Blinding thoughts of a rich insurance payout must’ve raced through Joel Zellmer’s mind as his stepdaughter Ashley desperately gasped for life in the family’s frigid backyard swimming pool near Seattle.
Zellmer had been married to Stacey Ferguson for just months when the straw-haired little Ashley, just three years old, drowned in the chilly water that December night in 2003.
Fire fighters called to the scene found Ashley wet, unconscious and dying on the living-room floor. Zellmer said he found her floating in the water and pulled her out.
Ashley must’ve toddled through the sliding glass door to eat some cake left on the deck, and then fallen into the pool while he napped, Zellmer told investigators.
But Zellmer had drowned Ashley for $200,000 in life-insurance money, the court ruled. He’ll pay for her life with 50 years in state prison.
No witnesses saw Zellmer kill Ashley. Instead, prosecutors wove a tapestry of circumstantial evidence that convinced the court he’d murdered her. Prosecutors stitched together this story:
Zellmer seemed strangely detached at Ashley’s death scene and never even asked if she’d live, officials testified.
Urged mothers to buy life insurance
Zellmer also had a frightening history of whirlwind wooing of single women with young children, trying to have life coverage bought on the children’s lives, and then harming the kids. The alarmed mothers all broke off with Zellmer when they realized something was dangerously wrong.
In 2000, Zellmer was dating Kelly Clauson, the mother of an infant son Kyle. She was startled to find her baby on the master bedroom floor, soaking wet. Kyle was glazed with a blue pallor, and Zellmer also was in the bedroom. He claimed Kyle must’ve crawled into the hot tub located just off the bedroom.
But the tub was covered by a heavy insulated lid. Kyle was too young to walk, let alone lift the lid. Zellmer even forbade Clauson to change Kyle into warm clothing or hold him for a half-hour afterward.
Another time, Clauson said she left Zellmer and Kyle briefly alone together. When she returned, the boy’s hands were blistered with second-degree burns. He must’ve leaned against the hot glass of the fireplace, Zellmer told Clauson. She ended the relationship.
Then in 2002, Zellmer was engaged to Michelle Barnett, who had a four-year-old daughter Madison. Soon afterward, Zellmer told his new fiancee he needed to buy life coverage for her and Madison.
Several months later, Zellmer offered to babysit Madison while Michelle was at work. When Michelle returned, young Madison was wearing different clothing from that morning. Madison had tripped and fallen into the pool, Zellmer said. Michelle broke up with him after finding a hand-shaped bruise on Madison’s buttock.
Broke child’s legs
Zellmer started dating another woman in the Spring of 2003. She left Zellmer when he tried to convince her to buy life coverage on her and her three-year-old daughter Mia.
Within months, Zellmer then became engaged to Ashley’s mother, with fatal consequences.
A decade before this string of broken romances, Zellmer had married a woman with a four-month-old son Michael.
At least one of the baby’s legs were broken in what Zellmer claimed was a hit-and-run car crash soon he’d bought an uninsured-motorist policy. He took the child to the hospital after the supposed wreck, but an examination showed the child wasn’t hurt.
Zellmer returned with the child three days later. Eerily, new X-rays showed the tyke’s left tibia was fractured, and his right leg possibly was fractured.
But no car crash had happened, his wife said. She said she saw Zellmer damaging the back of his Honda to create the appearance of a rear-end collision. The child’s legs were injured so Zellmer could fraudulently collect a $25,000 insurance payday, prosecutors contended. He dropped the claim when his wife signed a declaration saying there was no crash.
Zellmer’s murder conviction came too late to save little Ashley. But at least the churning wheels of justice made sure he found no life in life-insurance fraud.
This case and others like it spurred The Washington Department of Insurance to restrict the sale of juvenile life insurance for fraudulent purposes in 2009.