The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A mother’s ‘bucket list’ for her ‘terminally ill’ daughter went viral. But now she’s charged with her murder.

Kelly Renee Turner wheels her daughter, Olivia Gant, into an event with the Denver Police Department, where officers allowed her to be "chief" for a day as part of her bucket list before her death. (Screen shot/9News) (9News)

Olivia Gant was told she didn’t have much time to live, so with help from her mom, the 6-year-old made a bucket list.

The girl used a wheelchair and a feeding tube, but her mother, Kelly Renee Turner, said she was always a fighter. Her last wishes seemed to fit. The Colorado girl wrote the bucket list with a Sharpie on a lime-green poster board: “be a fireman,” “feed sharks,” “catch a bad guy with police.” And in the months before she died in 2017, Turner tried to make it all happen. The Denver Police Department and the local fire department let her ride in a cruiser and a firetruck. The Make-A-Wish Foundation threw her a surprise, and on GoFundMe, Turner raised more than $20,000 for medical treatment. Turner had claimed that Olivia was fighting a rare incurable disease, and that after years of invasive surgeries and countless hospital stays, her daughter’s pain and suffering was all coming to an end.

But behind the scenes, authorities say now, the truth was worse than what Turner claimed.

Olivia was never terminally ill, authorities say, and she wasn’t dying of intestinal failure.

Turner, they say, was killing her.

Kelly Renee Turner was arrested Oct. 18 in the 2017 death of 7-year-old Olivia Gant, whom she claimed had a terminal illness. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

On Monday, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office announced that Turner, 41, has been charged with first-degree murder, fraud and theft after allegedly inventing her daughter’s illness for years before finally leaving her to die. According to the 13-count indictment first obtained by Denver’s KUSA, in the weeks before Olivia died at age 7, Turner placed her daughter in hospice care and insisted that her health and quality of life were so poor that she should be withdrawn from all medical treatment and her feeding tube, and finally be allowed to die peacefully under a “Do Not Resuscitate” order.

Now, after nearly a dozen doctors cast doubt on the circumstances of the girl’s illness and death, Turner is accused of “benefiting” from attention from the news media and charities as Olivia’s heart-wrenching story traveled around the country, and as donations poured in online. Meanwhile, authorities say, Turner was allegedly abusing both Olivia and the girl’s older sister as they underwent unnecessary medical procedures based on Turner’s falsely reported symptoms and medical history.

Turner invented the older girl’s ailments too — a second alleged ruse that would bring Olivia’s death into sharper focus. Olivia’s exact cause of death is not specified in the indictment.

Describing the case as “extremely emotional,” Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock said Turner was arrested at a hotel in Glendale, Colo., on Friday morning and is being held without bond. It was not immediately clear whether she had an attorney. Children’s Hospital Colorado, where Olivia had been treated, has declined to comment, the Associated Press reported.

Turner allegedly began perpetuating the fatal sham in 2011, when she started posting about her daughters’ medical woes on her personal blog. Olivia, she wrote, had a misshapen head and a vascular malformation in her brain, causing her to have seizures, KUSA reported. Her other daughter had “osteomyelitis,” a bone infection, Turner wrote. She claimed the family moved to Colorado from Texas to seek better medical treatment, leaving her husband behind.

But as time wore on, the girls’ predicaments grew increasingly dire. For Olivia, it came to a head in July 2015, when Turner claimed Olivia’s recovery was nearly hopeless.

In her GoFundMe campaign created that month, she said Olivia “added a new diagnosis to her already long list.” Now, in addition to a tumor, developmental delays, seizures, autism, sensory processing disorder, focal cortical dysplasia, digestive issues and hydrocephalus, Turner wrote, Olivia now had “neurogastrointestinal encephalomyopathy.” She defined it as a “degenerative mitochondrial disorder that causes the entire body to shut down a system at a time.” It would lead, “eventually,” to her death.

“This is a story about a sweet little princess that everyone has grown to love,” Turner began in her plea on the GoFundMe page.

Two years later, Olivia’s story was all over TV, as she lived out her bucket list in her final months. There she was riding shotgun in a police cruiser. Hosing down a fire from a firetruck tower ladder. Saving Disney princesses from villains while dressed up as “Bat Princess,” as part of the Make-A-Wish Foundation surprise.

“You could give me all the money in the world,” Turner told KUSA the day Olivia became an honorary firefighter, “and I’ll give it back to you to be able to watch this again.”

Olivia died in hospice care on Aug. 20, 2017, allegedly of “intestinal failure” as her mother claimed at the time — but it wasn’t until 2018 when authorities began a thorough investigation.

That’s when Turner brought her older daughter to see a new physician, claiming the girl had survived cancer and undergone chemotherapy.

The physician, phoning doctors in Texas, quickly realized that never happened, KUSA reported.

The Jefferson County Human Services Department began investigating, starting with the doctors. They said they never believed Olivia was suffering a terminal illness.

In fact, the 11 doctors interviewed by investigators doubted many of the other alleged symptoms, too. One doctor said that she could find no evidence Olivia was having seizures, yet had to warn Turner three separate times to stop giving Olivia anti-seizure medication that could cause serious side effects, the Denver Post reported, citing the human services report. One, noticing Olivia was a social and active 6-year-old, questioned how she had ever been diagnosed with autism. And another said Olivia “did not exhibit the symptoms Turner described most of the time.” But Turner repeatedly ignored doctors’ advice and recommendations, the report found.

Another doctor, Robert Kramer, told investigators he was “shocked” upon learning Olivia had died in hospice care and that Turner insisted on withdrawing medical treatment. He had never diagnosed Olivia “with any of the diseases that Turner wrote about in the GoFundMe page,” according to the human services report.

In November 2018, Olivia’s remains were exhumed for reexamination. The Arapahoe County Coroner’s Office found nothing to support Turner’s insistence that she died of intestinal failure, the Denver Post reported, but listed her cause of death as undetermined.

Case workers also dug up scores of Turner’s blog and Facebook posts, her GoFundMe updates and numerous interviews with outlets as high-profile as ABC News — and began to piece together Turner’s alleged motivations.

“There is a concern that [Turner] may have been benefiting from this attention and motivated some of the medical treatment [Turner] sought for both [daughter’s name] and [daughter’s name],” the redacted report said, according to the Denver Post.

Turner is the most recent mother to be accused or convicted of inventing false medical history and symptoms for her children. In other cases, some mothers have been suspected of having Munchausen syndrome by proxy, in which an adult fabricates a child’s illness for sympathy and attention. In Clauddine “Dee Dee” Blanchard’s case, she claimed for years that her daughter, Gypsy Rose, suffered from a host of mental and physical ailments, including childhood leukemia and muscular dystrophy — eventually driving Gypsy Rose to enlist her online boyfriend to murder her mother in 2015.

The girl in the wheelchair was told she was critically ill. Her mother’s brutal murder exposed the truth.

Turner, it seems, was aware of cases like these.

According to the indictment, she was the first one to bring up Munchausen syndrome by proxy in interviews with the police.

“That has never been my case, like at all, whatsoever,” Turner told the detective, referring to Munchausen syndrome by proxy, according to the Denver Post. “You can ask anybody that stood by my side through [redacted] and all of this.”

She denied all wrongdoing in Olivia’s case, before eventually admitting to inventing claims about the older girl’s cancer, investigators say. KUSA reported she is 11, although it’s unclear where she is now located. Turner is charged with one count of child abuse in the older girl’s case, in addition to charges of defrauding Medicaid of more than $538,000, GoFundMe donors of $22,700 and the Make-A-Wish Foundation of more than $11,000 because of the false medical claims and stories, among other things.

In a statement to The Washington Post, a Make-A-Wish spokesman said the foundation is “deeply disturbed” by the allegations, adding that a referral from the child’s medical team is part of the foundation’s procedures for granting wishes. A GoFundMe spokeswoman said refunds for all of the donors are being processed.

KUSA reported the older daughter has not suffered from any reported medical issues since Oct. 11, 2018. It was the day Douglas County sheriff’s investigators interviewed the girl at school.