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Kansas Judge Disregards Prosecutors’ Request for Significant Prison Time, Sentences Mom Convicted in Toddler’s Death to Probation

Karlie Mae Phelps. (Image via the Johnson County, Kan. Sheriff's Office.)

Karlie Mae Phelps

A Kansas woman convicted for her role in the death of her 17-month-old son earlier this year won’t have to spend any time behind bars so long as she stays out of trouble while on probation.

Johnson County District Court Judge Timothy P. McCarthy on Thursday sentenced Karlie Mae Phelps to 18 years in prison, but granted a defense motion for a dispositional departure from that sentence, instead ordering her to serve only three years probation, prosecutors announced.

The dispositional departure means that if Phelps is found to have violated her probation, she will be on the hook for the balance of her 18-year sentence. Following the sentencing hearing, Phelps was released to the custody of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department to be screened for work release.

According to a press release from the Johnson County District Attorney’s Office, prosecutors requested that Phelps’ request for probation be denied and asked Judge McCarthy to remand her to prison.

Phelps in August reached an agreement with prosecutors to plead guilty charges of involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment in the death of her son, Nicholas Ecker Jr., who died in a Feb. 13 house fire.

The night of the fire, Phelps told investigators that she went to a residence in Wyandotte County and left the baby alone in his crib at her home in the 10500 block of West 69th Terrace.

As previously reported by Law&Crime, prosecutors say the baby’s father, Nicholas Adam Ecker, lit the fire in a jealous rage later that evening, not realizing that the child was inside. He has since been charged with one count each of first-degree murder, aggravated arson with risk of bodily harm, and possession of a firearm by a felon, court records show.

Nicholas Adam Ecker. (Image via the Johnson County, Kan. Sheriff's Office.)

Nicholas Adam Ecker. (Image via the Johnson County, Kan. Sheriff’s Office.)

Ecker had previously been in a relationship with Phelps, according to a police affidavit filed Johnson County District Court. That document says officers and firefighters at approximately 12:52 a.m. on Feb. 13 responded to multiple 911 calls about a house fire at a single-family residence located in the 10000 block of West 69th Terrace. Upon arriving at the scene, first responders found the home already engulfed in flames. Firefighters battling the blaze eventually entered the home and found the infant boy’s body in a downstairs bedroom, the affidavit states.

At approximately 1:12 a.m., Ecker arrived at the scene, though he had not been contacted by police. He allegedly stated that he came because he “had a ‘bad feeling,’” per the affidavit. Phelps arrived shortly after. An officer on the scene allegedly overheard her say, “I lit it, no I know I put it out. That would be an accident.” But she then began blaming Ecker for the fire.

During a police interview described as voluntary, Phelps said she was at a friend’s house at the time of the fire. (A review of license plate readers and cell phone records confirmed that she was not in the area when the fire started, police wrote.) Phelps allegedly told investigators that she spent the evening at a residence in Wyandotte County and left her baby home alone in his crib. She later admitted that she was at the other residence to purchase prescription pain medication.

Phelps consented to a forensic download of her phone, according to the affidavit. The phone’s contents showed a contentious series of text messages between Phelps and Ecker just prior to the fatal fire.

At approximately 10:21 p.m. on the night of the fire, Ecker wrote to Phelps, “what’s he doing. Where’s he at?” with regards to the baby.

Phelps responded, “well come see him when I get home. He’s w me.”

At approximately 11:33 p.m., Ecker again asks, “where’s jr?”

Phelps responds that the baby is with her “at Jackie’s house.”

Ecker, at approximately 12:06 a.m., sent Phelps a photo of a house that was captioned, “You ain’t at Jackie’s.”

Phelps then insisted that she was at Jackie’s; that assertion prompted a series of insults and invective from Ecker.

Ecker called Phelps a “lying ass bitch,” said “I hate you.”

“I’m blowing my head off,” Ecker continued, per the affidavit.

Appearing to believe Phelps was with another man, Ecker also wrote, “You’re fucking around on me huh.”

At 12:33 a.m., Ecker sent a photo of a Valentine’s Day balloon that appeared to have been taken from inside of Phelps’s house just minutes before the fire started.

“Who got you that?” he wrote along with the image.

Police said Ecker’s cell phone at 12:33 a.m. pinged off of a cell tower located less than a mile from Phelps’s home.

Several more messages were exchanged between the two prior to Phelps’s home going up in flames.

Based on the messages, Phelps did not reveal that the child she shared with Ecker was actually inside the home.

“I swear to god something is not right, I know it. I can feel it. Something is terribly wrong. Karlie please call me!!!!!! Please something is wrong. I can feel something Isn’t right,” Ecker wrote at 12:57 a.m., according to the affidavit.

That was after the authorities say the fire had been started.

Phelps responded approximately one minute later.

“Nothing is wrong wtf? You’re literally just pushing me over the top? It’s all about you??? Nothing is fucking wrong dude but with us,” she wrote.

Here’s what the affidavit says happened next:

Ecker, at 12:58 a.m.: “Where is jr. Please tell me you have jr. Something is wrong.”

Phelps, at 1:00 a.m.: “Nothings wrong no he’s. sleeping in bed smh I have the camera on him wyd there nick? You’ll never see me w another man like that [nor am I] doing that. I came to Micah’s really fast idalia fucking punched her in the face and ummm taking her to the ER.”

Ecker, at 1:00 a.m.:  “Baby something is not right.”

Phelps at 1:07 a.m.:  “Go get junior NOW. HES INSIDE YOU DIMB [sic] ASS. I CANNOT BELIEVE YOU STARTED THAT FIRE. YOU KILLED OUR BABY!!! And you could’ve killed me!!!”

According to the affidavit, the Johnson County Medical Examiner’s Office conducted an autopsy and determined that the baby was alive while the blaze burned around him. The report stated that there was “soot in [the baby’s] airway” and that his lungs were “full of soot.”

The affidavit also says a forensics review at the Johnson County Criminalistics Laboratory determined that the fire “was incendiary or intentionally set” based on a study of “debris samples collected from multiple locations within the residence.” However, the lab review found “[n]o ignitable liquids” in its analysis, according to the court records.

Nicholas Ecker has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges stemming from the fire and his son’s death. He is scheduled to appear in court again in December.

[images via Johnson County Sheriff’s Office]

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.