DARLINGTON — At a hearing that brought tears to the eyes of the judge and prosecutor, a Belmont woman was sentenced Feb. 14 to 20 years in prison for neglecting her two young daughters.
Jamie Lee Weigel, 27, also appeared teary-eyed at her sentencing hearing in Lafayette County Circuit Court. Dressed in orange scrubs, her leg was constantly shaking throughout the hearing.
Through her attorney, she declined to make a statement to the court when given the opportunity.
Weigel pleaded guilty in October to felony charges of intentional child abuse and chronic neglect, with two additional similar charges dismissed but “read in,” meaning the judge could consider them at sentencing. She is ordered to spend 10 years on extended supervision after she finishes her 20-year prison sentence.
Her two babies, then 4 months and 14 months old, were removed from her custody in March 2019. They had spent most of their lives alone and starving in their bedroom in urine-soaked cribs.
The children’s father, 25-year-old Dalton Hopper, faced the same felonies as Weigel and was sentenced Feb. 4 to 15 years in prison, to be followed by five years on extended supervision and five years on probation.
Weigel’s attorney, Peter Bartelt, did not dispute the need for prison time. He asked for 10 years in prison and 10 years on extended supervision. In a sentencing memorandum, he described Weigel’s long documented history of mental health problems and “many adverse childhood experiences including pathogenic parenting” and her father’s verbal and emotional abuse.
According to her psychologist, Weigel “has not profited much from her adversity.” She struggled in school, needed special education through an Individualized Education Program and graduated near the bottom of her class.
“She was not provided with the experiential or intellectual tools to overcome her own mental health demons,” Bartelt wrote. “There is no doubt that those demons did get the best of her and were part and parcel of a series of bad decisions that now brings her before this court.”
However, Weigel was assessed and determined to be ineligible to plead not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.
She ignored their cries
Weigel’s depression and anxiety need to be considered but do not excuse her behavior, said District Attorney Jenna Gill.
“Many parents have depression and anxiety but those parents still feed and care for their children,” Gill said.
“She’s also used the excuse that she was overwhelmed and that she didn’t have enough help. When I look around the room today I would almost guarantee that most of the people here are parents and also guarantee that most of us who are parents have been overwhelmed at some point in our lives, because parenting is not an easy task.”
Hopper and Weigel were engaged and lived together on Market Street in Belmont. Neither has a prior criminal record, but Weigel was previously investigated in 2015 for a similar child neglect case related to the starvation of two 5-year-old girls, not twins but born to her in quick succession like her children with Hopper, according to Gill.
Weigel was not criminally charged for her prior neglect but was sanctioned in Grant County through a CHIPS (Child in Need of Protection and/or Services) order.
As with the current case, the children were “greatly and excessively underweight and they were not meeting development milestones,” Gill said.
The criminal complaints against Hopper and Weigel, filed last April, describe the dire health consequences the babies suffered from months of neglect. The case came to the attention of authorities March 23, when a doctor at Upland Hills Health in Dodgeville called the Lafayette County Sheriff’s Office to report a “very thin and malnourished” 4-month-old who “should have received medical attention much sooner.”
Hopper and Weigel only brought the baby to the hospital under threat from Weigel’s mother, who was alarmed at the child’s size.
The 4-month-old was born healthy but had not been seen by a doctor since she was two days old. She weighed less than seven pounds, less than she did at birth. A detective described her as lethargic with “little to no fat or muscle tissue between her skin and bones” and dark red chemical burns caused by prolonged exposure to urine and feces in dirty diapers.
Her 14-month-old sister weighed just under 15 pounds, which is in the 0.23 percentile for her age. She showed signs of malnutrition and starvation as well as significant developmental delays. She had severe diaper rash and skin lesions from improperly treated eczema. She had not been seen by a doctor since her two-month checkup.
UW Health Physician Assistant Amanda Palm said the 4-month-old had bed sores and rashes consistent with an infant lying in one place without being picked up for hours on end.
She was so starved her body was about to start feeding on itself and she could have died in as little as a week’s time.
Palm, who specializes in child protection cases, told detectives that in five years in her position at the hospital it was next to the worst case of neglect she had seen.
The subsequent investigation into Hopper and Weigel found the babies got food and human interaction as infrequently as once per day, even though the parents had free diapers, formula and baby food through a state-funded program.
Weigel stayed home with the children while Hopper worked on weekdays. Weigel told police she spent most of her days in bed sleeping or scrolling Facebook, while the babies were in their cribs in a separate bedroom.
“She ignored their cries and would yell at them to shut up and be quiet,” Gill said. Once he got home from work, Hopper did little to feed or help with the babies.
When interviewed by investigators, Weigel explained her neglect as “pure laziness” and said she didn’t seek medical help because she was afraid of being “judged.”
“I knew I would get in trouble,” she said. “I know I should have done something sooner.”
Pages of text messages included with the criminal complaint show Weigel texted Hopper throughout the day complaining about the babies’ screaming and difficulties eating, told him how frustrated and overwhelmed she was and lashed out at him for not helping her.
“Do you know what it feels like when you can’t even take a shower or bath without feeling guilty? I question every single one of my actions because of these kids. I never get a break from it,” she wrote in one message.
“I don’t want to be anywhere near my kids,” she wrote him in another message. The next day, she wrote Hopper that she was ready to “beat” and “hurt” their older daughter and let her “starve.”
“I’d like to see you be a stay-at-home parent for a week, no help, nothing, then tell me how you’d feel,” she wrote. Over the course of months, she repeatedly messaged him that she didn’t want to be a stay-at-home parent, was thinking of hurting the babies and needed help.
Hopper only sporadically acknowledged her messages. He told authorities he’d seen Weigel hit and yell at the babies but did nothing because he was trying to protect her.
Gill blasted Weigel as a “blame-shifting character” who has compulsively lied since her teen years and continued lying to concerned relatives and doctors about the babies’ health.
She said Weigel “has been interviewed by numerous individuals throughout the pendency of this case” and nearly all report she shows no remorse and takes no responsibility for her actions.
“She continues to blame mental illness (yet) she admits she knew she wasn’t properly caring for the children, that she wanted to hurt the children, that she avoided them, that she locked them in their room for hours on end,” Gill said.
‘You've been down this road before’
Judge Duane Jorgenson credited Weigel’s mother with saving the children's lives.
“She really forced the issue and the emergency treatment,” Jorgenson. When the case was first before the court last year, “we weren’t sure that these children were going to survive.”
Jorgenson said he “wasn't leaving it up” to a Department of Corrections worker to decide whether Weigel will be allowed contact with children.
“I’m not going to allow you to have contact with these children, and I’m not going to allow you to have contact with minor children,” he told Weigel.
It upset him that Weigel was sanctioned for starving her older children and yet went on to do it again.
“You’ve been down this road before,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that you had the specific intent to kill your children, not by some spontaneous act of anger, although there was plenty of that, but what’s more hideous ... that it was by slow, deliberate withholding of food, nurturing and caring over an extended period of time.”
Every document in the case "”talks about the crying of these children, the screaming of the children”, which Weigel tried to drown out by turning up the TV, he said. “It’s almost incomprehensible the agony and suffering that these children must have gone through.”
‘They love these little girls like crazy’
As at Hopper’s sentencing, the court heard a statement from the girls’ foster parents. In addition, statements from the great aunt and two cousins were read in court.
The victims in the case have been with the foster family since last April and are improving under an intensive regimen of treatment and therapies, but the lasting effect of the abuse and neglect they suffered is uncertain. It could include cognitive impairment and physical disfigurement.
The younger girl, now “cute and chubby,” turned 1 in November. Her sister turned 2 in January, can run and climb stairs, count to 10 and name some colors, is learning basic phrases and "”babbles excitedly” when she sees her foster father.
The great aunt said her family has assumed “a tremendous role” in the girls’ recovery, getting care in their home two to four days per week. She also expressed gratitude to the foster parents, who have “exhibited nothing but love” for the girls.
She said the girls should stay with the foster parents.
“These girls are clearly attached ... This is home to them, and to take them out of this environment would be devastating,” she said.
A cousin said the foster parents “love these little girls like crazy.”
"”I can’t stomach to think back to March when she was in the hospital,” the cousin said of the younger girl. “A week from death’ is all I can think about it and it makes me absolutely sick. ... She once was skin and bones and looked up at nothing. Now she smiles and reaches her pudgy arms to be cuddled.”
Of the older girl, she added, “All I can think about is her lying alone in her crib, crying for someone to hold her, change her, feed her or even just to look at her. She was denied all of those things, her and her sister both. Babies who deserve the world were given nothing until they were put in the most amazing foster care.”The other cousin said that in the hospital, “I noticed something unsettling about (the younger girl’s) sleeping patterns. As I held her in my arms as she slept, I noticed that every so often she would wake up in what seemed to be a panic and look around the room, not calming herself until she realized she was in the same safe environment she fell asleep in and not in the urine-soaked crib she had slept the first four months of her life. .... She has gradually been able to find more comfort in her slumber."