When firefighters arrived at Joel Zellmer's home they found three-year-old Ashley lying unconscious on the living room floor. Zellmer had been looking after her while her mother was away, he said. How had she ended up in his pool? She'd wandered off while he was sleeping, he claimed.
Zellmer supposedly had a pattern of preying on single moms and taking out insurance policies on their kids.
Unfortunately for Zellmer, a jury didn't buy the story and found him guilty of second-degree murder for the 2003 death of his stepdaughter.
Ashley's death was initially ruled an accident. But after a long and circuitous route that eventually wound its way all the way to the state supreme court, the case was finally heard last month.At the trial, prosecutors presented a damning line of witnesses in the form of Zellmer's exes. Each one had eerily similar backgrounds; single moms whose kids had met with some mysterious accident once Zellmer entered the picture.
One suffered a broken leg. One a burned mouth from an overheated sippy cup. And one, more fortunate than Ashley, almost died from drowning.
In each case, argued the prosecution, Zellmer stood to gain from the kids' misfortune. Just as he did with Ashley, on whom he'd taken out a $200,000 insurance policy three months before her death.
Zellmer has yet to be sentenced, but could face life in prison because his crime was committed against someone the state considers a vulnerable person.