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Laura Wells

Laura Starnes-Wells appears in Natrona County Circuit Court in February. Starnes-Wells, a former officer with the Casper Police Department, pleaded guilty to felony child abuse.

Laura Starnes-Wells’ voice wavered and broke as she asked Judge Daniel Forgey to sentence her to probation.

“I’ve lost my kids, my house, my job and my good name,” the former Casper police officer told the judge.

After she finished her comments, Forgey obliged, placing Starnes-Wells on one to five years of probation for child abuse. If she violates the terms of her probation during the first year, she could serve a year in jail.

Starnes-Wells pleaded guilty in November to felony child abuse and misdemeanor child endangerment charges tied to allegations she mistreated her two adopted children.

As part of a deal with prosecutors, Starnes-Wells’ guilty plea to the felony charge will not be entered into the court record. If she successfully completes probation, the felony charge will be dropped.

Speaking at Wednesday’s hearing, prosecutor Dan Itzen said Starnes-Wells had lost custody of her children as a result of the case. He said she had initially “intended to do well,” in attempting to discipline her children.

“In short, she’s a bad parent,” Itzen said.

Laramie defense attorney Thomas Fleener noted the case was Starnes-Wells’ first criminal offense. Fleener said the plea agreement negotiation was difficult but said the sentence was appropriate.

“It leaves a bitter taste in (Itzen’s) mouth and my mouth,” Fleener said. “Which means it’s probably the right answer.”

Starnes-Wells then spoke on her own behalf. She said she had chosen to relinquish her parental rights to her children, and said parenting is difficult.

“While I was hard on them, I truly do love them,” she said.

When reached by phone after the 15-minute hearing, Fleener declined to comment.

The plea deal, which was accepted by Forgey on Wednesday, also calls for Starnes-Wells to serve one year of probation for the misdemeanor charge. It will run at the same time as the felony probation and a violation is punishable by jail time.

In a November court appearance, Starnes-Wells admitted to inflicting mental injuries on one of her children by acting recklessly. She also admitted to negligently endangering the health of the other child.

Starnes-Wells was arrested and charged with felony child abuse in February 2017. During previous hearings, investigators and prosecutors outlined instances of “extreme” punishment Starnes-Wells allegedly used to discipline the children. They also allege Starnes-Wells did not meet the mental health needs of the kids.

The case began in May 2016 when the officer’s adopted daughter told officials at her school that Starnes-Wells “had battered her,” court documents allege. Investigators wrote that the girl came to school with a partially bruised eye and swollen lip.

The girl told investigators with the Natrona County Sheriff’s Office that Starnes-Wells had slapped and punched her on multiple occasions, according to court documents.

Starnes-Wells was previously a school resource officer at Centennial Junior High.

Former Casper Police Chief Jim Wetzel said in February that Starnes-Wells was placed on administrative leave in November 2016 when the department became aware of the criminal investigation. He said at the time that she would remain on administrative leave throughout proceedings in the criminal cases, as is standard policy.

City Manager Carter Napier said in November that Starnes-Wells was back working for the department in an administrative capacity. Tracey Belser, support services director for the city’s human resources department, declined to say why Starnes-Wells had returned to work for the department because it was a personnel matter.

Napier told a reporter days before her plea deal that Starnes-Wells had subsequently resigned from the department.

Prosecutors initially filed a misdemeanor child abuse charge against Starnes-Wells’s husband, Sgt. Todd Wells. That charge was later dropped. Wells is still working for the police department.

Follow crime reporter Shane Sanderson on Twitter @shanersanderson

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Crime and Courts Reporter

Shane Sanderson is a Star-Tribune reporter who primarily covers criminal justice. Sanderson is a proud University of Missouri graduate. Lately, he’s been reading Cormac McCarthy and cooking Italian food. He writes about his own life in his free time.

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