Ella VanLeeuwen parents break silence in Megan Martzen case

May 2, 2013 12:35:52 AM PDT
Four years after their child's death drove a wedge into the community of Reedley, Ella VanLeeuwen's parents are telling their story. And they're telling it exclusively to Action News.

Ella's babysitter, Megan Martzen, was charged with the toddler's murder, but ten out of twelve jurors found her not guilty of that crime.

As the case slowly worked its way through the legal system the VanLeeuwens lived by a verse from the book of Exodus. Exodus 14:14 reads: "The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent."

Now that the fight is over, they're breaking their silence and talking to an Action News reporter about disbelief, anger, and forgiveness.

For 17 months, Ella VanLeeuwen did everything to deliver on her middle name of Joy. Her mom says Ella's cheery face lit up a room and her developing fashion sense also gave people a reason to smile.

"Even in the house, she had a headband on with a flower or a bow, so that was kind of her signature," said Deniele VanLeeuwen.

But Ella's life was cut short in February 2009.

Deniele got the frantic call from babysitter Megan Martzen that something had happened to her daughter. Minutes later, she arrived at Megan's and knew right away Ella was in bad shape.

"Her body was limp and bruised already and her eyes were rolled back and very, very labored breathing," she said.

During the days Ella was hospitalized, the VanLeeuwens say they comforted Megan, fully believing Ella had suffered an accidental fall. But doctors started giving them a different story. One got down on his knees and convinced them it was no accident.

"So we didn't believe him," said Todd VanLeeuwen. "We did the same thing the defense attorney does: We started coming up with other scenarios and each time, he'd say, 'No, I'm sorry.'"

Four years later, Martzen's murder trial ended in a mistrial when all but two jurors believed she was not guilty.

Defense doctors said Ella probably had suffered a previous fall and already had swelling in her brain before she went to the babysitter's.

The VanLeeuwens couldn't watch the trial because they were witnesses. But they still believe Megan was responsible.

Even so, they say Ella is in a better place now. And they're hoping the Reedley community -- that chose sides during the trial -- can come back together and choose to see the joy in their lives.

"We have forgiven [Megan] and we have forgiven the Martzens -- that's really the only people we knew on that side," Todd VanLeeuwen said. "It's just, there's a fracture there and I don't know if it will ever heal."

The VanLeeuwens' two surviving children are their motivation to heal themselves and flowers all around them serve as daily reminders.


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