Mother's trial in girls' deaths due to start

January 29, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Not three months after police said she confessed to killing her young daughters by setting a fire, Rene Elizabeth Aulton wrote a letter from jail to her boyfriend Frank Wooters, pleading with him to visit.

"I know I hurt you really bad," she wrote in the letter that is included in court papers. "I want to explain, but you don't want to talk to me. I just hope you would let me. I know how much the girls meant to you. I am sorry for what has happened."

Frank Wooters never came. A year later, he is listed as a witness for both the prosecution and the defense in Ms. Aulton's trial, which after five postponements is scheduled to begin this week in Baltimore Circuit court.

That's when he and Ms. Aulton's mother say they hope to hear just what did happen the day two little girls died -- whether it was a Susan Smith-like case of a mother killing to improve her relationship with her boyfriend, or whether police coerced a confused woman with a low IQ into a confession.

Ms. Aulton's mother, Sharon Aulton of Arnold, sees no comparison between the Smith case and her daughter's. For one thing, a psychologist who evaluated her daughter for the defense found her to be borderline retarded. And Rene Aulton now says she didn't kill her children.

"Susan Smith was totally distraught and remorseful for what she did, because she knows she did it," Sharon Aulton said. "Rene doesn't know why she's being punished. In her mind, she's innocent, and she doesn't know why she's in jail.

"There really isn't any comparison to Susan Smith. Because Rene has never been able, because of her low IQ, to make good choices," Sharon Aulton said.

Prosecutors intend to seek a sentence of life without parole if Ms. Aulton is convicted on two counts of first-degree murder and one count of arson. They could have asked for the death penalty, because two lives were lost in a fire determined to be arson.

Assistant Public Defender Mary Jo Livingston, who represents Ms. Aulton, said in a recent postponement hearing that there had been "extensive plea negotiations" in the case. Ms. Livingston did not return phone calls about the case. Prosecutor Gary Honick would not comment.

Christina Lambert was 4 and her sister Natalie Aulton was 2, when firefighters found their bodies Nov. 15, 1994, on the smoke-filled second floor of a rowhouse where they had lived a short while in the 2300 block of Fleet St. When firefighters arrived, they found Rene Aulton outside the building, uninjured, by turns calm and hysterical, according to an investigative report.

The report, by Baltimore Fire Capt. Stephan Fugate, says the children appeared to be blocked into their bedroom by a bed that firefighters said had been placed against the other side of the door. The firefighters said they had to move the bed to try to rescue the girls, Captain Fugate wrote.

Ms. Aulton initially said she had been downstairs when the fire started and was unable to rescue her daughters, according to the report. But eight days later, police charged her with murder. In charging papers, they said Ms. Aulton had confessed to starting the blaze. She has been held without bail since.

In a lie detector test administered by police, Ms. Aulton said she accidentally threw a cigarette into a closet and that she did not set the fire on purpose, according to a polygraph examiner's report. In a separate test, Mr. Wooters said he did not plan to set the fire with Ms. Aulton and had not been told about it beforehand.

The examiner concluded that Ms. Aulton and Mr. Wooters were not "telling substantially the complete truth" during their tests. The reports did not elaborate.

Police sources initially said that Ms. Aulton, now 27, killed her daughters to improve her relationship with her boyfriend. But Mr. Wooters says he loved Christina and Natalie, and that Ms. Aulton knew it. He said they had decided to get married, though he often told Ms. Aulton that his job as a cabdriver would keep him from spending much time with her.

"At no time did I mention the kids were a problem for me," Mr. Wooters said in a recent interview. "Them kids were my babies. They were my sweethearts. There were stumbling blocks in the relationship, but the stumbling blocks had nothing to do with the kids.

"I proposed to her, and she did accept marriage," he said. "We hadn't set a date. I told her it wouldn't be until I'm emotionally ready. I told her it could be months, or it could be years. She accepted everything."

Mr. Wooters said he told the truth during the polygraph test, and that the results likely were skewed by his guilt feelings over the relationship; that if the two had married, for example, the fire might not have happened.

According to court papers, Dr. David Shapiro, a defense psychologist, found Ms. Aulton to be borderline retarded, "easily confused and disorganized," "very impulsive" and "easily distressed." He further concluded that she "would tell the police anything she thought they wanted to hear, in order to relieve the distress."

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