The Justice Files: Mothers accused of killing their own children

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 SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Utah) –  Shelly Flemal was desperate and needed help. In 1994, she called Ogden police and told them her child had been kidnapped.

Immediately the search for 3-year-old Courtney Jo began. Flemal even spoke to the media asking for her safe return. Three days later, police found the 3-year-old dead at a nearby cemetery. Then the truth came out.

“I just wanted her to stop screaming” said Flemal years later.  “I lost my temper.”

Flemal was charged with Courtney Jo’s murder and was eventually convicted and sentenced to a term of up to life in prison.

In 2015, she’s was up for parole and appeared before a Board of Pardons hearing officer.

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“I got scared,” she said at the parole hearing. “I didn’t think anyone would believe it was an accident. The hearing officer asked her to explain the “accident.”

“I meant to hurt her,” said Flemal.  “I didn’t mean to kill her.”

Flemal was paroled in 2016.

A well-known psychiatrist who has a history of doing mental evaluations in high-profile cases in Utah said there’s many explanations why parents kill their children. Dr. Noel Gardner said each case has different circumstances.

“Sometimes they are unwanted children and the unwanted children may be a result of the parent having poor impulse control or maybe involved with the drug use,” said Dr. Gardner.

Flemal said drugs and bad relationships was at the root of her problems.

There’s the case of Mary Hansen who in 2012 shot and killed her daughter before turning the gun on herself.  She survived.

“I think it’s a terrible thing,” said Don Bailey, a West Jordan officer.  “I think it’s a terrible thing for somebody to feel that way.”

Authorities later learned Hansen was in debt and broke. She was sentenced to consecutive terms of one to 15 years for manslaughter and three to 15 years in prison for discharge of a firearm.

RELATED: Mom who killed daughter claims punishment extreme

Dr. Gardner said her case is typical of many others.

“They had a distinctly altruistic reason,” he said.  “They had come to believe that their children were suffering in a ways that they could not tolerate. They believe their children will not be able to survive without them.  They decide they will end up in heaven together with their children.  But it’s pretty much their sense that their lives will be much better if their children had their lives ended.”

In 2010, a 911 called was placed to the Davis County dispatch.

“I think my wife has hurt my children,” said Kenneth Warhola.  “I  am not totally sure.” 

When police arrives they learned Sun Cha Warhola murdered their two children by strangling them.

Warhola was later declared incompetent to stand trial. Dr. Gardner said two cases come to mind involving parents with brain disorders.

“Afterwards neither one of them had a memory of doing it even though it was very clear that they had done it,” Dr. Gardner said. “One of the women said she wanted to have a baby.  I didn’t think that would be in her best interest.”

Warhola was recently declared competent to stand trial and pleaded not guilty to the murders of her children. She is due back in court in August.

And now there’s the Daybell case in Idaho.  This week, authorities uncovered human remains likely those of Lori Vallow’s missing children.

Vallow and her fifth husband Chad Daybell married last year after their spouses mysteriously died.  Both are now facing various charges related to the children’s disappearance.

“A biological mother may feel that her relationship to a man is so important to her,” Dr. Gardner said.  “They may on occasion end the life of the children in order to sustain and nurture a relationship with a partner that does not want the children.”

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Many believe Vallow has fallen under the spell of Daybell.  He is also member of a religious cult having written several books on the subject of heaven and the apocalypse.  Dr. Gardner said these types of individuals are narcissistic.

“One of the things about narcissists is that they feel they are so special that ordinary rules don’t apply to them, they are above the rules” he said.  “They’re very dangerous.  They feel fully justified in eliminating someone who challenges them.” 

 In the end, Dr. Gardner said justice is necessary but he said mercy must also be considered because there are so many circumstances involved with each case. 

If you suspect child abuse or neglect contact the DCFS 24/7 hotline: 855-323-3237. For more information, visit


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