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Thursday, March 24, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lake Stevens woman guilty in child's death

Times Snohomish County Bureau

EVERETT — Snohomish County prosecutors contend that Heather Ewell was overwhelmed by her children; that she snapped and killed her stepdaughter, Sirita Sotelo.

Though the 25-year-old Lake Stevens woman initially claimed that the 4-year-old died after drinking glue-gun cleaner, she pleaded guilty yesterday to first-degree manslaughter. Plea negotiations began soon after an autopsy revealed Sirita had a skull fracture, severed liver and other injuries consistent with serious trauma.

"It was an accident," Bonnie Swinney, Ewell's grandmother, said after yesterday's court hearing. "Heather wouldn't hurt any child on purpose."

Snohomish County Deputy Prosecutor Craig Matheson said he will ask a judge to sentence Ewell to 8 ½ years in prison, because "she killed a 4-year-old kid in a pretty violent way."

In the months after Sirita's addition to Ewell's household in the fall 2003, Ewell grew depressed, according to charging papers. In a diary seized by Snohomish County sheriff's detectives, Ewell detailed concerns over her marriage and family, according to court papers.

Tensions came to a head Jan. 21, when Ewell claimed that Sirita was acting up. Ewell asked her husband, John, to come home and help her, but he didn't, charging papers say. That night, Ewell's sister called 911 to report that Sirita wasn't breathing.

When investigators arrived and found the child dead, Ewell and her sister said the child drank glue-gun cleaner, prompting them to call the state Poison Control Hotline. They also said Sirita fell and hit her head in the shower. Although the women said the last time they saw Sirita alive was at about 8:25 p.m., the medical examiner determined that the child died about eight hours earlier, according to court documents.

The Ewells' four other children, ages 8, 6, 4 and 1 year old, have been living with relatives.

Ewell's mother-in-law, Georgeann Buoy, and Swinney, the grandmother, say they support Ewell's decision to plead guilty.

Sirita had spent much of her life bouncing between foster care and her biological mother. The girl's mother, Patricia Sotelo, 40, has been incarcerated in Snohomish County and King County since November on unrelated drug charges.

Two foster families of the child said they would have adopted her.

"She was a beautiful girl who shouldn't have died," said Kate, a Monroe foster mother who asked that her last name not be published to protect the identities of her other foster children. "If she was such a problem why not leave her with Gary or me?"

Gary M., who was Sirita's foster parent after Kate and her husband, James, said Sirita lived with his family for nine months. He said they wanted to adopt the girl, but when Sirita's biological father, John Ewell, 30, voiced interest, Sirita was turned over to him in November 2003.

Gary said he and his wife worried whether Heather Ewell would treat the child unfairly, like a "Cinderella," because she was a product of her husband's infidelity. After yesterday's hearing, Gary said he agreed with the prosecutor's recommended sentence. "She's not a danger to society," he said of Ewell. "She's a danger to kids."

Jennifer Sullivan: 425-783-0604 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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