Hall of Shame 2010: Joel Zellmer

By James Quiggle
January 2, 2011

Child worth more dead than alive


Little Ashley McLellan’s lungs filled with freezing water in the family’s backyard swimming pool near Seattle. Her final, futile gasps for air must’ve terrified her. But Ashley’s stepfather Joel Zellmer wasn’t concerned. The three-year-old’s life meant little; her death meant more.

imageZellmar drowned Ashley for a $200,000 life-insurance payout. He’d been married to Ashley’s mother Stacey Ferguson for only a few months when the toddler died in December 2003.

Fire fighters found her wet, unconscious body flopped on the living-room floor. Zellmer claimed he discovered her floating in the pool. She probably went outside to the deck for some cake left there and somehow slid into the water, he told investigators.

It was nearly the perfect crime; no witnesses saw Zellmer drown her. But astute prosecutors still wove a convincing murder case that earned him 50 years in prison.

Wooed several mothers. He seemed strangely unemotional at Ashley’s death scene, and never even asked if she’d live.

Zellmer wooed other single mothers before meeting Stacey. He then injured the kids after trying to buy life insurance on some of the youngsters. The mothers all broke off with Zellmer but never had him taken to court.

“Zellmer’s frightening history with kids surfaced too late to save Ashley. But single mothers in Washington State won’t have to worry about Zellmer for generations to come.”He was dating Kelly Clauson, the mother of an infant son Kyle. She discovered him on the master bedroom floor. He was blue and soaking wet. Zellmer claimed Kyle must’ve crawled into the hot tub just off the bedroom. But Kyle was too young to walk, let alone open the heavy lid covering the hot tub. Another time she found his hands blistered with burns. Kyle must’ve leaned against the hot glass of the fireplace, Zellmer told Kelly.

She ended the relationship, but Zellmer worked fast. He soon was engaged to Michelle Barnett, who had a four-year-old daughter Madison. He then told Michelle he needed to buy life insurance on her and Madison.

Tried to buy life coverage. Michelle returned from work to find Madison wearing different clothes from that morning. She tripped and fell into the pool, Zellmer said after babysitting her that day. Michelle left him after later finding a hand-shaped bruise on her buttock.

Zellmer began dating yet another woman before long. She left him after he tried to convince her to buy life coverage on her and her three-year-old daughter Mia.

A decade before these broken romances, Zellmer had married a woman with a four-year-old son Michael. The toddler broke his leg in what Zellmer claimed was a car crash soon after buying an uninsured motorist policy. But he deliberately damaged the Honda to create the illusion of a rear-end collision in a failed effort to collect $25,000 in insurance, she testified at his trial for killing Ashley.

Zellmer’s frightening history with kids surfaced too late to save Ashley. But single mothers in Washington State won’t have to worry about Zellmer for generations to come.


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