Just after the sun set, the family and closest friends of Ashton-Lynette Arnold gathered in an otherwise abandoned parking lot to mark the first anniversary of her death.
The 5-year-old had swallowed pills at the home of her mother’s friends. Soon, she complained of stomach pains, dizziness and wobbly legs. For hours, nothing was done.
On the evening of October 22, 2013, in Inglis, Fla., Donovan Shelton, 17, helps his mother Stacy Molinelli launch a heart-shaped paper lantern during a small memorial service to remember 5-year-old Ashton-Lynette Arnold on the one year anniversary of the her death.
Ashton’s heart stopped beating at 4:56 p.m. that Monday as her mother, Elizabeth Rydbom, and Rydbom’s partner huddled in a hospital waiting room, trying to figure out which pill or pills she might have ingested.
Four people, including Rydbom, were charged in the death of Ashton, whose short childhood was chronicled in the files of the Florida Department of Children & Families. The department investigated multiple claims of her mother’s drug use and of inadequate supervision.
“DCF has been in Ashton’s life almost since she was born. They investigated, but they never followed up,” said Ashton’s grandmother, Stacy Molinelli. “They simply suggested a drug addict not to take drugs and take a parenting class. Had they followed up, had they spent any time on this case, they would have seen that my daughter was a full-blown addict.”
Still whirling in grief, Molinelli released a series of lit paper lanterns into the sky, watching silently as they were carried up and away by a gentle wind. The lanterns, in fuchsia, yellow and blue — the last the color of Ashton’s eyes — were featured in her favorite movie, Disney’s Tangled, about a princess with magical hair who yearned to leave her secluded tower.
Molinelli raised her granddaughter for the first two years. During Ashton’s final three years, Molinelli watched helplessly as Rydbom wilted under a relentless drug habit. She watched as her daughter toted the child from place to place, and finally to the house where Ashton took the fatal dose.
Police confiscated nearly 3,000 pills, which were stuffed into six grocery bags in the home-turned-crime scene.
DCF had been called to investigate Ashton’s welfare three times, the first when she was just over a year old. Four months later, DCF received a report alleging Rydbom was abusing methamphetamine. She tested positive for marijuana, and admitted, according to the DCF file, that she had a “major problem” with meth.
Drug treatment was offered. Rydbom, like so many parents in Florida, never followed through. DCF staff discussed legal options, but the result of that discussion is not recorded in the file.
The third report involved domestic violence. Again, Rydbom tested positive for pot, as well as for meth and amphetamines.
The case was closed before DCF had confirmed whether Rydbom received drug treatment. In at least two investigations, the agency lowered the perceived risk to Ashton based on reassurances rather than confirmed services.
All four women — Rydbom, her partner Kimberly Alderman, and the caregivers at the time of death, mother and daughter Valarie Davenport and Julianne Goldsmith, all of Inglis, a town west of Ocala near the Gulf Coast — were charged. Rydbom, Goldsmith and Davenport eventually entered plea agreements to child neglect with bodily harm; Alderman pleaded no contest to child neglect without bodily harm .
Rydbom was 17 and using drugs when Ashton was born, the DCF file states. Four months later, the new teenage mom left her mother’s house to take a walk. She didn’t come back.
At the time, Molinelli was 36, a single mother of three whose contract job at a construction company had recently ended. She was unprepared to be a baby’s primary caregiver. She did it anyway.
“I just said to myself that I can’t turn my back on Ashton because Elizabeth does not want to be a mother. First, I tried to file abandonment charges,” she said. “The DCF investigator came out and said that because she was here and safe, Ashton had not been ‘abandoned.’ ”
Molinelli said she was discouraged by DCF from seeking legal custody, saying she was told it would be an expensive and futile effort. So she was resigned to being a substitute mom, raising a granddaughter — until Rydbom returned, ready to resume her role. It was, by Molinelli’s reckoning, a troubling decision.
“When Ashton was with me, she was taken care of. She was safe,” Molinelli said. “There were times I would see Elizabeth when she had the baby and she was so high she didn’t know the day of the week. And somehow DCF thought she was stable enough to care for a child.”
On the afternoon of Oct. 21, 2012, Rydbom left Ashton with Goldsmith and Davenport while she went to purchase morphine from a local drug dealer, according to a DCF Comprehensive Death Review. Rydbom returned about 8 p.m., and the three adults allegedly smoked K2 spice, a form of synthetic marijuana, and drank alcohol before she left again.
An hour or so later, Davenport gave Ashton a Zantac for heartburn relief because she was complaining of stomach pain. She was also wheezing and had trouble breathing. Later that night, the women gave her Benadryl because she was itching.
The next morning, Ashton’s breathing became more labored, but instead of calling for help, Davenport went back to sleep. By 1 p.m., she was unable to wake the girl. The women called Rydbom but, according to the DCF file, did not call 911 until Rydbom arrived at the home. The mother told investigators that when she found Ashton, “her chest was rising rapidly, she was gasping for air, her lips were dry, she was pale and cold to the touch.”
Rydbom said Goldsmith divulged that Ashton might have taken the narcotic pain reliever Tramadol, but after researching the side effects, neither woman called poison control or sought medical help.
Ashton died that afternoon.
She tested positive for diphenhydramine, morphine and amphetamine, leading investigators to believe she ingested the narcotics in the friend’s home. Investigators later collected 2,841 prescription and over-the-counter pills.
The Child Protection Team, a medically directed unit that evaluates abuse and neglect cases, found that Ashton’s death was preventable. An autopsy concluded she died of mixed-drug toxic ingestion. The CPT said there was medical neglect because of the two-hour delay in seeking medical attention.
“The mother readily allowed her child to stay in her friend’s home several times a week, knowing the home was filthy and that pills were everywhere and readily accessible to the child,” the team concluded.
Molinelli is left only with memories abruptly cut short and aspirations unfulfilled.
“I think about all the things she is not going to be able to do. She is never going to have that first kiss. She is never going to graduate from high school,” she said. “She is never going to dress up and go to the prom, have babies of her own, go to college and make something wonderful of herself.”