Jury finds woman responsible for one daughter’s death, amputation of another daughter’s feet
Woman got stuck in mud on a rural Moffat County road in March 2021 without phone
Kaylee Ann Messerly left Moffat County Court in handcuffs Wednesday, June 8, after a jury convicted her of child abuse resulting in death and child abuse resulting in serious injury.
The case began when deputies discovered an unoccupied Volkswagen stuck in the mud and snow near County Road 54 on March 11, 2021. After a search of the area, authorities found Messerly and her 3-year-old daughter alive but suffering from exposure.
While Messerly and her 3-year-old daughter, Alena, survived, Messerly’s 18-month-old daughter, Emma, died sometime overnight from March 9 to March 10. Emma’s lifeless body was found about 130 yards away from her mother and sister. She didn’t have any shoes on, and she wasn’t dressed for the wintry conditions. An autopsy determined she died of hypothermia.
Alena was airlifted to an Aurora hospital, where both of her feet were amputated due to the severe frostbite she suffered over a roughly 36-hour period. She also tested positive for methamphetamine.
Messerly later tested positive for methamphetamine herself while being treated for her injuries at Memorial Regional Health. In court Wednesday, Messerly stood for the verdict on a prosthetic leg.
In closing arguments, defense attorney Frank Moya argued that Emma’s death and her sister’s injuries were an accident, and the weather, not drugs, was responsible for it.
“It was a darned accident; that’s what it was,” Moya said. “The issue is does (Messerly’s) conduct, not in smoking meth, but her conduct that day, is it what caused the accident that killed Emma and caused Alena to lose her legs. That’s the issue.”
In closing, Moya told the jury one of the primary investigators in the case told Messerly early on in the investigation that she did everything she could and she shouldn’t blame herself. Moya said the investigator was telling the truth when he said that.
Moya further contended that any accusations Messerly had smoked meth in the car after getting stuck were completely false, and the evidence showed that to be “a tub of bologna.”
“Firstly, there is no evidence of any drugs found in the car — none found in the car, none found in the trunk of the car, none found in the glove box,” Moya said. “There was no evidence of any meth use found on Ms. Messerly, not in her pockets, not in her personal belongings.”
Furthermore, Moya highlighted how only one of Messerly’s daughters had tested positive for meth, saying that the absence of two positive tests proves Messerly didn’t do drugs in the car.
“Let’s talk about what she actually did, OK, aside from smoking meth probably on March 8,” Moya said, referencing Messerly’s admission she had done drugs and the positive test.
He said Messerly drove to a remote area on a nice day, when it was 50-52 degrees outside, and got her car stuck in the mud. He said she and her daughters sat in her car for 2.5 to four hours, exhausting their supply of food and drinks, before Messerly decided she needed to start looking for help.
Moya said that even though it was daytime, Messerly saw a light in the distance and thought it might be a house, though that light turned out to be a pumping station.
He said Messerly dressed her children up for the weather that she was in at the time, putting light jackets and socks on her daughters, before leaving the car and heading toward the light.
“Is that reckless conduct?” Moya asked the jury.
In retrospect, Moya continued, it probably was a mistake to go looking for help, and he said that had the trio stayed with the car, Emma would likely still be alive and Alena would probably still have her feet.
“But that’s hindsight,” Moya said, adding that Messerly reached the pumphouse when it was still daylight and there hadn’t been a serious change in the weather to that point.
“So she picked up her children and went looking — and this was a mistake — and went looking for help again away from the car,” Moya said. “And as she got farther, the weather changed. It started to snow. As she put it, ‘I didn’t know there was going to be a blizzard.’”
Moya said Messerly just got lost, couldn’t find her way back to the car and spent two nights in freezing temperatures trying to keep her daughters warm by holding them on her chest. He said the girls lost their socks during the walk, and Emma seemed “OK” when Messerly went to sleep for 20 minutes.
But when Messerly woke up, then Emma wasn’t OK.
“(Messerly) did drugs, yes,” Moya told the jury. “But don’t put your blinders on … Did the drugs cause the death of her child? Did the drugs cause one of her children to lose their legs? No, the weather did.”
He said Messerly’s decision to leave the car and items in it that could have helped her and her daughters deal with the weather were mistakes, but it was not reckless conduct and shouldn’t even be considered criminally negligent.
“The bottom line is (Messerly) wasn’t any of those things,” Moya said. “Even if she was high — which I don’t think she was — but even if she was high, what she did was reasonable in the circumstances she found herself.”
In closing, the prosecution argued that Messerly’s daughters couldn’t make decisions for themselves, and Messerly created the environment that killed Emma and led to Alena’s feet being amputated.
The prosecution noted that Messerly didn’t bring enough winter clothes with them when she decided to leave the car, and she didn’t bring her cell phone even though she was going to a remote, muddy area in Moffat County in March.
The prosecution added that Messerly knew her car was unreliable because she told that to investigators and she knew “the perils of driving rural Moffat County in the winter months.” The prosecutor said Messerly was aware of the circumstances and knowingly put her children in them.
“This is no mistake; this is no accident,” the prosecutor said. “And folks, that’s enough right there. Those decisions by themselves — absent meth, absent snow — created the universe of effects that resulted in death and resulted in serious bodily injury. But methamphetamine was an issue in this case. It absolutely was.”
He said that when asked what she would have done differently, Messerly replied she would have checked the weather, stayed in her car and not smoked meth.
“Think about it,” the prosecutor said. “Why say that, ‘I would not smoke meth,’ if it had no effect on me at all when I was out there.”
The prosecution asked the jury to think about the girls’ feet without shoes because, even at 50 degrees, they should have had shoes.
“Why don’t you do it? Because you’re delusional, because you’re disorientated, because you’re confused, because you’re under the influence of methamphetamine, and you created that universe,” the prosecutor said.
The jury deliberated for about 26 minutes before finding Messerly guilty on both counts.
According to the district attorney’s office, child abuse resulting in death is a class 2 felony punishable by 16 to 48 years in the department of corrections, and child abuse resulting in serious injury is a class 3 felony punishable by four to 16 years in the department of corrections.
“These tragedies were preventable, and those children were placed in a position that they could not get themselves out of,” Assistant District Attorney Matthew Tjosvold said in a statement. “The evidence showed that methamphetamine abuse was a contributing factor. There are no winners in these types of cases. Emma Smith is lost to her family, Alena Smith has life-altering injuries, and now Kaylee Messerly faces a prison sentence for her actions. We thank the jury for their attention and service in this trial, particularly given the tragic subject matter.”
The investigation was led by Moffat County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Chip McIntyre, and the prosecution team was led by Tjosvold and Deputy District Attorney James Hesson.
After the verdict was read, Judge Sandra Gardner instructed for Messerly to be taken into the custody of the Moffat County Sheriff’s Office. A sentencing hearing is set for Sept. 1.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated from its original version with comment from the 14th Judicial District Attorney’s Office and the potential term for Messerly’s sentence.
Eli Pace is the editor of the Steamboat Pilot & Today. Reach him at email@example.com or 970-871-4221.
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