SMYRNA — A long-running case involving a child’s remains found near a Smyrna softball field in 2019 took another turn Tuesday with two indictments, following a lengthy quest to first identify the juvenile, investigate the circumstances of her death and ultimately make arrests.
The Delaware Department of Justice indicted Kristie L. Haas, 28, Monday on multiple child abuse-related charges connected with the death of her daughter Emma Grace Cole. Emma’s stepfather Brandon L. Haas, 39, was also indicted in her death.
The child, then 3, lived in Smyrna with her parents and siblings at the time of her death, the DOJ said.
Her remains were found by a man walking his dog near the Smyrna-Clayton Little Lass Softball Field on Sept. 13, 2019. That began an investigation led by the Smyrna Police Department with assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a host of law enforcement agencies.
Emma was identified after more than a year of investigation, and the Haas couple was eventually arrested in Pennsylvania in October 2020.
The defendants were both charged with first-degree child abuse, hindering prosecution and endangering the welfare of a child. The endangerment offenses included three felony counts and misdemeanor counts against each defendant.
Ms. Haas was additionally charged with second-degree assault, abusing a corpse and reckless burning.
The DOJ said “the indictment alleges that Emma was the victim of child abuse before her death.
“Both Haases are alleged to have deprived Emma of sufficient food and needed medical attention and subjected Emma and her siblings to excessive forced exercise and inappropriate physical discipline.”
If convicted of all charges, Ms. Haas and Mr. Haas could face 55 and 45 years in prison, respectively, the DOJ said. Additional charges are possible, according to AG Jennings.
“The road ahead is still long, but this indictment is a major step toward justice for Emma,” AG Jennings said in a prepared statement.
“No crime is more heinous, more offensive to all we hold dear, than the abuse of a child; and in a community as tight-knit as Smyrna, I know how deeply shocking and disturbing this case has been.
“Nothing we can do will bring Emma back, but we owe it to her, to her community, and to every child in this state to hold the defendants accountable for their actions. Thanks to the tireless work of law enforcement, our state and federal partners, and the dedicated staff of the Department of Justice, we are one step closer.”
While AG Jennings was unavailable for further comment Tuesday, spokesman Mat Marshall said she would likely be available to speak publicly on the case as it develops.
Citing the DOJ’s “active criminal investigation” Smyrna Police spokesman Sgt. Brian Donner also declined comment Tuesday.
No court dates are currently scheduled, and the DOJ said the next procedural step would be arraignment on the couple’s new charges. The defendants could waive the arraignment, according to Mr. Marshall.
After being extradited to Delaware last year, the Haases were each charged with endangering the welfare of a child and tampering with physical evidence.
Indiana court records show that Kristie Haas, also known as Kristie Cole, is the mother of Emma and three other children, whose paternity was established in that state’s court system. Mr. Haas is not their biological father.
Those records also show that after paternity for Emma was established in 2016, a guardian was appointed for her from September 2016 to September 2017.
In August 2017, Kristie L. Cole filed an unopposed notice to relocate from Indiana. Social media posts indicated that she married Mr. Haas in May 2017.
According to the Delaware VINELink online site Tuesday, Ms. Haas was being held at Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution. Mr. Haas was listed as being in supervised custody by the Delaware Department of Correction.
Originally sealed to public review, probable cause documents for the Haas couple were opened in mid-November when the case transferred to Kent County Superior Court and Judge Jeffrey Clark approved a request from Deputy Attorney General Kevin Smith to unseal them.
The affidavit of probable cause filed by Smyrna police on Sept. 29, 2020, outlines evidence gathered through surveillance and video footage that led to the arrest warrants.
The justice department’s news release Tuesday stated that the Federal Bureau of Investigation provided “significant investigative” support in the probe.
Also assisting the investigation were the U.S. Secret Service, the Delaware State Police, the Pennsylvania State Police, the Delaware Division of Forensic Science, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, the Delaware Department of Transportation, the Delaware Office of the State Fire Marshal, the Newton Township (Pa.) Police Department, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the DOJ said.
While details on the case and court actions had been limited, the public outpouring of support has been abundant. The Smyrna Clayton Little Lass Softball organization began a temporary memorial in October and on Nov. 21 renamed the minor league field as the Emma Grace Memorial Field.
Several members of Emma’s family traveled from Indiana, where Emma was born, to attend that ceremony, including an aunt Tanya Stroud, who had guardianship of Emma and raised her in her Bloomington home for almost two years, and her great-grandmother Dorothy Axsom.
While the family said they looked to the fall field dedication as a memorial since they had been unable to have services, they were able to hold a long-awaited funeral service and burial for Emma recently back in Indiana.
In an April 1 post on the Justice for Emma Grace Facebook page, Ms. Stroud wrote: “Emma Grace is finally home and laid to rest. Now our sweet, sweet baby girl can be at peace. Today is one of the worse days of my life. I love you baby girl. You are and always will be my little sunshine. Forever My Baby Girl.”
That private Facebook page had more than 1,900 members as of Tuesday. The page quickly gained followers nationally and internationally when launched in mid-October after Emma was identified. Members said they hailed from at least 20 states, along with residents of Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Scotland, Germany and Finland, and many area towns.