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    Devoted mom's arrest in son's death baffling

    Allison Herring

    Devoted mom's arrest in son's death baffling

    Cynthia Hubert -- Bee Staff Writer
    Published 2:15 a.m. PDT Thursday, October 24, 2002

    Allison Herring was the kind of mother who planted the softest grass she could find so her disabled son, Stephen, could crawl around the front yard without scraping his knees.

    Adjacent to her tidy home in Citrus Heights, she built him a sturdy playhouse, a cottage complete with Christmas lights and wind chimes and a sign that identified it as "Steve's Place."

    Herring sent Stephen, 18, who was born with cerebral palsy, and his mentally disabled sister Starlyn, 17, to schools designed to help them become productive members of society. She took them to social events. She decorated their rooms with their favorite things.

    By all appearances Herring, who with her former husband, Carl, adopted both children when they were infants, was a loving and attentive mother who would never dream of harming them.

    But appearances, investigators have said, can be deceiving. On Oct. 10, police charged Herring with Stephen's murder.

    In interviews and public documents, police, prosecutors and others said they have strong evidence that Herring gave Stephen, who was partially blind and had limited mobility, a fatal dose of a powerful prescription narcotic and then made it appear as though he had drowned in the bathtub.

    Herring, 47, declined a request for a jailhouse interview, and her lawyer refused to speak about the case. Carl Herring, who is now caring for Starlyn, also declined to talk.

    None of it makes sense to Allison Herring's friends, who paint a picture of an honorable woman who was extraordinarily devoted to her children.

    "Any degree of speculation that she somehow fell apart and murdered her own son is utterly beyond my comprehension of what Allison is all about," said Janice Frasche, who has known Herring for nearly a decade. "I think there has been some terrible mistake."

    A petite, energetic woman who lost her left leg three years ago following a car crash, Herring now is incarcerated without bail in the Sacramento County jail. On Tuesday she appeared in court for the second time, dressed in an orange jumpsuit and seated in a wheelchair, offering a weary smile to friends in the gallery. She has yet to enter a plea.

    Herring's lifestyle, and her outward interactions with her children, never suggested she might end up here.

    For more than two decades, Herring lived in the same ranch-style home on Schooner Way in Citrus Heights. A dog trainer and rescuer who was particularly fond of Anatolian shepherds, Herring took in strays and supported groups that place canines with disabled people. Even after being confronted with her own disability, Herring maintained a mostly positive outlook, and her children seemed happy and content, friends said.

    On many days neighbors would see Stephen, who got around in a wheelchair and by crawling, in his cottage or lounging in the front yard, waving and laughing with his service dog, Friar Bob, in tow.

    "Stephen was very happy. He was a great kid," said Mark Smith, 22, who has lived next door to the Herrings his entire life. "They were just nice, normal neighbors."

    But one day late last year, something went wrong inside the Herring home.

    Investigators said they are convinced that on Dec. 9, 2001, just hours after Allison Herring had hosted a small social gathering at her house, she fed her son a massive overdose of the powerful painkiller oxycodone and later called 911.

    Although Starlyn was also home, Allison Herring was "the only one who had the physical ability and opportunity" to commit the act, according to a court affidavit. She was charged with "murder by administering a poison."

    But why would Herring kill the son she said she adored? Investigators have no firm answers, but offered several theories.

    Did Herring, who is divorced from the children's adoptive father, crumble under the pressure of caring for Stephen and his sister?

    Did she give Stephen a lethal dose of painkiller in an effort to mercifully end the young man's suffering?

    Or could she have been driven by a psychiatric disorder known as Munchausen's syndrome by proxy, which prompts caregivers to intentionally harm their children so they can bask in the attention that follows?

    Deputy District Attorney John O'Mara said the answers may never be known.

    "In some cases you never learn the psychological motivation behind a murder," O'Mara said. But this would not be the first time, he said, that an apparently honorable person demonstrated a dark side.

    Herring's life, most would agree, was anything but easy. Caring for two disabled children was a challenge, she told friends, but she seemed up to the task.

    "I have never heard her raise her voice to those kids, let alone a hand in anger," said longtime friend Nikki Lugli. "She loved and lived for her kids."

    After Herring and her husband divorced in 1991, Allison took primary responsibility for caring for Stephen and Starlyn. Life became more difficult when, in 1999, Herring was involved in a devastating car crash that caused her to lose her left leg. Starlyn, who was born with developmental disabilities, suffered a head injury in the accident.

    But Lugli and others said Herring rarely complained about her troubles or her workload, and boosted her friends emotionally when they were down.

    "My impression of Allison is of a balanced and loving person," said Frasche. "I have never seen her display inappropriate anger or inappropriate behavior. She always managed to be cheerful, helpful and generous."

    Herring's children were polite and pleasant, and very fond of their mother, Frasche said. Stephen attended an adult day program that helps disabled adults gain educational, vocational and other skills, and he proudly described the school as his job.

    "He was the prince of our program," said Eric Steward, director of ACE IT II in Citrus Heights, where Stephen was a daily presence. "He was one of the people who just lit up this place. He was the type of guy who viewed the world as a thing that must be experienced, almost to the point of riskiness. He was the first one to slide down a snowy hill. The more things he did, the happier he was."

    Stephen, who was African American, was slightly built and handsome, with a hint of a goatee. Though his speech was impaired, he voiced strong views about politics and life. He was unabashed in his love of motorcycles and the San Francisco 49ers. But behind his bravado was a gentle manner, said Steward.

    "Stephen was the epitome of a hippie," said Steward. "It was, 'Peace, love to everyone, let's all get along.' "

    About two weeks after Stephen died, his mother wrote a grief-laden message about him to her friends.

    "My sweet, beautiful, magical, obstinate, opinionated boy is gone and I am bereft," Herring wrote in the Internet missive. "There is no comfort, no ease, just a numbing, blinding agony that makes it hard to breathe or think."

    Though she emphasized her son was "far from a plaster of Paris saint," she said she admired his "lust for life" and the way he greeted each day with open delight. She spoke of Stephen's desire to travel to Afghanistan to "speak to (Osama) bin Laden so he would stop hurting people."

    "Steve was a wonderful combination of innocence and worldliness, adolescent angst and youthful enthusiasm," Herring wrote. "Stephen made the world a much better place, and I don't know how to live without him."

    More than one investigator involved in the case said Herring's devotion to her son, and her apparent devastation at his death, is quite possibly sincere. These investigators believe Herring may have Munchausen syndrome by proxy.

    "This case definitely appeared to fit," said Dave Wright, a Sacramento County sheriff's detective who initially looked into the case. Wright said he and his partner, who were among the first to interview Herring, found her heartbreak to be genuine and her feelings of loss profound. Weeks after the youth died, Herring had left his room intact. "She genuinely seemed to be grieving," Wright said.

    Initially, some suspected Stephen was the victim of a "mercy killing," but Wright said he and his partner found no evidence to suggest such a motive. In fact, the detective said, the youth's condition was stable, and although he was unable to perform many of the tasks of daily life without help he was not in apparent pain or distress.

    Craig Hill, a sergeant in the Sheriff's Department's homicide bureau, said he believes Herring may simply have grown tired of caring for her strong-willed son.

    "She had taken oxycodone. She knew what it could do, especially to someone with cerebral palsy," said Hill. "She knew she could end up with a dead child."

    On the day of her son's death, Herring invited a few friends, including Frasche, to her home, according to court documents and interviews. The friends reported nothing remarkable about Stephen or his interactions with his mother that day.

    The guests left about 5 o'clock in the evening. About two hours later, Herring called 911. She told the dispatcher she had found her son, whom she said she had helped into the bathtub just minutes before, face down and not breathing. "She stated that he was dead," the court affidavit reads.

    Paramedics found Stephen on the bathroom floor, and performed CPR. He was pronounced dead shortly after his arrival at Mercy San Juan Hospital.

    An autopsy found no obvious trauma or medical problem that could explain Stephen's death, according to a Sacramento County Coroner's report. But toxicology tests found "a large amount of oxycodone," about eight times the normal dosage, in Stephen's blood. That level suggested Stephen had swallowed the drug about an hour before his death, according to the report.

    Confronted with the information, Herring said she had taken oxycodone after her car accident. She said Stephen was probably incapable of removing the pills from her zippered pouch, opening the bottle and taking them himself, but could offer no other explanation for how the drugs got into his system. Investigators determined Starlyn could not have forced the medication upon her brother.

    It all adds up to a powerful case against Herring, said Hill and others.

    "I think she started off with good intentions," the sergeant said of Herring. "She took on two handicapped children. How noble is that? But I think as Stephen got older, it became a chore to care for him. It became too much of a burden. So she decided to play God."

    Today in court, Herring's lawyers will ask Judge Gary Ransom to allow their client to be released on bail. Prosecutors are expected to object, arguing that Herring is a flight risk and a danger to the community.

    In the meantime, her friends have started a fund to help pay for Herring's legal defense.

    "I do not know how this horrible thing happened," said Lugli. "But I do know that Allison Herring did not murder her son, Stephen, and is not a threat to her daughter Star. This is a travesty of justice."