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USC Student Was Focus of '04 Baby Investigation

October 15, 2005|Richard Winton, Hector Becerra and Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writers

A 21-year-old USC student charged with her baby's abandonment and death this week also was investigated last year after she arrived at a hospital in downtown Los Angeles appearing to have just given birth but without a baby, according to law enforcement sources close to the case.

In that April 2004 investigation, Holly Ashcraft eventually told authorities that the child had been stillborn and that she had disposed of its body on her own, the sources said. Police were informed of the situation after Ashcraft arrived, hemorrhaging, at Good Samaritan Hospital. Doctors quickly determined that she had recently given birth, although the sources said Ashcraft was reluctant to acknowledge that at first.

The sources and Ashcraft's attorney emphasized that she was never arrested or charged in connection with the incident in 2004.

Paul J. Wallin, a Tustin attorney hired to defend Ashcraft in the current case, said Friday that his law firm also represented her in last year's investigation. "There was a stillborn birth," he said of that 2004 case. "Regarding that incident, not only was our client not prosecuted for any crime, she wasn't even arrested for any crime.... And no crime was committed."

Wallin said he could not elaborate on either incident but urged the public to hold off on forming opinions about his client.

"Everyone needs to slow down and wait for the facts to come out," he said.

Investigators said they never found a baby's body in the 2004 case, so they could not determine if Ashcraft was telling the truth. The sources said the Los Angeles Police Department did not do an extensive search because detectives believed that too much time had passed and that it would not be possible to determine whether a crime had been committed.

Lt. Dennis Shirey of the LAPD's juvenile unit, which is handling the investigation, said he could not comment on previous events.

In the current case, Ashcraft, of Billings, Mont., was arrested Wednesday and charged with murder and child abuse in connection with the alleged abandonment of her newborn son in a trash bin near her apartment north of the USC campus. Police said the child was born alive but placed inside a cardboard box and deposited into the container. A homeless man picking through the trash discovered the child and called police.

Ashcraft, a third-year architecture student at USC, remained Friday at the Twin Towers jail in downtown Los Angeles. Her attorneys described her $2-million bail as "outrageous" and said they planned to file a motion for it to be reduced.

"That bail amount is normally reserved for mass murderers and serial rapists, not for a 21-year-old college student with no prior record," Wallin said. "No matter what the circumstances are, this girl is not a risk to society."

Wallin also took issue Friday with the law enforcement account of the current case, saying there was no evidence thus far that the child had been born alive or stillborn. He said that the tests to establish that had yet to be completed.

A spokesman for the Los Angeles County coroner's office said Friday that the cause of death had not yet been determined. Autopsies can take up to six weeks.

The law enforcement sources said that Ashcraft will probably face a second-degree -- not first-degree -- murder case so that prosecutors don't have to deal with the issue of intent on her part.

Wallin would not comment Friday on his client's state of mind but said her mother and other relatives had flown in from around the country to support her and meet with her attorneys. No one in the family would comment on the case, he said.

"This is a time she should definitely be anywhere other than Los Angeles County Jail," Wallin said. "She should be with her family and people who can counsel her."

Friends and the real estate broker who rented Ashcraft the one-room apartment where she had lived since August described her as a sweet, personable young woman. Several, including those who had seen her in recent weeks, said she did not appear to be pregnant.

"She seemed fine, just kind of normal," said Uchechukwu Anene, a USC junior who said she had seen Ashcraft last week.

Wallin said Ashcraft was on a full-tuition scholarship at USC, although he said he did not know whether that was based on financial need, merit or both. A USC spokesman, James Grant, said he could not comment on Ashcraft's financial-aid status but said a scholarship that paid tuition and fees would be worth about $32,000 for the current academic year. Ashcraft, however, was suspended from school this week, pending the outcome of her case, Grant said.

Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, said the only reason the prosecutors asked for -- and received -- a doubling of Ashcraft's original $1-million bail was because Ashcraft is a Montana native and considered a flight risk, with few ties to Southern California.

Other criminal-defense attorneys agreed with Wallin that Ashcraft's bail was excessive and said it was probably a result of the case's high profile.

Charles L. Lindner, past president of the Los Angeles Criminal Bar Assn., said the $2-million bail was clearly "set up to keep her in jail."

"There's no evidence this woman is going to go anywhere," Lindner said. "The worst-case scenario is she returns home to Montana. She's an American citizen. Where ... do they think she's going to go?"

Times staff writer Jean Guccione contributed to this report.

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