I was arrested two days after my crime happened. To this day I can't tell you why I did what I did. I reacted to an impossible situation and I've spent every minute since wishing I could take it back.
On August 12th, 2014 I left a one year old baby and nine year old little girl home alone while I took my son’s puppy (and three other children) to an emergency vet clinic. Maybe you're thinking: Why would she do something so stupid? Well, I cannot justify my actions. I can only tell you what I know, what I was thinking, and the aftermath.
I was out of my house for 47 minutes. I know this because I kept constant track of the time. I was in such a hurry to get home because I was scared. You can't honestly know what you would or wouldn’t do until you're in a dire situation where there is no right answer. I had a puppy that was dying, five children in my care, an SUV that wouldn't seat all of them, and not a single person to help me out. I can make a million excuses, but I won't. I was wrong. All I can say is that I never thought anything bad would happen.
To this day I don't know exactly what happened while I was gone. I don't know exactly how it happened. But it happened. The baby got the car seat strap wrapped around her neck and she asphyxiated. She was sleeping peacefully in it when I left and because I did leave, nothing will ever be peaceful again.
911 was called. Police, firemen, investigators, military staff, and EMTs all showed up within what seemed like seconds. Statements and pictures were taken, and sadly, a body was covered and removed from my home.
That day I never told anyone I had left her alone. Not the investigators. Not even my husband. The only one that really knew what I had done was the nine year old, and I told her she could never tell anyone. But she did. She told her mom and her mom told the police two days later.
For two days I lived in constant fear that they were coming to arrest me. Every car I heard outside put me into panic mode. I was peeking out of my blinds like a tweaker watches for the police. Every time my phone rang I worried it was the investigators calling to tell me they knew. I cried constantly, not only because I was scared to death, but because I knew I was the reason an innocent baby lost her life. An innocent baby that I loved and adored. An innocent baby that loved, adored, and trusted me. I failed her and I failed myself. And even though I didn't know the depth of the repercussions that were coming, I knew that they were on their way. I just didn't know they'd be so severe.
I was arrested in York county, Virginia. A Commonwealth state for those of you who is. The worst kind of state to get in trouble in. (Hence the second degree murder charge instead of manslaughter.) I don't think I've ever had, or will ever have again, an experience quite like that.
It isn't anything like what you see on Law and Order. There wasn't a two way mirror with people standing behind it, I wasn't bullied or belittled by the investigators, they were not mean to me, and they didn't ask a ton of questions. Unbeknownst to me at the time, they knew what I had done and they knew just what to ask for me to corner myself into confessing. When they asked me about our puppy my body literally went cold. I felt it start at the top of my head and go all the way down into my toes. Later on, during a court hearing, the detective said I went white as a sheet of paper. I imagine that was when I felt the coldness take over me.
The investigators drove me from the sheriffs office to a regional jail in Williamsburg about 15 minutes away. On the ride I got to sit up front, my hands cuffed in front of me, and the investigator even gave me a piece of gum because my mouth was uncharacteristically dry. But I stayed silent for the most part. This was all so surreal. So shocking. So unlike anything I had ever been through before.
I finally broke my silence and asked them where they were taking me. The short, fat man in the back seat, whose name was Stump, (whichI found hilarious considering how he looked) told me a couple things that still stand out to me. He told me where I was going, that the food wasn't bad and that I could stay there for up to two years. Two years??? I was horrified when he said that, and asked him if he could possibly think that I, Miss Never Been In Trouble In My Life, could be there for two entire years. (It's strange when I look back on how ignorant I was to all of this. I thought two years in jail was such a long time. Compared to what time I've done and still have to do, it is nothing, a walk in the park.)
When we got there they handcuffed me to a metal ring that connected to the cinder block walls, and left me alone for over an hour. I don’t know where they went or what they were doing but when they finally came back I was allowed to use the rest room. That was the last time I peed with 100% privacy.
They took me to the magistrate where prosecutors told him I had been arrested for two counts of felony child neglect and one count of second degree murder. It didn't even dawn on me that I was being charged with murder. No one told me and I think I was in shock. It wasn't until days later that I understood I wasn't being charged with negligent manslaughter, like I had been told, after all.
They were through with me after that. The officers who worked at the regional jail took me to get my fingerprints done. This was also different than on Law and Order. I kept asking myself why everything I knew about crime was based off of a mediocre at best television show? They do your prints digitally now. They press your fingers onto a clear piece of glass and your prints pop right up on the computer screen. They took my mug shot, which turned out to be the worst picture I've taken in my life. It doesn't even look remotely like me.
I sat in the room they call Intake for hours. It had rows of chairs like a bowling alley and a loud TV on which I was the star. I hadn't eaten all day and my blood sugar was low. I was shaking but couldn't tell if it was from nerves or starvation. I tried to call my husband but he didn't answer the phone. I was panicked, terrified, hungry, sad, and all around exhausted. I just wanted to talk to my husband and wait to be bailed out. Finally my husband called the jail and left a message for me with a phone number to call him. Apparently the police had taken his phone while he was at the Sheriff’s office to look for evidence. I didn’t understand. Evidence for what? This was all a huge accident, why did they need his phone? I didn't get to talk to him very long and the only thing I remember him saying is, "I love you more than anything," as he cried.
When it was my turn to be booked, they strip-searched me and gave me an ugly, orange jumper to put on. I was also issued a small bag of hygiene items, a nightgown, towel and washcloth, socks, men's underwear, an orange pair of clog shoes, and linens for my bed. They opened a door and told me to turn right and go all the way down the hall to the women's section. This was it. I was really in jail.
I will never forget the smell of that place, I had never smelled anything like it. And I know I never want to smell it again. Evan after the two years I spent there, I never got used to it. I came to the conclusion that it was what incarceration smelled of. A mixture of cleaner, laundry soap, sweat, blood, and tears. Sometimes, even now, I think I smell it and I get extreme anxiety. It passes in a second, but it triggers a horrible feeling in me from the time that I consider to be the worst days of my life.
The officer who worked the women's section was named Miss Doc. She was a middle aged black woman who wore too much makeup and too much perfume. She sent me in the direction to my cell, let me in, and shut the door behind me. The opening and closing of the metal doors was horrifying and loud. Cue a panic attack. When I was shut in that small cell, alone, I couldn't breathe. I asked her to please open the door, but she wouldn't. I thought she was the most heartless person I had ever encountered.
I knew I needed to calm myself down, but I felt so hopeless that I couldn't even think. I curled up on the concrete floor, in the fetal position and stayed there until Miss Doc walked by and finally opened my door to make sure I wasn't dead. She had me come sit with her at the officer’s desk. I was thinking that she had a heart after all. It turns out I was wrong and she just liked gossip. She wanted to know if I was really there for murder. I was infamous because York County rarely saw cases like mine. I was all over the news, what everyone calls a high profile case.
I talked to Miss Doc for about half an hour. Until she got all the information she wanted and then she sent me on my way. When I got back to my cell I really saw it for the first time. In the corner there was a metal toilet with a sink connected to it. A bunk bed without a ladder for climbing up. A single plastic chair used in place of the missing ladder, and a small window about the width of a deck of cards. There wasn't anything else in there but signatures on the wall from previous captives.
I pulled out my linens, which smelled just like the hallway, and thought that surely they had meant to give me a fitted sheet instead of the two flat sheets in my hand. I didn't have a way to ask anyone to swap it out so I put it on the thin, holey mat and and couldn't wait to go to sleep. Later on I found out that they don't give you fitted sheets when you are locked up. Why would I think any differently? I was in for a rude awakening. Fitted sheets weren't the only thing missing from my new life.
When I got in the bed I prayed harder than I ever had. I begged, pleaded, and bargained with God to rewind time, to take me instead. I cried into my arm, because I didn't have a pillow, and passed out from sheer exhaustion. Being arrested for murder takes a lot out of someone mentally and emotionally. I slept for three days. I didn't eat, brush my teeth, or shower. I didn't even know where or when I was allowed to bathe myself.
After the third day of being locked in my cell they sent me to medical. They took my vitals and asked me questions. I was crying so hard I couldn't even speak. The nurse, Miss Butler, was so nice and told me to take all the time I needed. She told me she knows how hard it must be, but it will get easier. She checked me for TB and told me I would get put in population that day.
Everyone in the jail knew who I was and why I was there. I had never been more ashamed of myself than I was at that time. I didn't want to go to population, I didn't want to face anyone. I just wanted to go back to my isolated cell and die there. Never to face the world again. But that didn't happen. They sent me to A pod, room 214. A single cell. Thank God for small favors.
When I got in there the pod was full of mostly black girls. That was such a culture shock to me. Being a military wife, I had never spent much time with anyone, let alone black women. I was raised in a one square mile town in the middle of Kansas that was filled with white country folk. They all hated me instantly and I think they sensed my fear. The first time I got called a baby killer was on my walk of shame from the front of the pod up to my cell. I stayed in there and didn't talk to anyone but I was later paid a visit by six girls who saw who I was and what I had done on the news. All six of them beat me so badly that I wanted to die right then. They broke a couple ribs, knocked out two of my teeth, removed fists full of my hair, and blackened every surface of my body that their twelve fists could reach. When the officers got wind of what happened they were taken to segregation.
I was escorted straight to the hospital. Clearly I recovered, despite my wishes not to. I never told my husband what had happened. He was already stressed out and I didn't want to add to his fears.
When I got back from the hospital days later an older woman everyone called Miss Mary took me under her wing. I sat with her while she read the Bible. I wrote stories for my kids, drew them pictures, and wrote them letters telling them how much I loved and missed them.
I started to drop weight quickly. The food was nothing to be desired so I didn't eat. I couldn't understand why the girls would get so excited for me to give them my tray. It worked out well for me because 1) I was losing weight and 2) Whoever wanted my tray had to be nice to me long enough for me to give it to them. And I would take any form of kindness over the way everyone had been treating me, even if it was fake.
Being in jail was strange. There were four phones in the middle of the pod. Side by side we sat, overhearing everything everyone was saying. There is no such thing as privacy when you're incarcerated. There were twelve rooms on the top tier and twelve on the bottom. The pod was a tiny room with an old TV. One shower on the top tier, one on the bottom. There were six metal tables with four stools built into each, bolted to the floor. Meals were delivered and we were rarely allowed the one hour rec time we were supposed to have. That was it. This was what my life had come to.
There are two kinds of correctional officers. The good ones and the bad ones. There is no in between. You're either cool or you're a hard ass. Some of them were there for the paycheck and some of them were there because they believed, wholeheartedly, that they needed to enforce structure, rules, and their power on us. I can't tell you how many officers I've encountered who were so narcissistic and evil that they probably should have been sitting in the seat next to me. They used their power to their advantage and took every opportunity to let us know that we were scum of the earth and they could make us do anything they wanted.
There was an officer named Miss Pagano that took every opportunity to single me out from everyone and embarrass me. She locked me down so many times simply because she could. She hated my guts, and to this day I wouldn't help that woman if it was the deciding factor of going to heaven or hell. She was horrible to me, and I'll never forget it or forgive her for it.
The days passed slowly, the hours even slower. I missed my husband and my kids so much that I cried constantly. I couldn't talk about them without breaking down. I couldn't write to them. I couldn't call them. I couldn't think of them. And then one day I got a letter in the mail from my son, who was six at the time, that said, "Dear Mommy, (backwards Y) how many days until you come home?" That was it. I needed to die. After that letter I learned how to block out emotions. I had to. If my kids popped into my head I cut myself with a shaving razor that I busted open. I would have rather hurt physically than emotionally and at that point I couldn't afford to spend my days crying in bed. This continued for months, until I could force them out of my head without hurting myself. But forcing them out of my thoughts wasn't the treatment I needed.
I had been on depression and anxiety meds for years. The jail didn't have quality psychiatric care. I was on the waiting list for a year before I got to see someone. In that year the inside of my head became a breeding ground for horrible thoughts. Stopping my medicines cold turkey was a terrible thing for me considering all I had been through and what I was up against. Stopping cold turkey for a person that isn't in jail is bad enough. But for me, I believe it led to my mental downfall.
I couldn't sleep at night because of the constant nightmares. They were always of the baby. I had one recurring dream that she was alive. She was wearing a red and white Minnie Mouse dress with a matching headband. I was holding her, kissing her, telling her that we had to find her mom because she would be so happy to see her. But no one could see her. No one but me no matter how many times I told them she was there. I tried to stop sleeping. If I didn't go to sleep I didn't see her and I didn't hear her. Until I did see and hear her while I was awake. I became delusional. Actually, that is the nice way of putting it. I lost my damn mind is more accurate.
I was hearing Bri's cries while I was awake. Then her laughs. I'd see her out of the corner of my eyes. And in the beginning I thought the officers were playing a cruel trick on me. I thought they had somehow got a recording of her and were playing it to torture me. Because I deserved to be tortured. But I couldn't take it anymore so I took cutting myself to the next level and tried to commit suicide. Anything had to be better than what I was going through but no matter how hard I tried to get help, no one would help me. I had panic attacks on a regular basis and all the girls thought I was bat shit crazy.
My, useless, attorney came to see me in the very beginning and didn't see me again for a very long time. When he finally came for a second visit he noticed very quickly that I wasn't okay. He had Dr. McWilliams, the forensic psychologist, pay me a visit. Just as quickly as my lawyer had judged my mental state he did the same. He had me sent to central state hospital and deemed me incompetent to stand trial. Going to the hospital helped me tremendously because I got the help I needed. I was put on several anti psychotics, meds for anxiety and depression, sleeping pills, and I can't even remember what else. There were a lot. (Those meds continued when I was sent back to jail and I still take them to this day). After being deemed competent I went to trial.
Judge Rizk gave me 50 years, 35 suspended. I couldn't believe it. Every day for the prior two years was spent trying to guess how much time I'd get. Every person I came into contact with became my pseudo law advisor and if I didn't like the answer they gave me I moved on to the next person. I expected time and deserved time. Some people would say I deserve more than I got. But the people who know me, who know everything there is to know about me, think otherwise. Me, well, some days I think I deserve life and some days I think it was unfair. No matter what I think, though, I'm here.
I got shipped to prison on July 13, 2016, not long after I was sentenced. The ride here seemed to take forever and I threw up five times on the way. An unfortunate side effect to car sickness. The officers that drove me didn't seem fazed that I was sick and told me to aim for the floor.
When you get here they put you in the intake building and you stay there for about 60 days until you can go to general population. It was already so much different than jail. It was clean! It had a different smell. The day room was larger and had more phones. There was a kiosk capable of sending and receiving email. The bunks had a ladder. We could buy razors from commissary and use them whenever we wanted, keeping them in our possession. The wing had hair dryers, curling irons, flat irons, and something called a Marcel that is apparently intended for black girls hair. (I tried to curl a white girl’s hair with one and it was so hot that I burned a chunk of her hair off. I nearly pissed my pants laughing.) The best thing about the place was that it had a hot pot. Hot water for coffee any time. No more sink water cups of coffee for me!
There were two bunks for every cell. It was set up almost the same as jail. It had the same sink/toilet combo, the same exact window, and the same cement floor. Only this room was a little larger and had two desks with built in stools. I was extremely excited about having a desk to write at.
They do four standing counts a day. 5:45 am, 12:30 pm, 5:45 am, and 9:30 pm. They also count at 11:30 pm and 2:00 am but you don't have to stand for those. There are two tiers here just like jail. However there are more cells and once you get to population they do not have toilets in them. (Thank the stars!)
I didn't like many people so I stayed in my cell a lot. I had an unfortunate roommate who snored like a fat man and I hated every second of it. I bought earplugs from commissary but they didn't help. After sixty-nine days of being in intake I finally got put in population. That's when I started to live my life again.
Population was completely different than intake. The only time you left the wing in intake was to go to rec (which I never did) and commissary. When you're in population you go outside for everything. I don't know how it is at other prisons, but this one is set up like a college campus. We walk outside to get to the chow hall, pill line, appointments, rec, work, school, church, or any other movement, come rain or shine. And I love it. There are flowers, birds, grass, and you don't really see the fences that keep us in. It doesn't look too much like a prison and for the most part it doesn't feel like one either. I've learned to block out the whistle blowing, the rudeness of officers who scream at you to "keep moving" while you walk slowly to wait for your friends. I've grown used to being patted down on a regular basis, stripped on a moments notice, getting drug tested, sneaking to places I'm not supposed to be in, hiding things on my person, and waiting for every door you go through to be unlocked.
It is hard to explain how I feel about this place, about this maximum security prison that I consider my home. On the one hand I hate it. On the other I have made some of my best memories here. I have met some of my best friends here. I found the love of my life here. But all of the things that I love came at a high price. If I could go back in time and change things I would. But since I can't, I have earned to live the life I have instead of dwelling on the one I had.
I'm not the same person I was five years ago. I've grown in ways that make me proud. I don't always cry when someone calls me a baby killer. I can talk to my kids without breaking down. I can enjoy a book or show on TV. I can live and love. But I'll never forget why I'm here. What happened was horrific. It has left scars on so many people and changed the lives of everyone I loved. That's something I'll deal with even when I get to leave this place. This prison is temporary, but the hurt is forever.
Kyla Ziegenhagen #1655594
P.O. Box 1000
Troy, VA. 22974
My name is Kyla Ziegenhagen and I have been incarcerated since 2014. I'm currently taking college courses through PVCC to earn my associate degree, paralegal correspondence courses through Blackstone University, and I work full time as a muralist. When I'm not painting murals, I spend a lot of time drawing, writing, and reading. My latest release date is in 2027 and when I leave this place, I'd like to get a job as a paralegal and do volunteer work in a women's prison. I want to make a difference in at least one person’s life.