7-year sentence in toddler's death draws protest in Barrow

Kyle Hopkins
Protesters demonstrated in Barrow on Friday, April 19, 2013 against the seven-year sentence of a man who pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide after he left a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old alone in a freezing bedroom, resulting in the death of the toddler.

A man who left an infant and 3-year-old girl overnight in a freezing Barrow bedroom, killing the older girl, was sentenced this month to seven years in prison.

Several Barrow residents staged a protest Friday saying they were outraged at what they considered to be a light sentence for 30-year-old Richard Tilden Jr., who had been drinking while babysitting. Tilden pleaded guilty on April 11 to criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault.

"People that have caught a walrus or a polar bear off-season or inappropriately, they get more time than this guy did," said protester Stefanie Lozano.

Tilden had been watching the girls for their mother, a second-grade teacher, on Feb. 2, 2012, at a Barrow apartment on Momeganna Street. He placed the children in a bedroom with an open window as winter temperatures dipped to 30 below, according to the charges.

Tilden told police he had been drinking that night and left the window open to air out the room because the girls urinated in the bed, the charges say. Tilden went to bed about 2 a.m. and woke up more than 10 hours later, at mid-day.

He discovered the 3-year-old wasn't breathing, the charges say.

Tilden called 911 and police found him holding the girl. She was cold to the touch, with no pulse. Two Rich and Rare whisky bottles littered the floor.

Rescuers rushed both children to the Barrow hospital, where doctors performed CPR on the 3-year-old for three hours until her heart beat on its own, the charges said.

The sisters were flown to Anchorage for treatment. The older girl died two days later.

The mother, 29-year-old Esther Edwards-Gust, is awaiting trial this summer on charges of manslaughter, assault and criminally negligent homicide.

Lozano, a 28-year-old who grew up in Barrow, said she was drawn to the case because the children made her think of her own young nieces and nephews. She joined other Barrow residents in tying more than 100 purple ribbons to light posts, stop signs and car antennas decrying violence against children, she said.

On Friday, Lozano said she was one of half a dozen people who held signs reading "Miley's life was worth more than seven years" and "A walrus and nanuq gets more justice than our children."

Fairbanks District Attorney Mike Gray defended the sentence.

"It's not the message that a child's life in Barrow or in Fairbanks or in Anchorage or anywhere else is only worth seven years. That's not the question. The question is what was a fair resolution?" said Gray, whose office handled the case. "It was something that was not done in anger," he said.

Barrow community members had hoped to speak at the sentencing, but defense attorneys objected, Gray said.

Sentencing guidelines called for Tilden to serve up to 10 years for criminally negligent homicide and up to five years for third-degree assault against the younger girl, he said. The sentence approved in state Superior Court called for Tilden to serve 14 years with seven years suspended, plus 10 years probation.

Marjorie Solomon, social services director for the Native Village of Barrow, said she spoke at the sentencing, arguing that too many local drug and alcohol offenders are being offered plea agreements.

"A little girl died because there was drinking going on. And not just her, there's a lot of other kids suffering," Solomon said.

Barrow is a "damp" community, meaning it's illegal to buy alcohol in town but people with permits can have booze shipped to a city-run distribution center.

Tilden may not drink, may not enter the home of any bootlegger and is forbidden from baby-sitting children under the age of 11, under the plea agreement.

He must not make contact with the surviving child.

"It looks like the younger child will be fine," Gray said.

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