Mother Who Put Girls in Trunk Gets Jail

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A 39-year-old Stafford County woman was sentenced yesterday to six months in jail for making her daughters take turns riding in the trunk of a cramped four-door sedan during a long summer road trip from Alabama to Loudoun County.

"The mere fact that you would let this go on is irresponsible," Loudoun Circuit Court Judge Thomas D. Horne told Cheryl Ann Schoonmaker-Brown at the hearing. "You didn't set out to torture anyone or cause maiming to anyone, but you certainly were indifferent to the welfare of these children."

Schoonmaker-Brown was convicted in April of endangering the lives of her two daughters -- then ages 8 and 10 -- after she put them in the trunk during the journey, which lasted more than eight hours. Horne ordered her to serve one year in jail on the misdemeanor charge, with all but six months suspended.

Summer temperatures were soaring when Schoonmaker-Brown set out on the trip July 1, 2005, with her infant daughter, her three school-age girls and their friend in a rented compact car. Schoonmaker-Brown had planned to rent a minivan but chose a cheaper, smaller Nissan Sentra to save money, prosecutors said.

Witnesses said that Schoonmaker-Brown first forced the 8-year-old to ride in the closed trunk while her 10-year-old sat up front and the two other girls were next to the infant in the back seat.

When the girl begged to be let out of the stifling trunk, Schoonmaker-Brown waited 30 minutes before she pulled over to let her out, according to court testimony. When the girl emerged from the trunk bathed in sweat and stripped down to her underwear, Schoonmaker-Brown then had her 10-year-old crawl into the trunk, which was crammed with luggage and a laptop.

But at yesterday's hearing, Schoonmaker-Brown's attorney, Eric Strom, said the circumstances of the trip were not clear-cut. Strom said Schoonmaker-Brown's daughters recently told a county mental health counselor that they had asked their mother for permission to ride in the trunk. He said Schoonmaker-Brown let them ride there because she was having difficulty controlling the children's behavior.

"It's important to recognize that this is not a situation that the children were forced into," Strom said.

Loudoun Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Alejandra Hammack said the trip was part of a pattern of "poor parenting." In June, Stafford authorities charged Schoonmaker-Brown with two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor after she allegedly left the 11-year-old home alone to baby-sit for her infant sister, Hammack said. The prosecutor said Schoonmaker-Brown deserved the maximum one-year penalty.

"It's troubling that she picked up these new charges while she was out on bond and was supposed to be on her best behavior," Hammack said.

Schoonmaker-Brown expressed remorse moments before she was sentenced. She said her parenting skills have improved since she enrolled in a parenting class.

"I personally apologized to all three of my children," Schoonmaker-Brown said. "I sat down with them and said, 'I need your help to be the parent I need to be.' "

Horne said putting the girls in the trunk was nothing short of "criminal."

Schoonmaker-Brown will remain free on $10,000 bond pending an appeal, Strom said.

Outside the courtroom, Schoonmaker-Brown's ex-husband, Curtis Schoonmaker, said he hopes the sentence eventually sticks.

"It's unfortunate that the girls have to deal with this," said Schoonmaker, who has custody of the three girls. "But I'd rather have to deal with the embarrassment from this than deal with making funeral arrangements from an accident."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company