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Denver mayor John Hickenlooper's chief of staff Michael Bennet speaks as he and the mayor meet with Rocky Mountain News reporters, editors and the publisher in downtown Denver on Friday morning, July 25, 2003. Photo by ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS

Saying she wanted to avoid putting her children through another ordeal, a Colorado Springs woman accepted a plea deal Friday and admitted she poured gasoline on her five children and lit them on fire, killing one.

Maria Darlene Gardner, who also uses the last name Joseph, pleaded guilty to child abuse causing death and four counts of child abuse causing serious bodily injury. The deal was mediated Friday before Senior 4th Judicial District Judge Richard Toth.

In exchange for her pleas, prosecutors Jeff Lindsey and Debbie Pearson dropped charges of first-degree murder and 11 other charges.

Gardner, 26, will be sentenced to between 75 and 85 years in prison Feb. 20.

The Jan. 28 fire at the family's home, 3225 Galena Court, killed Gardner's 16-month-old daughter, Ashia Joseph, and severely burned her four other children, then ages 3 to 9.

Fourth Judicial District Judge Timothy Simmons vacated her trial, scheduled for Jan. 20, after he questioned her about her mental state and her decision to plead guilty over her public defenders' objections.

Gardner had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

Deputy Public Defender Michael McHenry told Simmons he advised Gardner against the plea deal.

"I thought we could win with the insanity defense," McHenry said. "An expert psychologist examined her within four days of the fire and decided she was completely psychotic at the time. She chose to do this so her kids would not have to be put through the trauma of testifying in open court."

McHenry said at prior hearings that the October 2007 suicide of Gardner's husband sent her over the edge mentally.

Friends testified at prior hearings that she would sleep in the bed in which he shot himself, wear his clothes, spend a lot of time at his grave and prayed that she and the children would die so they could be with him.

The children had been gathered into Gardner's bedroom and traces of gasoline were found leading from the bedroom door, over the bed where the four children slept, to the baby's crib.

On tapes of the 911 call to police, her then 8-year-old son Dominic was heard saying "We were asleep. She dumped some oil on the ground and started it on fire" and screaming in pain: "Why did you kill them. I loved them."

Dontrell, 10, suffered burns over 85 percent of his body; Amarjahan, 4, was burned over 40 percent of her body; Supreme, 6, suffered burns on 20 percent of his body and was cut on the neck.

After the fire, Colorado Springs Police officers found Gardner lying in the street, blocks from the burned home on Galena Court. She suffered minor injuries.

Simmons ordered Gardner to undergo a pre-sentence investigation and ordered she be continued to be held in jail without bond.


Contact the writer: dennis.huspeni@gazette.com or 636-0110.




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