Relatives of Kristina Hepp expressed outrage that Chelci Folds didn't get any prison time.
By Karen Voyles
Published: Friday, November 20, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
The surviving relatives of 4-year-old Kristina Hepp, whose father is accused of beating her to death earlier this year, cried and implored a judge Thursday to harshly punish a key witness to the little girl's death.
Despite the emotional outpouring, Chelci Folds, 19, of Mayo, received five years' probation as part of a plea deal in the case.
Prosecutors have identified Folds as the key witness against Kristina's father, Matthew Roland. State Attorney Bill Cervone has said he plans to seek the death penalty for Roland, 23, who has been indicted on charges of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse in Kristina's death.
Kristina died April 27 inside Roland's Waccasassa home. Folds, who was his girlfriend at the time, was charged with child neglect involving great bodily harm. The charge against Folds was filed after a medical examiner determined Kristina could have survived had she received medical care.
A crying Folds stood before Circuit Court Judge David Glant during an hour-long, midday sentencing hearing at the Gilchrist County Courthouse in Trenton.
"I am truly sorry," Folds said. "I know that no matter how many times I say I'm sorry, that won't bring her (Kristina) back. I'm sorry from the bottom of my heart."
During the hearing, Kristina's mother, Elizabeth Brown, participated by telephone from her home at an undisclosed location outside Florida. She urged Glant - with a voice sometimes choked with tears - to increase the sentence, saying a five-year probation was insufficient.
"I'm not sure anyone will ever know what happened, but Matthew's hand will always be stained with Kristina's blood," Brown said. "Chelci was capable of calling for help - her fingers were not broken, and her voice works as well as mine."
In his comments to the judge, Folds' attorney, Bill Salmon, claimed Folds was also a victim of Roland's abuse.
According to Salmon, Folds tried on several occasions to leave the house but had no car of her own and no access to the keys to Roland's car, had no cell phone and would leave the mobile home only when Roland drove her to her part-time job at a restaurant in Trenton. Salmon also claimed that on the last day of Kristina's life, Roland purposely kept Folds from seeing the child.
Salmon argued for leniency for Folds because of her role in the tragedy.
"There is no question that Chelci (Folds) is the single most important witness in this case" against Roland, Salmon said.
Kristina's maternal grandfather, Andrew Hepp of Ocoee, was among the witnesses who told Glant they did not know why the little girl was killed and that a sentence of five years' probation was unacceptable.
"She (Folds) needs to be held responsible," Hepp said. "She saw this happen and did nothing."
Glant said he had to weigh competing issues in the case in sentencing Folds.
"The family is justifiably seeking Department of Corrections time," Glant said. "The state entered into an agreement with the defendant (Folds) based upon their discovery, based upon what they need to have to establish the ultimate guilt in their case. So there are competing issues before me right now that cannot be reconciled by any sentence on the extremely lenient or extremely harsh end. I cannot reconcile those positions."