The Kitsap County coroner called it one of the worst neglect cases he's seen.
Richeal M. Rhoades, who told naval investigators she fell into a deepening depression after moving to Navy housing in Bremerton last August with her two young children, entered a not guilty plea in Kitsap County Superior Court.
The murder count alleges criminal negligence. Rhoades, 21, was held on $500,000 bail in the Kitsap County jail in Port Orchard, west of Seattle across Puget Sound.
Her attorney, Aaron Talney, said Rhoades' mental health is a consideration in the case, although he wouldn't say if she'd been evaluated.
"It's pretty obvious that was a woman who was pretty distressed over an extended time," Talney said Thursday in a telephone interview.
The woman moved to the Jackson Park Naval Housing Area in Bremerton as her sailor husband Michael Rhoades prepared to leave from Kings Bay, Ga., aboard the USS Maine, a Trident submarine that was reassigned to a base at Bangor, near Bremerton.
She told investigators she grew more and more detached from little Brenda and Michael Jr., age 3, as her depression worsened, according to court documents. She sought no help for her depression and, although she knew her daughter had a temperature shortly before she died late last month, Rhoades said she didn't call a hospital.
"Richeal said she knew that she had not been taking care of her kids and that Brenda was suffering from malnutrition and had a bad diaper rash," Bremerton police Detective Kenny Davis' affidavit said. "She was afraid that both Brenda and Michael Jr. would be taken away from her."
The little boy is in protective custody.
Her husband's submarine arrived Sunday at Bangor, and he apparently learned of the baby's death that night, although authorities weren't notified until Monday, court papers said.
When officers came to the home Monday and asked about the little girl, the woman said, "It's in here," and led them to a closet downstairs. The child's body was found wrapped in garbage bags and sealed in a packing box.
"It's one of those crimes that you can't understand why it occurred," Deputy Prosecutor Chris Casad said Thursday. "She lived in Navy housing and had lots of resources available to her."
The Navy offers free counseling and parenting classes to sailors' spouses and dependents. An ombudsman program is also available to provide additional support for families.
Yet despite the wealth of information available from agencies like the National Institute of Mental Health, depression still goes undiagnosed in many people, said Wayne Katon, professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington in Seattle.
"There is still a lot of stigma about depression in society," Katon said. "It makes people more reticent to ask for help."
By November, according to Rhoades' account as described in court documents, she was considering suicide and neglecting Brenda and Michael.
Michael was feeding himself, she said, and she was giving Brenda 6 eight-ounce bottles of milk a day. That amount declined as days went by, and she eventually was changing the girl's diaper only once a day.
A week before Thanksgiving, she said, there were so many dirty diapers in Brenda's room that she left the window open all night to air out the stench. The next day, the child had a 102-degree temperature.
Rhoades said she gave the little girl children's aspirin to help lower her fever.
Later, she gave Brenda an eight-ounce bottle of milk and left her in her room with the door closed. She closed Michael in his room, as well, then went upstairs to sleep.
She estimated the baby was left alone for 40 to 44 hours before she checked on her and found Brenda dead. The mother said she found the little girl against the bedroom door and had to push her out of the way to enter.
"She touched Brenda's chest area and it was cold," court documents said. "She said she knew that Brenda was dead, she had killed her from not feeding her or taking proper care of her."
The detective's affidavit said Rhoades described putting the baby's body in a black garbage sack with several dirty diapers, then leaving it in the bedroom.
Rhoades said she then went upstairs and played an online game, Final Fantasy XI.
Rhoades later had Thanksgiving dinner with neighbors, telling them the little girl was sick and staying with friends.
Autopsy results on the child are not expected for several weeks, said Greg Sandstrom, Kitsap County coroner since 1994.
"This is probably one of the worst neglect cases we've ever seen in my career here," he said.