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Utah man sent to prison for smothering step-child

Published March 19, 2014 1:26 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Ogden • If only Robert Abbott had read his 2-year-old step-daughter a book to stop her crying that September night in 2011.

She would be 5 years old now, Deputy Weber County Attorney Benjamin Willoughby told a judge on Wednesday. She would be getting ready to go to preschool.

But instead of trying to calm the child by reading a story, or some other method, Willoughby said Abbott held a pillow over Hailey May Byrne's face. The girl suffocated and died on Sept. 8, 2011.

"This was a thing in the child's life," Willoughby told 2nd District Judge Ernie Jones. "This [smothering] was not a one time occurrence."

An emotional Abbott stood before the judge and was sentenced to spend one to 15 years in prison.

The 33-year-old man was originally charged with first-degree felony child-abuse homicide, but in January he pleaded guilty to a lesser second-degree felony count of child-abuse homicide.

"I feel horrible about the situation," Abbott told the judge before his sentence was handed down. "I lost my wife and my kids."

Defense attorney Bernard Allen argued that Abbott should received only jail time.

"This is a terrible situation and it's one that I can honestly tell you is as tragic for Robert … as it is for anybody else," Allen told the judge.

Allen also argued that the medical examiner's report did not prove without a doubt that the girl's death was due to Abbott holding a pillow over the girl's face.

He said outside of court that the autopsy report showed no indication of a struggle, and said that the girl had been to the doctor and received medications just before she died for illnesses that may have affected her respiratory system.

"[Abbott] said that when he left her, she was alive," Allen said.

But Willoughby said outside of court that the autopsy report pointed to nothing other than that Hailey having died from asphyxiation. He added that the 28-pound girl would not have been able to struggle against the 200-plus pound man.

"There was no resistance," Willoughby said. "No struggle. [Abbott] was absolutely in charge of her body and when she breathed."

Jones said that despite Allen's belief that Abbott may not have caused the toddler's death, he had to sentence him based on the charge to which he had pleaded guilty.

"You just crossed the line, what you did here," Jones told Abbott. "I don't think there's any doubt, you did cause her death."

According to plea agreement documents, Abbott admitted pushing the child's face "briefly into a pillow to get her to stop crying."

The girl's mother, Jamie Guyton, found the girl was unresponsive when she went to wake her four children, according to police.

In a letter read aloud in court, Guyton asked Jones to sentence Abbott to the maximum penalty.

"If only I had even thought this would have been the outcome, I never would have allowed him in our lives," the woman wrote. "… I lost and sacrificed everything as a result of Robert's crime."

Willoughby said the woman's three other children — one of which is Abbott's biological child — were taken into state custody and have since been adopted.

Court records show Guyton filed to divorce Abbott in March 2012, but the case was dismissed six months later and never completed.

jmiller@sltrib.com