This blog is a little different than the rest because there is no murder, however there is an attempt at a murder-suicide. It’s easy to point fingers at people who have committed atrocities when you don’t know what life has thrown at them. Everyone is appalled at mothers who murder. This woman, Kelli Stapleton, loved her autistic daughter Isabelle, “Issy” and did everything within her power to care for her. But eventually the violence, emotional strain and fear for her life became too real. Stapleton did the unthinkable and tried to kill Issy and herself.
Kelli and Matt Stapleton met at Kalamazoo College and became sweethearts. When they got married in 1996, they planned to have six children because they’d both grown up in big families, but when daughter Issy was diagnosed, they stopped at three. Stapleton raised the children and Matt became the principal athletic director and football coach of Frankfort high school. Life was good even with the many challenges that Issy brought. However the challenges were about to get much worse.
It was as Issy was moving toward middle school she started to act out. When she was 11, she attacked her mother from the backseat of the car. Stapleton pulled over and called her husband for help. While they were waiting, Issy knocked her unconscious and she wound up in the emergency room. For the next three years, life at the Stapleton house was often about avoiding an “ass-whupping.” These were no small temper tantrums. “Her pupils become dilated, her skin gets clammy, and Elvis has left the building. Think of the scariest movie you know of, like a demon possession, this intense rage embodied in this sweet little girl.”
One day Issy, 13, knocked her out in the kitchen. Stapleton’s daughter Ainsley found her and called her father. Stapleton woke up in the hospital feeling nauseous. Long-term symptoms of concussion began, including forgetting words and thoughts, and getting migraines. Stapleton typically downplayed these incidents to friends. When friends saw her with a black eye, Stapleton assured them, “That’s all right. We’re okay. We got it under control,” or maybe joked, “I zigged. She zagged. She got me.”
Great Lakes Center for Autism Treatment and Research – Portage, Michigan
Eventually Issy was admitted to the Great Lakes Centre where she lived for 7 months. The program had helped Issy to control her aggressive behaviors and learn to keep her hands to herself. During her months in the program she progressed very well and Stapleton, was greatly encouraged. But towards Issy’s last weeks in the Center her behavior became problematic once again. Because of this, Stapleton’s insurance company refused to pay for the expensive placement, telling her that Issy’s aggressive behavior was proof the program wasn’t working. The Centre informed the insurance company that the re-appearance of Issy’s aggressive behavior was normal as they had begun to re-integrate into her family but the company refused to listen. So Issy was sent home.
Forty years ago an impossible child was sent to an institution and nobody objected. There were no resources for families with autistic children and no laws that protected the child’s right to a public education. Now society doesn’t believe in those institutions anymore and instead parents somehow have to integrate their troubled children into a normal, mainstream community. From the minute Issy woke up until she went to bed, Stapleton subjected her minor routines to rigid control. Stapleton would say, “Touch your nose,” and when Issy did it she gave her a little prize. If Issy wanted something, she had to look Stapleton in the eye to get it. Sometimes Stapleton had to make the same request ten or 20 times in a day. By the end, Stapleton found herself pleading desperately, “Dear God. Touch your nose! Your whole future depends on this!”
The Program, the Insurance Company and the School
Issy received tokens for every two minutes she kept her hands quiet; every half-hour, she could trade them at the “Issy store” for things she liked. The program worked. Issy performed like a “rock star.” Stapleton was prepared to fight to keep her there, but she changed her mind and decided Issy should come home for the school year. She believed the Centre paid less attention to Issy with the arrival of a second girl. Stapleton felt her daughter would be better off at her local school where she could stay, academically, at grade level. Issy wanted to come home, too. For days, she had been saying, “Issy comes home on August 30. Issy will go to Frankfort-Elberta schools. Issy will sleep in Issy’s bed. No more Great Lakes.”
However Issy’s school wasn’t as thrilled that she was coming home. The school superintendent told Kelli that they couldn’t take her daughter. Some parents at the school were worried about having Issy in classes with their kids. “Nobody wanted her,” Stapleton said. Great Lakes’ intense-behavior plan was more than the school could handle, especially in addition to the curriculum Stapleton had laid out (band and art with Issy’s peers, math and history alone with an aide). The superintendent advised Stapleton to home school Issy. In spite of the devastating news, Stapleton was determined to give herself and Issy a fresh start.
Before picking up Issy from the center, Stapleton imagined, “probably foolishly,” that they would go many weeks without violence. For most of Issy’s stay, Stapleton received daily graphs from the center that showed a steep decline in Issy’s worrisome behavior, and the graphs made Stapleton dream. She pictured a life very different from the one she had been living. Stapleton believed that the days where she spent her afternoons and weekends avoiding eye contact with Issy, or telling her other daughter, Ainsley, that she couldn’t go to a friend’s house because Issy was so attached to her and would go crazy if she left, would be over.
“It was just so good to have her in the car again,” Stapleton said. “And we see the sign on the gate that says WELCOME HOME ISSY and she’s so damned happy.” Happy didn’t last. Matt Stapleton, Kelli and Issy got out of the car the Friday afternoon they returned home and Kelli recalled, “And then she reaches behind me and she hits me.” By Issy standards, it was barely a hit. This hit barely made Kelli stumble. It was a “glancing blow,” she said. Matt later called it just a “hair pulling.” But Stapleton couldn’t let it go.
Stapleton’s now ex-husband stated that the hit at the front door was expected and that Great Lakes warned them Issy would test them as she adjusted to being home again, and they would see the old behaviors again for a while. But for Stapleton, that first hit was not a test, and not expected, but a clue that the fantasy she’d built of her brighter, livable future an illusion. She was right.
The Sunday Issy was back home Stapleton drove Issy, Ainsley, and an aide the mile to Matt’s school to use the indoor track, where “just out of nowhere Issy pulls my hair and starts hitting me pretty hard around my head and face.” Stapleton fell to the ground, and a few people around her managed to pull Issy away. Stapleton was “crushed” by the episode, two since Issy returned home.
The Status Woe
The Status Woe is a blog Kelli began and used to communicate with parents of autistic children and professionals who work with them about the tribulations of getting your “ass kicked (literally) every day” in your own house. This is a recent excerpt from TSW posted by kellisfriendmarlowe:
As the trial grows closer, we continue to struggle with the financial aspect of this situation. Right now we are seeking funds to hire an expert witness we believe will give important insight to the judge and jury at her trial. Currently, Kelli has no assets to speak of and we are growing extremely concerned about her future without this expert witness. The charges against Kelli hold a maximum sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole.
An entry Stapleton had posted on her blog was titled “Domestic Abuse and Why I Stay with My Abuser.”
I’ve been bruised from head to toe, knocked unconscious, suffered injuries that were visible and others that weren’t. I’ve had to make decisions about going out in public because of how my face looked, and what to wear to best cover my bruises and contusions. I’ve had a bank close my account because my signature never matched my signature card…but it doesn’t if your fingers are broken, strained, and sprained. I don’t like to be hit. It hurts me physically, and it hurts my feelings. I know my abuser loves me. I also know my abuser will kill me. But I still can’t leave. So now what?
The family faced moving from their longstanding community, disrupting the lives of their two other children, McEwen, 16, and Ainsley who was a frequent victim of Issy’s rages. “I am devastated. My husband is gutted,” she wrote on her blog in the days before the attempted murder.
Austism and Aggression
Aggression is not a symptom of autism but autistic kids have trouble communicating what they want or need or finding the right way to connect with other people. More severely autistic children have more trouble communicating, although that doesn’t necessarily mean they are more violent. However up to 32 percent exhibit “disruptive, irritable, or aggressive behavior.” Certain conditions can make the aggression more severe including:
- a lower IQ,
- high impulsivity,
If a child is prone to aggression, he or she can become more difficult to control around puberty. At this time in her life, Issy became bigger and when enraged, she had a superhuman, adrenaline-fueled strength.
Autism and Families
Parents of severely violent autistic children can drift into dark fantasies. In Far From the Tree, a collection of case studies, a father named Harry Slatkin stated that mostly he spent his days trying to keep his autistic son, David, away from the pond near their house, but some days he wished David would walk into it. Lisa Sain, a friend of Stapleton’s and a widow, had a son named Preston who often attacked her. Once she drove him to the train tracks, because he loved trains, and tried to will herself to drive the car in front of a train. Ainsley, who was 18 months younger and much smaller than Issy, occasionally hid under her bed or locked herself in a car to avoid Issy’s rage.
Stapleton heard about an intense therapy called applied behavior analysis (ABA), the same positive-reinforcement system employed at Great Lakes. “There was proof that children recovered,” Stapleton said. “If I work really, really hard and I do it really, really well, then I can cure her. I must do this!” She tracked down a child psychiatrist in Michigan and essentially dedicated all of her waking hours to the Issy-improvement project. In fact there is no cure for autism. ABA was created to assist autistic children in reducing undesirable behaviours. If the symptoms of autism do recede thanks to ABA, that happens by the time a child turns 5. After three years of hard and relentless work, Issy was more communicative and open to learning but her responses to Stapleton and the Issy program were less than impressive. Still, the night before Issy’s 5th birthday, Stapleton stayed up late at her dining-room table, convinced she had one day left and she could wake up to a miracle. Once it became clear to Stapleton that Issy was not going to become that miracle, a wound opened up in Stapleton that never healed. That psychological wound matched the physical wounds Stapleton received from Issy.
After the track incident, or maybe on Labor Day Stapleton developed a plan. As she conceived of it, this plan would ensure that Ainsley would not get hit on her wedding day and McKewan, her son, could have a girlfriend over. It would allow Matt to be at work worry-free and to start saving money. Like many suicidal people Stapleton felt fresh emotion and conviction, “we will be done with autism completely I am going to run with her in a grassy field and we are going to wrestle and play and visit with our animals who are in heaven. And I am going to ask her what she wants to be when she grows up, and I cannot wait. I am excited and I am relieved. Nobody is going to be hurt anymore and all of our struggles are over. We are going to paradise and we will be there in just a short time and I am so happy and I cannot wait.”
Stapleton drove her van down a path where she’d once been hiking with a friend and parked it in a secluded woody spot. Issy asked for a s’more, and Staleton said, “You betcha!” Then Stapleton gave Issy four Risperdal, double Issy’s nighttime dose of a drug to treat aggressive behavior that made her sleepy. When she was full Stapleton arranged the blankets, the extra pillowcases, and Matt’s shirt on the mattress. She bought hibachi barbeque grills, and she placed them, with coals smoldering, in the space between the front and middle seats. Then Stapleton shut the van doors so the space would fill with carbon monoxide. Issy liked to list things, so they talked about what they might pack on a trip to Florida: towels, bathing suits, sunglasses. They talked about all their pets. Then they lay down nose to nose and Stapleton said, “I love you, Issy,” and Issy said, “I love you, Mommy,” which “is a trained response.” They fell asleep.
Police found Issy and Stapleton at 7 p.m. Issy was strapped into the front passenger seat rather than lying with her mother; Stapleton was asleep in the back on a mattress. Issy was foaming at the mouth, her throat was “raw as a hamburger” and she was unconscious and unresponsive. Stapleton’s skin was cooler to the touch than Issy’s. She later explained she had been in and out of the van once to get more coals. Medics suggested she must have been in and out of the van a number of times. After four days, Issy awoke. Her first words were “Grandpa Stapleton.” Her grandfather had recently died and Issy had hardly spent any time with him. Issy told the family she and Grandfather Stapleton had been colouring together. Stapleton believed this proved that she and Issy went to Heaven and God sent them back.
The Stapleton family is a tight, extended Irish Catholic clan, and Stapleton never fit in. on Christmas Day, Matt took the kids to his mother’s house and Stapleton stayed home or visited a friend. Their criticisms of her over the years were continual: her house was always a mess, she never did the right thing with her children, she spent her time blogging and starting a vanity press in an effort to get famous instead of making money to help Matt. And she said outrageous things like she could raise money for Issy herself but she was probably “too old for porn.”
Sarah Ross, Issy’s aunt and Matt’s sister, said she did not presume to know what it was like to live with Issy day in, day out, but, for her, “the bad years were an episode in what I would call a good life. How frank do you want me to be? I don’t think she was a mom like I am a mom.” She loved her kids, “but only as an extension of herself.” Ross insisted Stapleton had no time for the dreary routine of motherhood, and she thrived on drama. Being the autistic mom was alluring so long as heroics were possible, but once it became clear that Issy would never be “fixed,” Ross said, Stapleton slipped into “the equally alluring role of victim.” In Ross’s view, Stapleton never intended to die that day. Instead she wanted to land exactly at the center of an exquisitely heartrending, daytime-talk-show-worthy drama. Ouch. Certainly Stapleton’s in-laws had nothing but contempt for this woman.
“Stapleton was smart enough, strong enough, and determined enough,” Matt’s mother, Eileen Stapleton, later stated. “If she wanted to kill herself she’d be dead.”
One year later Issy didn’t walk as unsteadily as she had after the attempt murder and she had regained her short-term memory. However the child continued to have aggressive incidents. She didn’t seem happy or unhappy but she seemed steady. Matt had long ago learned to develop diversion tactics when Issy began to get out of control. Sometimes they worked and sometimes they didn’t.
Stapleton had been an attractive, blue-eyed blonde woman and mother of 14-year-old autistic Issy. By the time this article was posted online, Stapleton had become unrecognizable: brown-haired, broken-looking, her face as lined as a map. It was impossible to believe that this was the same woman as the one in the photograph with Issy. Stapleton sent Ainsley a poem entitled “I Did It All For You,” but Matt refused to allow Ainsley to see it believing it was too much guilt for a 12-year-old child to handle. Matt believed that Stapleton had bought the hibachi grills the Thursday before Issy returned home and if that was the case then “Issy never had a chance.”
Ultimately there was no verdict in the Stapleton case. On Tuesday September 2, 2014, Stapleton pleaded guilty to first degree child abuse. The defense psychiatrist was “disappointed” in Stapleton’s plea. She felt Stapleton hadn’t abused Issy at all and in fact that it had been the other way around. Benzie County Prosecuting Attorney Sara Swanson said she was prepared to seat jurors on Wednesday for the trial expected to last 10 days. “This was an extremely serious incident which could have resulted in the death of an innocent child. A conviction of this felony carrying a maximum penalty of life in prison, and the prison sentence we expect it to carry, is the right resolution for the community, the defendant, and our victim, Isabelle.”
Stapleton was sentenced to a minimum of 10 years in prison. Never one to miss a PR opportunity, Dr Phil McGraw interviewed Stapleton on his program. Given the chance, Kelli Stapleton told “The Dr. Phil Show” she could not care for her autistic daughter, whose violence led Stapleton to an unsuccessful attempt at killing both of them. “I just cannot do it,” she said on the show that aired Tuesday, Sept. 16. “Not only did I not take her to heaven, I hurt her. I’m her mother and I hurt her. I’m not even worthy to beg her forgiveness.”
McGraw called her the most desperate person he has ever seen. McGraw said that locking Stapleton up isn’t the best solution. He announced that his show has offered to have the girl treated at a facility in Texas, with all available resources so that Issy can learn to live peacefully at home, go to school, have friends and be reunited with her family. McGraw also announced that viewers could donate on the Dr. Phil website to help Issy receive services.
Matt Stapleton thanked the show for its generosity and said it was an “amazing gesture” to help his family. In a video shown shortly after the incident occurred a year ago, he said that Issy was “doing fantastic” and improving. She was doing good with her program, he said.
However, with the mother out of the house, Ainsley became more of a target. The family had an escape plan for the girl to lock herself in a room or the car if Issy turned violent. A Children’s Protective Services worker testified early on that she found the younger sister hysterical in a locked car to escape her sister.
Many of Stapleton’s naysayers compared the mother to Hitler, who wanted to purge society of disability. Others said she should be tried on hate crimes charges for targeting someone with autism. “Your child is your child. DEAL WITH IT, life is not about coasting, it is about rising,” another wrote.
“People just don’t wake up one morning and say I’m going to take my kid in a van and kill her with carbon monoxide poisoning,” Stapleton said, adding: “I know what my wife has been through for the last 13 years since Issy’s diagnosis. It would appear to me Kelli was not in the right frame of mind. It is not rational to decide to take the life of your child.”
I sympathize with Stapleton and agree with McGraw that locking her up isn’t the answer. One reason why people who commit crime are jailed is in the event they are a danger to the community. Stapleton is not that person.