SEATTLE – The firefighters who tried to save 3-year-old Ashley McLellan, unconscious after being pulled from a pool on a winter night in 2003, noticed something strange about her stepfather: He was calm, mostly dry and never once asked them if she would live.
She didn't, and Joel Zellmer was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of killing her in an attempt to collect on a $200,000 insurance policy — just one accusation in a string of accidents that investigators say Zellmer concocted to befall the young children of the women he dated.
Investigators say Zellmer has a history of dating single mothers, urging them to take out insurance policies and harming their children, including burning the hands of one and giving another a hot cup that blistered her lips.
Attorney Joe Hampton, who is representing Zellmer in a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Ashley's mother and father, said he would not be representing Zellmer on the criminal charges and had no comment. It was unclear whether Zellmer had another lawyer.
The King County Sheriff's Department has said it is not pursuing charges in the other cases because they happened as far back as 1990.
In Ashley's case, Zellmer told the emergency workers an unlikely story, charging papers say: While her mother was at work, the girl opened a sliding glass door, went onto the deck to eat some cake that Zellmer had left, then wandered down a flight of stairs to wash her hands in the unlit, uncovered pool. It was 39 degrees, and Ashley was afraid of the dark.
Three months earlier, just after Zellmer and Ferguson married, Zellmer had taken out a life insurance policy on the girl, sheriff's Detective Sue Peters wrote in court documents. He and the mother stood to get $100,000 each if the girl died accidentally, according to documents filed in the wrongful death lawsuit.
In December 2002 — one year before Ashley drowned — Zellmer was baby-sitting for the 4-year-old daughter of Michelle Barnett, then his fiancee. When Barnett came home, the girl, Madison, was wearing different clothes; Zellmer claimed she "tripped and fell" into the pool, according to charging papers.
Zellmer took out insurance in late August 1990 that would pay up to $25,000 for anyone injured in his car should it be hit by an uninsured motorist, charging documents say.
Weeks later, he took his 4-month-old stepson, Mitchel Komendant, to a hospital and said the boy was injured after the family's car was rear-ended by a hit-and-run driver. The X-rays came back negative, but three days later, Zellmer asked doctors to order new ones.
The new X-rays showed Mitchell had at least one broken leg. Within a week, Zellmer tried to collect on the insurance policy — an effort he dropped after his wife signed a declaration saying there had been no car accident, Peters wrote.
Zellmer never collected any insurance money in Ashley's death, either, said Dan Donohoe, a spokesman for the county prosecutor's office. The death was initially ruled an accident.
In a declaration filed in the wrongful death claim, Zellmer said he was lying down inside at the time of the drowning.
"I cared for Ashley as if she was my own daughter financially and emotionally, providing her with her own room, feeding her meals, making regular payments for her daycare services, arranging potential doctors appointments and attending to her eyewear needs," he wrote.
Ashley's mother, Stacey Ferguson, disputed that he provided such support.
Zellmer has been charged with first-degree murder and first-degree theft on suspicion of collecting $193,000 after filing a bogus disability claim saying he had brain damage. He is being held on $5 million bail pending his arraignment Wednesday.
"As a single mother with a small child, many of us hope for a partner to go through life with and for a father figure that will help set a good example for our children," Ferguson said in a statement. "Mr. Zellmer understood that only too well and he took advantage of my trust and hope."
Other crimes alleged in charging papers:
• In April 2000, Zellmer began dating Kelly Clauson, the mother of an infant son. She found her baby on the bedroom floor near a hot tub, soaking wet and pallid. Zellmer, who had been in the bedroom, claimed the baby must have crawled into the hot tub, but Clauson knew her son could not have moved the thick, insulated cover.
Documents do not indicate whether the boy, Kyle, suffered any long-term injuries.
That summer, in July, Clauson left Kyle with Zellmer briefly. When she returned, the boy's hands were blistered with second-degree burns. Zellmer claimed the boy leaned against hot fireplace glass.
• In spring 2003, Zellmer began dating Misty Teran, the mother of a 3-year-old girl, Mia. He suggested taking out insurance policies for her and her daughter. The second time she left Zellmer alone with the girl, she burned her lips on a sippy cup. Teran broke off the relationship after finding in Zellmer's home office pictures of other women with young daughters.