(Lawrenceburg, Ind.) – Vanessa Dean attempted to kill her four-year-old son by leaving him in her burning home, but she will not do any time behind bars because psychiatrists agreed she was mentally ill at the time.
The former Hidden Valley resident used gasoline and a lighter to set her home on fire in October 2011. Her four-year-old son was kept inside the locked and burning building. The boy would be saved by neighbors who witnessed the fire and found a way inside the smoke-filled home to bring him to safety.
Reading from a psychiatrist’s court-ordered evaluation of Dean, Dearborn County Prosecutor Aaron Negangard said Dean believed at the time she set the fire that she was on trial for murder, that her child was going to be taken from her, and that police were going to give her a lethal injection.
“She never thought twice about setting the fire,” Negangard said.
Two doctors diagnosed the mother was diagnosed as being in the early stages of schizophrenia. While the doctors agreed Dean could assist with her defense, the evaluations made it clear to prosecutors that it would be a difficult case to win in a jury trial.
Negangard reached a plea agreement with Dean and her attorney, Frank Cardis. On Monday, Dean pleaded guilty but mentally ill to a charge of Attempted Neglect of Dependant Resulting in Serious Bodily Injury. Charges of Attempted Murder and Arson were dismissed.
Following some changes, the agreement was accepted by Dearborn Circuit Court Judge James Humphrey.
Dean will serve two years on home incarceration, followed by 13 years of probation to ensure she continues to receive treatment and takes her medication. She has already spent four months at Madison State Mental Hospital after posting bond to get out of jail.
At the end of the probation period, Dean’s son will be 18-years-old. Until then, she will be permitted to visit him regularly in a supervised setting at a family center in Greendale. Contact with any other children under the age of 16 will also be prohibited.
Many may wonder how a person who was once charged with Attempted Murder and Arson cannot receive any hard prison time. Negangard explained.
“It was clear it was a unique case from the beginning,” the prosecutor said. “If she were found not guilty by reason of insanity, which was a possible verdict in this case, she would have been sent to commitment. She could have been processed very quickly given the fact that she spent four months in a psychiatric facility. She could have been out in a very short period of time with absolutely no requirements: no supervision, no probation, no monitoring the relationship between her and her son. That was something we could not risk.”
Dean was accepting of the plea agreement, Cardis said.
“I think the agreement is a fair compromise considering all the factors that went into this,” said Cardis. “The mental illness caused her to engage in some conduct she very much regrets and potentially could have been harmful to her son.”
Cardis said Dean is doing everything she can to get well. At the time of the fire, Dean was undiagnosed and untreated for any mental illness.
The couple’s son has remained in the father’s custody since the fire. Dean and her husband Christopher remain married, but will have to live separately in order to follow the court’s order restricting her contact with her son to professionally supervised visits.
“There is the ultimate goal that they can reunify once all the appropriate authorities recommend that Vanessa and her son can be placed back together,” Cardis said.
Vanessa’s husband Christopher Dean appeared in the courtroom Monday. When asked by Judge Humphrey if he supported the plea agreement and sentence, he said he did.