SEATTLE – Joel Zellmer was sentenced Friday to 50 years in prison for drowning his stepdaughter in what prosecutors said was a plot to collect insurance money. A jury had earlier convicted Joel Zellmer for the 2003 murder of 3-year-old Ashley McLellan, and prosecutors had asked for a sentence of 600 months, or 50 years. The judge agreed with that recommendation. The maximum possible sentence for the crime is life in prison.
Investigators said Zellmer, 40, drowned Ashley in the family swimming pool so he could collect a $200,000 life insurance policy that he took out three months before her death. In court on Friday, the little girl’s mother recounted the horrific moments when she arrived home and learned her daughter was dead.
“What it’s like when I came around that corner that night, and see the sea of red lights flashing, seeing my little girl lying there lifeless as they rushed to try and save her,” Stacey Ferguson said. Ashley’s biological father, Bruce McLellan said, “To see my entire family destroyed by a single depraved greedy monster who killed a baby in an attempt to get money. He killed my baby.”
Zellmer’s family sat in the courtroom but did not speak. A family friend, Alan Lobdell, read a statement for them. “They know him to be a person, a person just like everyone else, with some flaws perhaps, but he is not the monster that the state has tried to portray him as,” the statement said.
Zellmer chose not to speak, but as the judge delivered her sentence, he held up a picture with a verse that read, “They called him every name in the book, and he said nothing back. He suffered in silence, content to let God set things right.”
Judge Shaffer said Zellmer’s sentence had to reflect the destruction of the small child. “She was a very special little girl she was adorable in every way,” the judge said.
Zellmer has always insisted that the girl’s death was an accident, and in court last month blurted out, “A lot of lying going on around here!” as the girl’s mother testified. He said he was asleep when his stepdaughter wandered into the back yard and into the pool while her mother was at work. But firefighters who tried to save the girl said they noticed something strange about her stepfather, who appeared calm, mostly dry, and never once asked them if she would live.
Investigators said Zellmer has a history of dating single mothers, urging them to take out insurance policies and then harming their young children, including burning the hands of one and giving another an overheated sippy cup that left blisters on her lips.
Just three months before McLennan died, he convinced the girl’s mother to take out a $200,000 life insurance policy on the child. Since the start of the trial, Zellmer was portrayed by prosecutors as a danger to the single mothers he dated, and especially their children. Over the years, those children suffered broken legs and a near-drowning.
Zellmer’s defense attorney maintained that his client’s 8-year old son had been watching the 3-year-old girl while Zellmer took a nap. But prosecutors and police didn’t believe that, and neither did the jury.
Even though he’s sentenced now to 50 years in prison, Joel Zellmer is not finished defending himself. He still faces charges for fraud and theft and he is slated to go to trial on those charges, early next year.