Nearly a year after Amanda Jo Stott-Smith was taken into custody in a downtown Portland parking garage, the 32-year-old woman pleaded guilty Tuesday in Multnomah County Circuit Court to the drowning death of her 4-year-old son and attempted drowning of her 7-year-old daughter.
Stott-Smith will be 67 before she will be eligible to apply for parole, under a negotiated plea deal that avoids trial in a gut-wrenching case that gripped the community.
Police say Stott-Smith pushed her children off the Sellwood Bridge into the Willamette River in the early-morning hours of May 23. The incident happened during her weekend visitation with the children, who lived with their dad. Eldon Jay Rebhan Smith died; his sister, now 8, survived.
Stott-Smith told investigators that she dropped both children off the bridge in an act of revenge against their father, Jason Smith, who was her estranged husband. She believed he was having an affair with a family friend. He had gained custody of the two children a month earlier, in late April 2009.
Stott-Smith had faced an eight-count indictment but pleaded guilty to one count each of aggravated murder and attempted aggravated murder.
“I’m guilty,” Stott-Smith said to each count Tuesday afternoon, standing before Judge Julie E. Frantz.
She will face a life sentence with the possibility of parole after a minimum of 35 years in prison, Deputy District Attorney John Casalino said. She’ll be on post-prison supervision for life.
Her sentencing will be April 22.
Stott-Smith, wearing her long, brown hair down and dressed in a black sweater over a blue shirt with black slacks and heels, sat between her two attorneys, Kenneth Hadley Jr. and Deborah Burdzik.
Sheriff’s deputies kept a chain around her ankles and waist, but her appearance was in stark contrast to her previous court appearances, when she wore either blue jail garb or a green suicide protective vest.
She looked behind her before the hearing began, apparently to see who was attending.
Jason Smith, the father of the two children Amanda Jo Stott-Smith threw off the Sellwood Bridge, listens to Tuesday’s court proceedings. His daughter, who survived, now lives with him in Eugene.
Jason Smith, who has had no contact with Stott-Smith since the event, walked into the courtroom with the prosecutor. He was accompanied by his lawyer, Laura Schantz, and sat in the front row.
“I think he’s doing it for the sake of his son, Eldon, and daughter,” Schantz said.
The judge noted that Stott-Smith is on a medication called Abilify, commonly prescribed for depression, and asked if she clearly understood the plea deal. “Yes,” she replied.
Stott-Smith wore a blank expression throughout most of the hearing. She briefly closed her eyes as the judge explained that she was pleading guilty to having intentionally caused the death of her son and intentionally attempting to cause the death of her daughter.
Casalino said the children’s father, who did not speak during or after the hearing, supported the sentence.
Around 1 a.m. May 23, about six hours after she picked up the children for her weekend visit, Stott-Smith, distraught and crying, called Jason Smith and told him, “Help me, help me. … You’ve taken my joy away. … Don’t have my kids anymore. Why have you done this to me?”
Jason Smith, according to court documents, told police he kept asking, “Are the kids OK? Where are the kids?”
The first calls to 9-1-1 reporting screams near the Sellwood Bridge came in about 1:20 a.m. Several residents were drawn outside, having heard a splash, then screams and moans from the river.
David Haag and his companion, Cheryl Robb, who lived in a floating home northwest of the bridge, got in their boat and maneuvered close to the children. They found the girl, her head and one leg out of the water, gasping for air.
Haag then noticed the boy, dived in and pulled the children from the water. He and Robb took them to the Oregon Yacht Club dock, where Sgt. Peter Simpson performed CPR on Eldon. It was too late to save him, but the girl was helped by paramedics.
Jason Smith called Tualatin police at 2:49 a.m., worried about the children’s welfare. Meanwhile, Portland police began tracking Stott-Smith by following her cell phone signal. They found her on the ninth floor of a downtown parking garage, where an officer grabbed her as she tried to jump about 10:25 a.m.
The previous summer, Stott-Smith’s family had raised concerns in court about her ability to care for her children because of alcohol abuse, and her mother, grandmother and brother-in-law took the awkward step of testifying against her.
Schantz said Tuesday that Smith’s daughter is doing “fantastic.” She lives with her dad in Eugene. She has received counseling and continues to take swimming lessons, a skill that saved her life.
“You’d think she’d be afraid, but she’s not. She loves to swim,” Schantz said.
Other relatives on Stott-Smith’s side of the family, as well as Portland homicide Detectives Michele Michaels and Bryan Steed, who handled the case, also attended the hearing.
The plea deal came after four settlement hearings. With it, Stott-Smith avoided a potential death sentence or true life in prison sentence were the case to go to trial. If she had pleaded guilty except for insanity, she would have been under the supervision of the Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board, and the board would have determined when she might have been released or returned to the community.