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Woman Gets 6-Month Jail Term in Boys' Heat Deaths

March 10, 2004|Wendy Thermos | Times Staff Writer

A Lancaster woman whose two foster sons died after she left them in a sweltering sports utility vehicle was sentenced Tuesday to six months in jail.

Leslie Sue Smoot, 48, had pleaded no contest in February to two counts of involuntary manslaughter in the July 8 deaths of the brothers, ages 3 and 5.

Smoot told authorities she forgot to remove the boys from her Cadillac Escalade when she arrived that morning at one of the two day-care centers she operated. By the time she realized her error five hours later, the temperature outside had climbed to 100 degrees and the older boy, Dakota Prince, was dead.

His sibling, Nehemiah, died a short time later. Authorities said the vehicle's interior temperature could have easily reached 140 degrees or higher.

Smoot's attorney, Michael Eberhardt, had compared the case to that of UC Irvine professor Mark J. Warschauer, whose 10-month-old son similarly perished Aug. 8 when Warschauer forgot to drop him off at day care. The infant died of heat stroke after three hours.

Orange County authorities declined to press charges, saying the death resulted from a tragic mistake but did not rise to the level of a crime. Eberhardt had asked the judge in Smoot's case to impose no jail time.

Tuesday's sentencing hearing was unusually long, lasting 6 1/2 hours, because Eberhardt put his client on the stand during a lengthy question-and-answer session. He told Judge Lisa Chung he wanted to show that Smoot took responsibility for her actions but did not exhibit a conscious disregard for her foster sons' safety.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Tannaz Mokayef said she felt a longer imprisonment was warranted but was satisfied with the judge's decision. Smoot had faced two counts of murder before reaching a plea agreement with prosecutors.

Chung also ordered Smoot to do 2,000 hours of community service, undergo a year of counseling and submit to five years' probation during which she may not be a foster parent, adopt children or operate day-care centers.

"Every angle you look at it from, it's just sad," Mokayef said. "For all practical purposes, she was giving good foster care to some kids who were in her care. I think it was a situation where she took on too much. She took on a business. It was too much, and two kids are dead."

Smoot and her husband, Larry, had cared for 35 foster children in the last decade. Her day-care centers were permanently closed after her arrest and her foster parent certification was revoked.

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