By Lauren DiSpirito
FORT COLLINS, Colo. (CBS4) – After serving approximately 4 1/2 months of a 4-year prison term, a Wyoming mother found guilty of manslaughter in the death of her 3-year-old daughter is getting out of prison.
In January 2015, Lileigh Kellenaers, 3, was killed when a fire broke out inside the mobile home in which she and her mother, Kristen Braig, were staying on the 800 block of 9th Avenue in Greeley. Kellenaers was alone inside the home and suffered burns over 60 percent of her body. She died at the hospital hours later.
Investigators say before the fire started, Braig and her boyfriend had left the child alone for 20 to 40 minutes as they drank and smoked marijuana with friends.
Braig was arrested and charged with one count of child abuse resulting in death. Braig denied she was smoking marijuana at the time, but investigators say test results proved she was under the influence of THC the night of the fire. They were unable to determine the exact cause of the fire.
Nine months later, Braig took a deal and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter. A judge sentenced Braig to 4 years in prison and she was sent to La Vista Correctional Facility in Pueblo.
This spring, the Larimer County Board of Community Corrections accepted Braig, now 28, into its Fort Collins program. Her acceptance into a transitional placement program came after first being denied entrance to a similar program by the Weld County Board of Community Corrections. Colorado state laws allow inmates to apply for acceptance into such programs before the date in which they become first eligible for parole, and allows them to make more than one application.
The decision devastated Lileigh’s father, Joe Kellenaers, and his family, who argued at a hearing against Braig’s acceptance. Kellenaers last saw his daughter, his only child, at Christmas in 2014, a few days before her death. Kellenaers says Lileigh was “bright,” and always trying to keep up with her older cousins.
“She was so intelligent and smart,” Kellenaers said. “Her smile would just light up the room.”
Finding out Lileigh had died was the worst moment of his life, according to Kellenaers. When Braig was sentenced to prison for her role in Lileigh’s death, Kellenaers says he felt some form of satisfaction. That Braig will now serve less than half of her sentence, Kellenaers says, is troubling.
“It’s so infuriating,” Kellenaers said. “It’s hard to believe that it’s even a reality, that it’s happening.”
In Fort Collins, Braig will likely enter a treatment program, be required to hold a job, and eventually be able to come and go as she pleases — all things Kellenaers hopes could one day benefit Braig, but not yet.
“I don’t see anybody wondering what’s best for the victims, which would be her just serving her time.”
Typically, a person convicted of manslaughter spends at least 18 months in prison, according to Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke, whose office prosecuted Braig’s case. He worries her acceptance into a residential program so soon after going to prison sets a bad precedent for future cases.
“Four months on a 4-year sentence is absurd,” Rourke said. “We talk about the desire to have truth in sentencing, there’s no truth in sentencing, particularly in this case. To me this feels like a prison population reduction program, rather than a true desire to protect the public and ensure public safety.”
The Colorado Department of Corrections declined CBS4’s request to be interviewed, saying the process is driven by state statute. The Larimer County Board of Community Corrections and Braig’s attorney also declined to speak with CBS4 on camera.
Braig remains in prison in Pueblo on a waiting list to be transferred to the Fort Collins program. Criminal justice records show she is remorseful. Braig and her mother did not respond to attempts to reach them. In a letter written to the judge before her daughter’s sentencing, Braig’s mother wrote that her daughter’s regret is in itself “a life sentence.”