Hearing held to decide use of mother's words at trial Jury might listen to taped statements in death of daughters

January 30, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore woman told police she set a fire that killed her two young daughters because she was "depressed" and wanted to "kill us all," according to a taped confession played in Baltimore Circuit Court yesterday. Re rowhouse, she was worried about her former lover, Joseph Lambert, getting out of prison on parole and coming to physically assault her.

Her daughters Christina Lambert, 4, and Natalie Aulton, 2, perished in the blaze Nov. 15, 1994, at 2309 Fleet St., where the family had moved after living in a homeless shelter.

"My depression started and my low self-esteem was kicking in," Ms. Aulton told Baltimore police Sgt. Terrence P. McLarney, according to the tape. "The time I heard that Joe was going up for his parole hearing was when I was in the shelter. When I moved into the house I just realized the house wasn't worth anything. So that's why I set the fire."

The tapes were played at a hearing to determine whether a jury will hear Ms. Aulton's statements to police at her trial on two counts of first-degree murder and one count of arson. Her attorney is attempting to suppress the statements.

During cross-examination of Sergeant McLarney yesterday, Assistant Public Defender Mary Jo Livingston, who represents Ms. Aulton, implied that Ms. Aulton did not know what she was saying during the statements because she has a low IQ. A defense psychologist has put Ms. Aulton's intelligence in the borderline range.Ms. Livingston also plans to call Richard Ofshe, a University of California at Berkeley sociology professor who has studied police interrogations.

"Did you ever learn that she may have been a little slow?" Ms. Livingston asked.

Sergeant McLarney acknowledged that he had found a school evaluation of Ms. Aulton during a search of her home that suggested she was of lower than average intelligence. But he couldn't remember if he had read it by the time of Ms. Aulton's final confession, eight days after the fire.

"I remembered being taken aback because I had spoken to her and I had no doubt that she was of average intelligence," he said. In statements on three different dates after the fire, Ms. Aulton's account changed radically. The day after the blaze, she told detectives she had been downstairs when her children began crying "Mommy!", and the flames prevented her from saving them.

But a week later, Ms. Aulton told police she had "remembered" something else, Sergeant McLarney testified. She said then that she had had a "flashback" about Mr. Lambert being released from prison, that her nerves were so shot that a cigarette flew out of her hand and into the second-floor closet where the fire began.

During that interview, Ms. Aulton acknowledged to detectives that she had previously written a note saying that she wanted to kill herself and her children.

But she stopped short of admitting trying to do so until after she failed a lie-detector test the next day, Sergeant McLarney said. Even then, she changed her story several times, saying first she had thrown the cigarette on purpose, then that she had placed the burning paper in a box.

Once the box started burning, she said on the tape: "I had second thoughts."

TTC "About what?" Sergeant McLarney asked.

"Killing all three of us," she answered.

Ms. Aulton said she then tried to put out the fire with pieces of clothing, but the flames and smoke overwhelmed her. She called to the girls -- in their bedroom just a short distance away -- to get on the floor on their stomachs and stay near the window.

Her boyfriend, Frank Wooters, appeared at the door at that point, and she told him "that the house was on fire and my babies were trapped."

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