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Originally published Friday, June 18, 2010 at 3:35 PM

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Man who killed stepdaughter for insurance money gets long sentence

A Kent man who was found guilty of killing his 3-year-old stepdaughter after taking out a life-insurance policy on her in 2003 was sentenced Friday to 50 years in prison.

Seattle Times staff reporter

A Kent man who was found guilty of killing his 3-year-old stepdaughter after taking out a life-insurance policy on her in 2003 was sentenced Friday to 50 years in prison.

Joel Zellmer was found guilty of second-degree murder in April. He faced a potential life sentence because jurors found that the crime involved the death of a vulnerable person, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors sought the exceptional 50-year sentence, while Zellmer's defense team asked Superior Court Judge Catherine Shaffer for a standard-range sentence, which would cap at about 18 years.

In December 2003, Ashley McLellan, 3, drowned in Zellmer's swimming pool while the girl's mother was away. After two investigations by the King County Sheriff's Office, Zellmer, 40, was arrested in 2007 in connection with Ashley's death.

"Even when Joel is in prison, this will not be over," said Stacey Ferguson, Ashley's mother.

Ferguson, Ashley's father, other relatives and friends packed the courtroom Friday with the hope that Shaffer would hand down a life sentence. There were smiles from their side of the gallery when they heard the sentence.

"Ashley's murder has turned us into broken people," said Peggy Lambert, the slain girl's grandmother. "Ashley was a gift to us from God."

Ashley's death was initially ruled an accident, but the case was reopened after Ferguson and her lawyer presented new evidence to detectives and prosecutors linking Zellmer to the case, prosecutors said.

According to charging documents, Kent firefighters were called to the Zellmer home Dec. 3, 2003, and found Ashley unconscious and soaking wet on the living-room floor.

Zellmer told a fire captain that the girl apparently opened a sliding door to eat some cake that had been left on the deck. He said the girl then walked down a set of stairs to the uncovered swimming pool so she could wash off her hands.

Brad Hampton, Zellmer's defense attorney, told jurors that Zellmer's 8-year-old son had been watching the girl while Zellmer rested after a medical appointment. At one point, the boy checked on the little girl and noticed she wasn't in her room.

Neither Zellmer nor his family spoke at Friday's sentencing. Zellmer did not take the stand during the trial.

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"He is not the monster the state has portrayed him as," said Alan Lobdell, a friend of the Zellmer family. "Joel is, in fact, innocent."

Zellmer preyed on single mothers so he could target their children for potential insurance payoffs, Senior Deputy Prosecutor Marilyn Brenneman said during the monthlong trial. Jurors heard testimony about children of these women suffering broken legs, burned hands — and one near-drowning.

Zellmer will next be tried on three counts of first-degree theft for allegedly collecting payments from the state Department of Labor and Industries for an injury he did not have; for allegedly defrauding a mortgage company; and for allegedly collecting a bogus insurance claim, prosecutors said.

These charges, which were filed at the same time as the murder case, were split from it earlier this year.

Information from The Seattle Times archives is contained in this report.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jsullivan@seattletimes.com

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