By Ted Waddell
MONTICELLO - January 30, 2004 Justice finally caught up with Diane Odell on Tuesday, as Sullivan County Court Judge Frank J. LaBuda sentenced the 50-year-old former resident of Kauneonga Lake to 25 years to life in state prison for killing "with depraved indifference" three of her newborn babies in 1982, 1983 and 1985.
Odell was convicted of three counts of murder in the second degree on December 16 after a jury trial that relied heavily on forensic evidence including detailed testimony related to the badly decomposed/mummified remains of the babies found in a storage shed in Safford, AZ in May 2003.
Wrapped in blankets and garbage bags stuffed into stained cardboard boxes, photos and x-rays of the tiny skeletons visibly affected many jurors during the trial, causing the media to dub the case "The Babies in Boxes Murder Trial.
Before pronouncing sentence, Judge LaBuda reflected upon the timing of the trial.
"It occurred during a time when many people throughout the world celebrated the birth of an infant who was perhaps unwanted by others . . . born in a barn and wrapped in swaddling clothes," he said.
As Odell stood before the judge, she wiped tears from her eyes and appeared to clutch a religious medal on a silver chain.
Dressed in a baggy brown jailhouse jacket over an oversize orange jail-issue jumpsuit, Odell was flanked by her legal aide attorneys, Stephen Schick and Timothy Havas.
While LaBuda said he was not unmoved by the letters he received from her children "asking this court for mercy upon you, he said the sentencing was not for punishment and retribution, but for reaffirmation of the "respect for life we Americans have a country dedicated to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
"You have violated a basic tenent, a basic principle, a basic belief that all Americans have, a right to life and liberty," he said. "It was a dark tale that you created . . . no matter how small a life."
LaBuda said the final judgement was influenced by the 1989 discovery of the remains of a baby born to Odell in 1972.
Stuffed in a suitcase found in a junked car in Max Shapiro's wrecking yard in Kauneonga Lake, under questioning by authorities Odell reportedly admitted the baby was hers, but police could not make a case.
Odell faces a maximum sentence of 75 years to life. She will be eligible for parole in 2029.
LaBuda sentenced Odell to 15 years to life for the "depraved and indifferent murder" of the 1982 baby, 20 years to life for killing "baby #2" (1983) and 25 years to life for the second degree murder of the third infant born in 1985. All sentences run concurrently.
"You allowed those babies to rot away," said LaBuda. "It is a dark tale, but one you wrote. Today is judgement day, 25 years later, a quarter of a century later."
Before LaBuda handed down the life sentence, Odell addressed the court, reading from a short handwritten statement, a statement that portrayed the convicted murderer more as a victim than a killer.
For what I hope is the last time in my life, I will say I did not kill my children," she said softly.
"I have been in a jail of my own making for most of my life. I want to know, when does my suffering end?" she added. "I will apologize for not making conscious, educated decisions. And I hope that one day truth and justice will set me free.
"I will spend the rest of my life trying to be the person I should have been," Odell said, choking back tears.
According to Sullivan County District Attorney Stephen Lungen, after the remains of the infants were discovered last year, Odell gave authorities seven different versions of the truth, claiming "she was kept off the witness stand by her attorney because he didn't want (facts related to) the 1972/1989 baby brought out [in court]."
The truth is, Odell didn't testify because she knew there would be cross examination that could have exposed her," he added.
Lungen said that in a post-conviction jailhouse interview published in the press, Odell in essence blamed her deceased mother for the deaths of "the three unwanted 'bastard' children."
In no way did she take any responsibility or show any real remorse," said Lungen. "She said her babies were the greatest gift from God and she loved them more than anything she lived her life everyday for her children."
As the visibly moved local DA continued, he said, "It was clear from the evidence, she was only talking about the children she wanted. While she was supposedly telling the police the truth, the three babies were rotting away in a closet in her house."
The remains were later moved to the storage shed in AZ, as Odell moved around the country.
"This trial was about her unwanted children," said Lungen. "There are no illegitimate children, only illegitimate parents."
On behalf of Odell, her common-law husband Robert Sauerstein and three of the couple's five children, Jeffrey, 13; 14-year old Robert and Jonathan, 15, Odell's lead legal aide attorney asked the judge to release the remains of the three babies to the family for proper burial.
That matter is under judicial consideration.
Schick countered Lungen's contention that Odell never showed remorse in the case against her.
My client has expressed nothing but remorse," he said. "All her children living at home tell me that she is nothing but the kindest, gentlest, most loving mother they could possibly have."
Calling his client a "haunted woman, Schick asked for the minimum sentence (15 years to life).
She's a person who has lived a life of incredible hardship and a life of incredible abuse since she was about 9 years old, when she was first sexually and physically abused," he said.
"If there's a price to be paid by her, the price will be paid by society for her lifetime incarceration, her children and her family children aged five to 17, as well as her adult children."
In an eloquent plea for mercy, Schick asked for "a beacon of light" for his client.
After Odell was handcuffed by Sullivan County Sheriff's Department deputies for transport to state prison, they allowed her a few moments with her husband and three of their teary-eyed children.
Afterwards, 15-year-old Jonathan Sauerstein faced the media and the shock of reality, a reality that will likely have his mother locked up for the remainder of her natural life.
His reaction to the sentence?
"I think it sucks, because I don't think she did it," he said. "She's a wonderful mother, you couldn't ask for better. She's always there."
James and Donna Feeney of Fallsburg were in the courtroom to show support for Odell and her family.
Hopefully, the appeal will come through (the defense has filed an appeal in the case), and she'll be set free to come home to her family, because she's got a heart of gold," said James Feeney.
Donna Feeney got to know Odell while in the county lockup serving a seven-month sentence for a petty crime.
Nobody really knows the true story, a lot of what happened was never brought out," she said.
"She's one of the most wonderful people you'll ever want to meet," added Feeney. "If she could have turned back the hands of time, I think she would have turned her mother in, she was petrified of her own mother."
Odell's mother reportedly died in 1995.
"It may sound sick to some people to carry those children (the three dead babies) around with her, but she needed them near her," said Feeney. "If she wanted to get away with it, she would have buried them in a desert in Arizona."
Not so, said Lungen post-sentencing. Lungen said in his opinion, Odell learned a lesson from the 1989 accidental discovery of the 1972 baby.
She knew the first time she was caught (but never charged)," he said. "She wanted to keep the bastard children with her so she couldn't be tracked she learned from the first baby how not to get caught.
It was a coward's way out," said Lungen.
At least until the remains of the last three mummified newborns were uncovered by a man who bought the contents of Storage Shed #6 at auction last May.
The "Babies in Boxes Murder Case" against Odell could be summed up in a single snapshot from the bench, as Judge LaBuda handed down the court's decision.
Taking note of his observation that the defendant prayed and recited the rosary during the trial, Judge LaBuda closed the proceedings, "I hope you will take this opportunity to prepare for the final judgement when you will have to account for your actions."