the younger children in the house, which held as many as 24 people at one time, locked Ame inside the box during a game of hide-and-seek. The younger girl liked to lock things and giggle. The Allens later repeated this story.
John Allen penned his thoughts in his own, clear, handwriting the morning of July 12, 2001, in a spiral notebook that police found.
“Ame found passed away in box. They (the kids) were playing hide-and-go-seek. We believe she fell asleep and suffocated,” he wrote.
“How did he know she suffocated before the autopsy was ever done?” Gallagher asked.
She recounted what he told police about previous confinements. That Ame would emerge sweaty, but “not fainting, not out of it,” and that sometimes she kicked on the lid to get more air. He knew that the box was dangerous, she concluded.
“Ame had no chance of escape. The defendant made sure of that because he padlocked the box and took the only key,” Gallagher told jurors.
Police weren’t buying the hide-and-seek story, especially after July 23 when a neighbor saw an account of it on the news and told police it was a lie. She said the box was used to punish Ame. Police arrested the Allens four days later.
Police knowledge of the discipline vexed them in the interview room.
“Somebody told him about the box,” Allen told his wife.
“We should have come up with something very solid, all together as a family, and nobody would have to take the fall,” Allen then said.
Earlier, as she explained the intricacies of the jury instructions and criminal law, Gallagher told jurors: “This is John Allen’s trial. Sammantha Allen’s participation is irrelevant.”
Legally, that’s true for John Allen’s fate. But nothing could be farther from the truth in the pursuit of justice for Ame.
Sammantha Allen became the first woman sent to death row by a Maricopa County jury since 2004 for her role.
Jurors rejected her lawyer’s argument that Ame was a victim of an abusive environment created by her legal guardian and aunt, Cynthia Stoltzmann, and Sammantha was a victim of a tormented, isolated upbringing.
At trial and in court documents the image of a living hell emerged about the house in southwest Phoenix.
The evidence showed kids had been treated to routine belt lashings and paddling with the “butt buster,” but that Ame was singled out.
When police asked her what her driving moral belief was, she said, “Honor thy mother and father.” She had acted out of a misguided sense of family loyalty, her lawyer told that jury.
Stoltzmann and Ame’s grandmother Judith Deal, had already been sentenced to lengthy prison terms on child abuse convictions. Stoltzmann is serving a 24-year sentence and Deal 10 years and Ame’s father, David Deal, 14 years.
Stoltzmann would sit on the black plastic footlocker as witnesses heard Ame inside, crying.
Or, they said, on one particular summer day when it hit 114, they’d make Ame walk barefoot along the pavement for up to 15 minutes.
According to court documents, guardian Stoltzmann held Ame under water, told her to crush cans with her bare feet, hit and kicked her, and fed her hot sauce.
And dog feces.
When Ame wet her bed, she was made to sleep on the shower floor with no bedding.
Ame had to hold a position with her hands and feet on the floor, her back arched. For up to three hours. When she collapsed, crying out in pain, John Allen picked her up and put her back in the excruciating position, he told police.
Abuse went on because family members “feared retaliation from Cynthia Stoltzmann if they reported” it, police said in court documents.
Ame Deal’s death quickly outraged the community.
People wondered why nobody called Child Protective Services, as it was then known.
It turned out CPS had never had any contact with the family. Caseworkers were never told that Ame’s family had a child abuse case from Utah.
But caseworkers had known about other children, who were savagely killed anyway, and attention shifted to the widespread, lasting problems with Arizona’s child welfare system.
Ame’s name became synonymous with dysfunction in that system and a rallying cry to repair it. Ultimately, the state enacted dozens of laws and spent millions of dollars overhauling that system.
If there is any solace in that, none of it comforts Ame’s real mother, Shirley Deal. In 2013, she expressed her burning thirst for justice in a letter she wrote to a judge in an earlier case.
In it, she addressed her daughter’s killers with anguish.
“The death penalty is too good and too easy for you. I want you to suffer till death,” she wrote.
“They need to put you all on dog chains and feed you dog feces, as you did to my baby,” she said, adding, “I have not forgiven you and never will. The only thing you deserve is where you are going when you leave this earth.”
Now a jury will determine when he will leave this earth – when his life naturally ends in prison, or sooner on death row.