48 years in GJ girl’s murder
Women handed identical sentences in slaying of 3-year-old
Two women who admitted their roles in the brutal abuse and murder of a 3-year-old girl in Grand Junction last year were sentenced Thursday to 48 years in prison each, the maximum sentence allowed under their plea agreements.
It’s not known whether it was 30-year-old Shanna Lorane Gossett or her 32-year-old girlfriend Rebekah Joy Wallin who dealt the fatal blow to Gossett’s young niece Bethannie Johnson, hours and possibly days before the child was found unresponsive by paramedics on March 17, 2016. But prosecutors believe that Bethannie, who had been given into Gossett’s custody by a judge, suffered horrendous abuse at both women’s hands in her last days alive, said Mesa County Assistant District Attorney Rich Tuttle.
Bethannie and Gossett were living with Wallin and her children at a home in the 3000 block of N. 14th St. last year.
Several of Bethannie’s family members who attended the hearing cried quietly as Mesa County District Judge Brian Flynn spent several minutes reading aloud every injury documented during Bethannie’s autopsy – brown, red, purple, black, yellow abrasions and contusions on every part of her body, hemorrhages in her brain.
“She was literally injured in one way or another from her head to her toes,” Flynn said.
Bethannie seemed healthy at her Feb. 23, 2016, visit with her pediatrician, which Tuttle said makes it clear that her extensive injuries were inflicted in a short timespan.
“We know that the injuries inflicted on Bethannie had to have occurred between Feb. 23 and March 17,” Tuttle said.
Gossett, who was arrested first in the case, has changed her story about how Bethannie died several times, initially blaming her sister before accepting responsibility herself. Wallin was arrested several months later after Gossett called for a meeting with law enforcement to tell them Wallin had inflicted the injuries that led to Bethannie’s death.
Gossett said Wallin brutalized Bethannie — corroborated in part by Wallin’s own children — by holding the child’s mouth under a running faucet to force her to drink, force-feeding her spicy foods and shoving them in when the child started to vomit, punching her, and, in her last days, swinging Bethannie by her ankles and smashing her into walls, a treadmill and a shelving unit. After one of those blows, Gossett said, Bethannie’s tiny body began to jerk and she stopped breathing.
On Thursday, Gossett’s attorneys told Flynn that she too was a victim of violence at Wallin’s hands. Public Defender Kimberly Paz said Gossett, who from ages 8 to 11 was the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of an adult man, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and dependent personality disorder as an adult.
“Ms. Wallin preyed on Ms. Gossett’s compromised mental state,” Paz said.
Gossett addressed Flynn briefly before breaking down in tears.
“Sorry is never going to cover it. It’s never going to take the pain away from my family and it’s never going to bring back Bethannie,” Gossett said. “I was supposed to protect her and I failed her miserably.”
Wallin, whose attorneys denied that she abused Gossett, read a statement as well, saying she loved Bethannie.
“My heart breaks for the loss of Bethannie,” Wallin said. “I am beyond thankful that I knew her. … She deserved to live and all children deserve a chance at life.”
Wallin said she was “disgusted” with her role in Bethannie’s death.
“I am so very ashamed and I am so sorry it came to this,” Wallin said.
Both Gossett and Wallin pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in identical deals that allowed them to avoid being prosecuted for first-degree murder and child abuse resulting in death. Tuttle said Thursday that both women should be treated equally and he asked for the maximum penalty of 48 years for each.
“The fact is, they needlessly beat, abused and tortured and deprived of care a little child they were responsible for,” he said.
Several relatives told Flynn how deeply their family has felt Bethannie’s loss.
Victoria Owen, Gossett’s cousin, described Bethannie as a “sweetheart” and typical toddler who was close with her own children.
“The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life is tell them that she was gone,” Owen said, adding that the next hardest moment was telling them that Gossett was accused in the child’s death.
Owen said she felt she lied to her children when she told them Bethannie was killed when someone hit her.
“She didn’t just get hit and died,” Owen told Flynn. “She was tortured. … I just hope you make sure that neither one of these women can hurt another child ever again.”
Tuttle told Flynn Thursday that all members of Bethannie’s family he spoke to were supportive of the bargain, which also spared them the pain and uncertainty of taking the case to trial.
Tuttle also said that Gossett and Wallin — the best witnesses to Bethannie’s death — would have complicated a trial by each blaming each other.
“It was a difficult decision,” Tuttle said of the plea deal. “I understand why people say it is not enough time.”
Flynn said he found the inhumanity in the case “shocking to a reasonable person’s consciousness.”
“(Bethannie) was completely defenseless. She couldn’t protect herself in any way,” Flynn said. “She was certainly a beautiful child. … She never deserved anything that happened to her.”
Despite Paz’s request that Gossett receive a shorter sentence than Wallin, Flynn said he doesn’t give much credibility to what he called Gossett’s efforts to throw her ex-girlfriend “under the bus.” Flynn said both women are equally responsible and sentenced each to 48 years, the maximum allowed under the second-degree murder conviction, plus five years of mandatory parole upon their release.
Tuttle said after the ruling that he is glad the case is over for Bethannie’s family’s sake, and that the sentences were both “appropriate.”
Miriam Baker, Gossett’s mother and Bethannie’s grandmother, said through tears that her sadness hasn’t lifted.
“I’m sad for Bethannie’s loss, and I’m sad for the loss of these girls … for (Wallin’s) family,” Baker said. “I’m sorry for everybody. … It’s not a win. Nobody wins.”