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For York County Circuit Court Judge Richard Rizk, the case of a toddler who choked to death in a car safety seat while left unattended could go down as one of the most difficult of his career.
“This is by far the most challenging case I’ve heard in my nine months on the bench and one of the most challenging in my 24 years in the profession,” Rizk said.
No sentence for 16-month-old Briele Bullock’s caretaker, Kyla Denise Ziegenhagen, could do the one thing that would “make anyone feel good” – bring the child back to life, he said – but 15 years behind bars could help Ziegenhagen “move forward in a healthy, positive way.”
Ziegenhagen, 33, of Hampton was sentenced to a total of 50 years in prison, with 35 suspended, after pleading guilty last December to a charge of second-degree murder and two counts of felony child abuse.
She will be on supervised probation indefinitely, prohibited from unsupervised contact with minors under 14 years old and restricted from contacting the victim’s family or extended family.
The sentence came after an hour of testimony from the mother, father and grandfather of the victim as well as the husband, aunt and mother-in-law of Ziegenhagen.
The victim’s parents wore large buttons printed with a picture of their late daughter. The mother, Michele Bullock, placed a portrait of her daughter at the judge’s bench before recounting the day Briele died and the “broken bond that will never be healed.”
“We will always be incomplete without Briele,” Bullock said. “This is not how life was supposed to be.”
Bullock, who said she was nine months pregnant when Briele died, said she could not focus on the health of a child soon to be born while suffering the loss of another.
“How could I listen to a heartbeat when Briele’s heartbeat stopped and I couldn’t hear her anymore?” she said.
As a caretaker, Ziegenhagen came recommended, Bullock said, but said she now believes Ziegenhagen saw her daughter as “a dollar sign.”
She said Ziegenhagen treated her child worse than her own dog, which she allegedly took to the veterinarian while Briele was restrained in a car seat and left alone in a bedroom for more than two hours.
Ziegenhagen’s family would disagree with this assessment – all three members testified she was a loving mother who doted on the children in her care.
Her mother-in-law, Denise Ziegenhagen, said she has seen “a different Kyla” since the August 12, 2014 incident, one who has been doing “nothing but crying for months” and is genuinely remorseful.
Her aunt, Denise Bishop, said the incident has been a “tragedy for everybody” but urged the court not to dwell on something that can’t be changed.
“It was not done out of malice. There was no intent to do any harm,” Bishop said. “Kyla doesn’t have that in her.”
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Krystyn Reid said this was “likely the saddest case [she’s] ever seen and likely the saddest the court will ever see.”
She called the case a “tale of two mothers” and the trajectory of the lives of both women “have been permanently altered.”
“I know Ms. Ziegenhagen wishes she could go back to that day. In the end she put the life of her dog before her children,” Reid said. “Everyone in this courtroom wishes she didn’t make that choice.”
Ziegenhagen’s attorney Douglas Walter called the incident “a tragedy” for the Bullocks but noted also for Ziegenhagen and her family.
Walter said his client was rendered incompetent for a time and went through restoration services while incarcerated.
He asked the court to be fair to the fact that this was a “tragic accident” and not a murder out of malice. The prison time suggested for this crime – 13 to 22 years in prison – would be too severe and five years would be sufficient, Walter said.
“When a child dies, five years is not sufficient,” Reid countered.
Rizk said it was a “series of events” Aug. 12 that “led to a child dying,” beginning with a stop at McDonald’s in the morning without Briele and ending with the discovery of an unconscious child upon returning from the veterinarian later that day.
Before announcing his sentence, Rizk rebuked Ziegenhagen for making a “conscious decision” to leave behind the “most vulnerable, dependent one” that afternoon.
“Nothing good was going to happen to that child,” Rizk said. “If it was not death, something bad was going to happen.”