Ashley Bell stood toward one end of a long courthouse hallway Tuesday and waited for the woman who once cared for her baby.
Finally, after several minutes, Bell’s former nanny was led away by sheriff’s deputies. Handcuffs cinched around the wrists of the woman who prosecutors say killed 4-month-old Cash Bell.
Douglas County District Judge Mark Ashford did Tuesday what another judge had refused to do: increase the nanny’s bail while she awaits trial in the death of Cash.
Sarah Cullen now must post $75,000, or 10 percent of $750,000. She had been free for the past two weeks after Judge Daryl Lowe set her bail at $5,000 – 10 percent of $50,000.
Peeling off her jewelry – including her earrings and an eyebrow ring – the pregnant Cullen fought off tears.
“There’s nobody in my family who can come up with $75,000,” she told her attorney.
Cullen’s attorney, Joseph Howard, had urged the judge to leave the bail as is. He said his client was not a flight risk – nor a risk to the community.
In raising the bail, Ashford said he was presented with allegations that Lowe was not.
Prosecutors had alluded to those allegations in similar arguments last week before Lowe.
However, prosecutor Beth Beninato delved into more detail as Douglas County sheriff’s investigators have developed information about what prosecutors refer to as Cullen’s “significant history” of abusing children in her care.
According to Beninato:
A former child care teacher at a northwest Omaha day care described that Cullen — an assistant teacher – was routinely rough with the toddlers in her room.
Once a week – “sometimes daily,” Beninato said – Cullen would jerk a child by the arm or thrust a toddler against a wall at “Grow With Me” day care near 120th Street and Military Road.
One time she was changing the diaper of a fussy 14-month-old. After the child squirmed, she grabbed his shoe-covered foot and shoved it into his mouth. That caused the toddler to suffer a split lip.
The child care center fired her after that allegation and another allegation of theft, Beninato said. Beninato said Cullen worked with the child-care center from February 2012 to September 2012.
She started caring for baby Cash in January. The Bells had connected with Cullen through Care.com – a web site that matches care providers with customers. A background check on Cullen turned up nothing.
Howard told the judge there was a simple reason for that. No one had considered any of the accusations serious enough to report to police or to Child Protective Services, Howard said.
Now, he said, people are coming out of the woodwork and lobbing unfounded accusations against his client.
“If this was so significant, why wasn’t this reported earlier?” Howard asked. “I can’t tell you how many phone calls I’ve gotten from people saying how gentle Sarah was.”
In the two months that Cullen cared for Cash, Beninato said, the Bells noticed various, seemingly minor injuries to his face or head. But Cullen was able to explain away those injuries.
Then came Feb. 28. Prosecutors say Cullen caused two skull fractures to Cash’s head – then gave inconsistent stories about how it happened.
Howard said Cullen didn’t know how Cash was injured and was trying to offer possible explanations – after being told that Cash was going to be OK.
Howard said Cullen feels horrible about Cash’s death but denies causing any injuries. Cullen says that Cash was “not acting right” that morning.
Howard said Cullen, who has a seven-year-old child and is six months pregnant, is so stressed by the baby’s death that she has lost six pounds.
“She’s not the cause of it. . . but she feels horrible for the death of this child,” Howard said.
After Ashford increased the bail, Cash’s father, Christopher Bell, rushed out of the courtroom in tears.