ORANGE CITY, Iowa | The family of Autumn Elgersma entered the courtroom Thursday seeking the truth, hoping to hear Rochelle Sapp tell them she was sorry for causing the injuries that caused the death of the little girl.
Sapp did not give them that satisfaction. But they did leave the Sioux County Courthouse hopeful that with Sapp being sentenced to 100 years in prison for throwing Autumn to the ground and fracturing her skull while the girl was in her care, they will be able to put some of their grief behind them and move forward.
"Hopefully today will be a turning point for our family. We hope to move on and heal," said Rachel Lamfers, Autumn's aunt and sister of the girl's father, Philip Elgersma.
In a plea agreement, Sapp pleaded guilty in Sioux County District Court to involuntary manslaughter, child endangerment resulting in death and child endangerment -- multiple acts. She had agreed to the 100-year prison sentence. She also must pay $150,000 in restitution to Autumn's family.
Sapp's plea gives her the chance to someday be released from prison. Originally charged with first-degree murder, Sapp, 34, would have received a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole had she been found guilty at trial.
"We feel that the plea sentence and plea agreement is probably the best way to go because a trial would be very difficult for our family," said Lamfers, who spoke after the hearing on behalf of the family, many of whom were wearing purple or pink T-shirts that read "#prayforAutumn."
Lamfrey said the family still does not know exactly what happened on Oct. 29, the day 3-year-old Autumn was injured. Sapp told Autumn's parents, Philip and Jennifer Elgersma, that day that Autumn fell down the stairs at her Orange City home. She later told investigators she she picked up the girl and threw her down against the ground because she didn't ask for help taking off her jacket.
Autumn died two days later in a Sioux Falls hospital. She had sustained skull fractures and brain hemorrhages.
While reading victim impact statements to the court Thursday, Autumn's parents, grandparents and other relatives said they hoped Sapp would someday tell them what happened that day so they would better be able to forgive her.
When given the chance to address the court, Sapp gave no details.
"I have nothing to say today," she said, causing a few gasps in the crowd that packed the courtroom and overflowed into the lobby and stairway outside.
"We're disappointed she didn't even say she was sorry to our family," Lamfers said. "We did not get that today. It's something we really needed and wanted. I honestly don't think she will ever tell the truth about what happened."
It was revealed in court that Sapp had been abusing Autumn for months before her death. The charge of multiple acts of child neglect mentioned four incidents in which Autumn was injured. In her statement to the court, Jennifer Elgersma, said she always believed Sapp's explanations for the bloody lips, the split chin and the black eye that Autumn sustained while in Sapp's care.
"You used my trust and your skill as a master manipulator to take away one of the most precious things to me," Elgersma said, struggling to control her emotions. "I was unable to protect Autumn from you because I trusted you and did everything I could to be your friend."
Sapp stared at the table in front of her for most of the hearing, but also made eye contact with Autumn's family members as they spoke. Sapp struggled to keep her composure as Assistant Iowa Attorney General Coleman McAllister read the elements of each of her crimes and as District Judge Edward Jacobson asked her to tell the court what happened.
"I dropped Autumn to the floor knowingly," said Sapp, fighting back tears, her voice barely above a whisper.
"At that time, did you intentionally use unreasonable force?" Jacobson asked.
"I did," Sapp said, then began sobbing softly.
Looking straight at Sapp when reading her statement, Elgersma told her she wants to forgive her, but Sapp must first tell the truth. Only then will she have true repentance.
"I have so much compassion for you," Elgersma said. "In the end, I want you to be in heaven with me and with Autumn."