By SHARON ROWEN
News Staff Writer
NEWKIRK — It took a jury one hour and six minutes Wednesday to convict Esther Lee Bales, aka Esther Lee Montgomery, 56, in Kay County District Court of second degree murder in the drowning death of four-year-old Haley Primeaux on July 27, 2015 at the Lake Ponca Swim Beach.
Also, charged with second degree murder or in the alternative child neglect is Wanita Gale Jackson, aka Wanita Gaila Jimenez-Ramirez, 28. She is scheduled for a felony trial docket on June 7.
After the verdict, the jury entered the penalty phase of the verdict and recommended 30 years in prison. Judge Phil Ross set sentencing for July 10 at 9 a.m.
Charles Lee Botteger, the man who pulled Haley from the water, was the first to testify Wednesday. He told the court that he was at the swim beach with his son and friend playing football in the water when they saw a large group of a children get out of a vehicle along with two women.
Assistant district attorney Shawna Taylor asked Botteger to tell the court what transpired that day.
“I saw some floating hair in the water and hoped that it was someone playing a prank but it wasn’t,” said Botteger. “It was a mop of hair floating about six inches under the water. I reached my hand down underneath and their was a chin. My heart skipped a beat. I pulled her up and raced her to the shore. She was blue and cold. She was a small child and absolutely not awake. I went to the beach and hollered for people to call 911.”
Botteger said she was not wearing a life jacket but he did remember seeing her on a floatation device earlier.
Botteger said he tried to clear the lungs and started chest compressions and that a man helped him and a woman showed up.
Loftis, asked Botteger if he called the police when he saw all of the children show up. “I did not and in retrospect maybe I should have,” said Botteger.
Dr. Clay Nichols, Oklahoma Medical Examiner, took the stand. Nichols testified that he did an autopsy on Primeaux and concluded that she died of accidental drowning and that it appeared no one intentionally tried to kill the child.
Ponca City police Sgt. Brian Dye testified about his investigation. He described the depth of the water at the time of the drowning and spoke about a interview he conducted with Bales at the police department.
She reportedly told him that Jackson bought her a 12 pack of beer and then took her and the children to the lake.
Bales told Dye she left to go purchase cigarettes and wasn’t gone very long.
Loftis asked Dye if there is a city ordinance that states people have to wear a life jacket or be supervised by an adult at the lake. Dye said there are no such ordinances.
Department of Human Services worker Deanna Linder took the stand. Linder was present during the interview that Dye conducted with Bales.
She said she received a call from Ponca City police asking DHS workers to respond to the hospital regarding a drowning. She interviewed some of the children who were at the lake.
Linder said Bales admitted that Primeaux was her responsibility.
Taylor gave closing statements to the jury.
She told the jury that both sides agree on what happened and explained that their job is to find Bales guilty or not guilty of murder or child neglect but not both.
She told the jury not to throw common sense out of the window and that Bales didn’t give Haley enough supervision to keep her safe.
Loftis told the jury that perspective gets lost in cases. “They were going to the lake to have a good time with friends and family,” said Loftis.
Loftis told the jury that Bales transferred the responsibility to look out for Haley and the others to Jackson and that it is legal to do that. “She told Jackson she was going to the store and to watch the kids,” said Loftis.
Hermanson told the jury that Bales decided going to get cigarettes was more important than watching the 16 kids.
Hermanson said the incident was preventable and foreseeable.
After the verdict, Loftis issued the following statement.
“Anytime a small child has their life cut short it is a terrible tragedy. My heart goes out to the entire family of this little girl as I can’t even begin to imagine the emotional toll this loss has caused them. Obviously, i am disappointed for Esther Bales and her family. Not only has Esther’s family had to grieve the loss of a family member that died in this tragic accident but now they have been handed another major setback in that there is now going to be kids without their mother and grandmother because of the 30 year prison sentence that Esther is going to have serve. I am not going to criticize the jury for the decision they made because they did what they thought was right. I respect the process and it wouldn’t be appropriate to direct any criticism towards the jury as they were in a difficult position having to decide a case like this. Mr. Hermanson and Ms. Taylor did an outstanding job prosecuting this case. I will say their job was made a whole lot easier by the fact that this was hands down the best investigated case that I have ever had to defend against. There were no major factual issues to dispute because of the thoroughness of the investigation, the what happened and how it happened were locked down solid and all key witnesses were interviewed almost immediately after this accident occurred. When a case is thoroughly investigated like that it can be tough to overcome from a defense stand point.”
Bales must serve 25 and half years before becoming eligible for parole.
Loftis said the verdict will be appealed.
Hermanson issued the following statement.
“This case was a very difficult case for the police, paramedics, hospital personnel, witnesses, jurors and prosecutors. The death of a young child is a terrible tragedy. I appreciate the fact that these jurors took their obligation as jurors seriously and reached an appropriate verdict in this matter. To place young children in such a dangerous situation as this defendant did in this case required the strong decision that the jury rendered.”