Los Angeles County prosecutors filed child-abuse charges Monday against the Lancaster child-care center operator whose two foster sons died of heat exposure after she left them unattended for hours in her vehicle in the desert heat.
Leslie Sue Smoot, 48, could face more than 15 years in prison if convicted of the two child-abuse counts, which include special allegations of "willful harm or injury to a child causing death," according to a statement by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.
Earlier this month, after the coroner's office ruled that the July 8 deaths of 3-year-old Nehemiah Prince and his 5-year-old brother, Dakota Prince, were homicides, the district attorney's office had considered filing manslaughter charges against Smoot. But district attorney spokeswoman Jane Robison said that, with the special allegations, the child-abuse charges are actually more severe.
"This fits the crime better, and [it could result in] more time," Robison said Monday.
Los Angeles County sheriff's investigators said Smoot left the boys inside her Cadillac Escalade for five hours on July 8 while it was parked outside her business, A Child's Place preschool. Officials estimate that temperatures may have reached 120 degrees inside the vehicle.
When Smoot discovered the boys, the 5-year-old was dead and the 3-year-old was suffering from severe dehydration. He died later at a local hospital.
Smoot told sheriff's investigators that she thought someone else was going to bring the children inside, officials said. She also said she forgot to take them out of the car, they said.
Since the incident, Smoot's four child-care centers have been temporarily closed by the state Department of Social Services. Andrew Roth, a spokesman for the department, said state officials will ask an administrative law judge to have them closed permanently.
The department has also revoked her foster-parent certification, Roth said.
Smoot, who was released from jail July 10 on $100,000 bail, will be arraigned Wednesday in Los Angeles Superior Court in Lancaster. Prosecutors will request that her bail be raised to $175,000, Robison said.