West Chester mother of 2 children killed in fire sentenced to prison

Judge: Mom created a ‘death trap’ in the house and left them alone.

A mother who was not home with her four children when a fire broke out in their West Chester Twp. apartment was sentenced to prison Tuesday.

Ashley J. Rhiles, pleaded guilty in August to two third-degree involuntary manslaughter and two counts of endangering children, also third-degree felonies.

Butler County Common Pleas Judge Noah Powers II sentenced Rhiles to six years in prison. She faced a maximum of 12 years.

Four children were home alone Sept. 17, 2022, when fire broke out around 12:15 p.m. in an apartment at the Meadow Ridge complex, 5259 Aster Park Drive, according to fire officials and prosecutors.

Two of the children, a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old, died a few days later.

Rhiles was tearful before sentencing telling Powers, “I made a mistake that will live with me for the rest of my life. I love my children ... I worked extremely hard and was dedicated to my children.”

Rhiles attorney Alexandria Deardorff said the woman suffers from PTSD and anxiety from severe abuse she suffered in her teen years and had no support after the death of her mother in 2021.

Deardorff said Rhiles was in dental school and worked as a food delivery driver to support her children and often had to take them with her while working.

On the day of the fire, Rhiles worked until 1 a.m. delivering food orders with her children. She woke up and found three of her children were still asleep.

“She went to the store to get a drink and check her mail. Fourteen minutes later ... 14 minutes ... I think the number will live with her for the rest of her life,” Deardorff said.

“I can express to her judge how difficult it has been for her,” Deardorff said. “Every time we speak, the guilt and anguish that she feels over the choice to leave that day is present.”

The defense attorney asked Powers to place Rhiles on community control, adding she already served six months in the Butler County Jail before being released on bond following the guilty pleas.

Deardorff said Rhiles wants to be a mother to her surviving children, ages 6 and one, who are now in the care of others.

Assistant Butler County Prosecutor Lindsay Sheehan said the case is tragic, and every parent’s nightmare, but the reason why parents don’t leave children alone is because the worst can happen.

A 6-year-old will carry guilt because he was left to care for his siblings who died “that’s not his fault, that’s his mother’s,” Sheehan said.

Sheehan also pointed out while Rhiles did cooperate with police “she also lied to police” initially saying she just went to the mailbox.

Powers saw no reason not to sentence Rhiles to prison, saying she created a “death trap” in the house with its condition and use of extension cords then left her children alone.

“There is no doubt that this is a tragic situation, two young children dead, two other young children who survived are experiencing physical and or emotional difficulties that will probably last a lifetime,” Powers said, adding Rhiles has followed the rules while on pretrial release and visited her children. “But the court has to base its sentencing on what happened.”

When Deardorff interrupted the judge asking him to be mindful that he consider Rhiles would lose custody of the youngest child after two years, Powers responded, ”I am not concerned about whether she is going to get the children back quite frankly, because I don’t think she should have them. These children were placed in an awful situation.”

“The fact of the matter is, from the court’s point of view based on my reading of the presentence investigation and the way Ms. Rhiles kept her house, she created a death trap and then she walks away for 15 minutes expecting a young child to take care of his siblings ... it is beyond reason. These children should not have been left in that situation for 5 minutes, or 15 minutes or 20 minutes or three days,” Powers said.

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