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USC Student Charged in Infant's Death

Holly Ashcraft, 21, from Billings, Mont., faces counts of murder and child abuse in alleged abandonment of her newborn in a trash bin.

October 14, 2005|Rebecca Trounson and Nancy Wride | Times Staff Writers

USC student Holly Ashcraft, described by the manager of her apartment building as a sweet young woman from Montana, was charged with murder and child abuse in a Los Angeles courtroom Thursday as questions continued to surround her alleged abandonment of her newborn in a trash bin.

Police said the full-term boy was born alive before he was put in a cardboard box and placed in the trash bin near a popular USC hangout -- and Ashcraft's off-campus apartment -- late Sunday. A homeless man searching the bin for recyclables discovered the child and called police, authorities said.

Ashcraft, 21, a USC architecture student from Billings, Mont., made a brief court appearance Thursday, looking calm and responding in a clear voice to questions from Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge David Sotelo about whether she understood the proceedings. Wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, Ashcraft made no comment other than to answer "yes" and nod in response to the questions.

At the request of prosecutors, who described her as a flight risk, Sotelo raised Ashcraft's bail from $1 million to $2 million. "She is a student from out of state and she has no ties to the community," Deputy Dist. Atty. Efrain Aceves said outside court.

He said Ashcraft was charged with child abuse, in addition to murder, because she is believed to have placed the infant in "circumstances likely to produce great bodily harm and death."

Attorney Adam S. Franken of Tustin, who represented Ashcraft in court, declined to answer reporters' questions. The young woman's arraignment was postponed to Nov. 9 after Franken told the judge that the attorney who will be in charge of her case could not be present Thursday.

A man and a woman who said they were "sort of" relatives of Ashcraft also refused to answer questions. Other family members or USC students did not appear to be present.

Outside the nearly empty courtroom, prosecutors, police and people acquainted with Ashcraft said they were at a loss to explain the circumstances that allegedly led her to place her son in the trash bin. And several said they wondered whether, as an out-of-state resident, she was even aware of a California law that allows a mother to relinquish an unwanted newborn at any hospital or fire station, with no questions asked.

Los Angeles Fire Station No. 15 is about two blocks from where the child was found.

"That's the tragedy of this case," Aceves said. "The public needs to be aware that there is this law."

USC spokesman James Grant said Ashcraft was a full-time student in her third year. Citing privacy rules, Grant said he could not confirm a police statement that Ashcraft had been suspended because of academic problems but said she has now been suspended, pending the outcome of the criminal case.

Ashcraft's profile on the popular student networking website Thefacebook.com shows an attractive young woman who lists musical tastes including punk and hip-hop and academic interests in fine arts and architecture. She includes a quote from novelist John Steinbeck and another from Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. She lists about three dozen friends at USC and many at other colleges.

Several of those Ashcraft listed as friends said they liked her but did not know her well.

Tamara Krulisky said she had seen Ashcraft only once this year but described her as outgoing and gregarious, with a great sense of humor. "She did not seem like a secretive girl to me," Krulisky said in an e-mail.

Another, Uchechukwu Anene, a junior who was in Ashcraft's dorm when the two were freshmen, said that she had seen her twice last week and that she seemed to be doing fine, but added that she did not know much about the young woman's personal life. She also said Ashcraft was wearing a jacket but did not appear to be pregnant.

"I'm just shocked by this," Anene said. "It seems really out of character for her."

Jim Weber, a real estate broker and property manager who rented Ashcraft her one-room apartment above the popular 29th Street Cafe, said she seemed pleasant when he met her in August. He also said the tall, slender young woman was not obviously pregnant at the time.

"She just seemed like a really decent, kind of wholesome girl from Montana," Weber said. "She just seemed like a sweet girl."

Ann Dorr, who owns the building and a number of other rental properties near the campus, said the young woman paid her rent on time, and was generally viewed by other tenants as agreeable and not a partyer.

Dorr said police told her that Ashcraft had been linked to the case after she sought medical treatment at an area hospital. Now, the building owner said, "I feel like I need to protect her. I'm not justifying what she's done, but I also don't like her to be judged.... I think she was just plain scared."

Natalie Beglau, who works in property management upstairs from where Ashcraft lived, said police executed a search warrant there Wednesday night. Beglau said the case has troubled her since it hit the news.

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