It was the story that churned the stomachs of grizzled detectives and hard-bitten crime reporters. Her name, Ame Deal, became one of the rallying cries to fix a broken state system that was supposed to protect abused kids.
Kids like Ame.
Three members of her extended family have gone to prison for lengthy terms because of their role in her abuse. Two more are facing murder charges.
Ame Deal was 10 when Phoenix police found her dead. She had been locked in a plastic storage box overnight. It was July 12, 2011. The high temperature the previous day was 100. It was 93 degrees with 31 percent humidity when they opened the box at 9 a.m.
As horrible as her death was, her life was far, far worse. A jury will begin to hear how much worse when opening arguments begin in the trial of her cousin Sammantha Allen.
The trial was scheduled to begin in Maricopa County Superior Court today but the start was delayed until June 12.
Allen faces the death penalty for the murder charge, plus a dozen felony counts of child abuse and one for conspiracy. Her husband, John “Bud” Allen, awaits trial on the same charges.
A wrenching letter Ame’s mother, Shirley Deal, wrote the court says everything about what awaits jurors. 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, just like you did to my sweet little Amy,” she wrote, misspelling her daughter’s name. “They need to put you all on dog chains and feed you dog feces, as you did to my baby.”
Ame’s mother left the family years earlier after suffering abuse from relatives, and moved to Kansas without taking her daughter with her, according to the Associated Press. David Deal, who is listed on Ame’s birth certificate as her father, is serving a 14-year sentence after pleading guilty to attempted child abuse. Another man not involved in the case, Kenny Griest, claims to be Ame's real father.
Forcing the girl to eat dog feces is just one of the 12 child-abuse counts alleged by Maricopa County prosecutors.
At the home, police said, her tormentors often locked her in the plastic box, sometimes for up to three hours. Her cell measured about 31 by 14 by 12 inches. After locking the box, sometimes they would tumble it, kick it, or throw it in the pool. With Ame, all 48 inches her, inside.
Stoltzmann would sit on the box as witnesses heard Ame inside, crying.
Or, witnesses said, on one particular summer day when it hit 114, Ame's tormentors made her walk along the pavement.
They would tell her “walk until I tell you to stop.” Once, Ame waited 10 minutes, another time 15. Neighbors watched and said the girl wore a frightened expression on her face.
Witnesses also told police they would watch Sammantha Allen strike Ame with a wooden paddle. Printed on the paddle: “butt buster.”
When Ame wet her bed, she was made to sleep on the shower floor with no bedding. One time, Ame had to hold a position with her hands and feet on the floor, her back arched. For two hours. She collapsed, and the Allens made her do it again, police said.
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.
Abuse went on because residents of the squalid house “feared retaliation from Cynthia Stoltzmann if they reported” it, police said in a presentencing report from Judith Deal.
The grandmother told police under questioning that the home-schooled Ame was “a sloppy little girl” who didn’t like to bathe, stole food, and lied to others in the family.
She weighed less than 60 pounds.
Her fateful, final day started because of a Popsicle.
She was being punished that day, Bud Allen told police, for stealing Popsicles. He told investigators he went to the yard, got the box and padlock, put Ame inside, locked it as Sammantha Allen watched, and then the couple went to bed.
The next day, she was unresponsive. Police were called to a report of an injured child. They found something profoundly worse.
Stoltzmann and Bud Allen were performing CPR on Ame. She was on a towel, not moving. The box near her dying body was soiled on the outside. It was built in a way to create an airtight seal. It was only 9 a.m., but already the temperature was 95 inside the house.
Police took stock of the trash, used tampons, cockroaches on the floor, and the stench of stale urine everywhere.
Paramedics showed up and said Ame was already gone.
The Maricopa Medical Examiner’s Office declared her death a homicide, caused by suffocation.
Public outrage was swift.
People wondered where the authorities had been. Why was nobody called from Child Protective Services, as it was then known?
It turned out CPS had never had any contact with the family. Case agents couldn’t investigate what they didn’t know about.
It didn’t help that Ame’s family had a child-abuse case from Utah. It had never been reported to Arizona child welfare agents.
But case workers had known about other children, who were savagely killed anyway, and questions quickly turned to the state agency.
Ame Deal didn’t start the firestorm. But she add fuel to a controversy that was already ablaze.
Within a month of her death, then Governor Jan Brewer hauled CPS Director Clarence Carter into her office and demanded to know what was going on. How did a boy named Jacob Gibson get beaten to death after three prior reports and amid two open investigations?
What was going on was CPS was overwhelmed. It had a backlog of thousands of cases, staffing shortages, low morale, and high turnover.
By October 2011, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery had had enough.
“CPS has proven itself incapable year after year in dealing with children who are victimized,” Montgomery said at the time. “They don’t remove children that they should and those children wind up dead. We’re not going to do this anymore.”
Within days, Brewer assembled a task force and the growing clamor for reform had wheels.
Over the next year, the Arizona Republic launched a one-year project delving into the myriad dysfunctions of the state’s child welfare system, described the enormous backlog and strain on foster care placements, and chronicled the violent lives and deaths of more Ame Deals.
Dozens of bills wriggled through the Legislature. Brewer found money to hire more case investigators, then many millions more to overhaul the entire department. New scandals of incompetence resurfaced, and abused children kept dying, but reform was in the air.
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The jury may still be out over whether it worked, but most observers say the work in progress has helped.
The jury will in Ame's trial will face just one of the hundreds of cases like, but also one of the worst.
Depending on the outcome, they may hear the words of Ame’s mother, Shirley. And they may be haunted by them.
“I just wanted everyone in Arizona to know how I feel about what happened to my daughter. I am so depressed from the time I get up until I go to bed at night. I go to the doctor all the time. I wish she was here with me day and night,” she wrote to a judge in 2013
Then she turned her remarks to Ame’s killers: “I have not forgiven you and never will. The only thing you deserve is where you are going when you leave this earth.”