Kayleigh Slusher

Kayleigh Slusher was found dead in her bed Feb. 1, 2014.

The opening salvo in what is expected to be a month-long murder trial of two defendants in the death of Kayleigh Slusher -- her mother Sara Krueger and her boyfriend Ryan Scott Warner -- began Monday morning in Napa County Superior Court.

“She would’ve turned 7 this Wednesday,” Deputy District Attorney Lance Hafenstein said in his opening statement about Kayleigh, the 3-year-old girl who died in her mother’s apartment back in 2014.

Napa Police made two welfare checks that week at the home on the 2060 block of Wilkins Avenue and found nothing suspicious. On the third visit, officers found the girl dead in her bedroom.

Officer Bobby Chambers “saw what he first thought was a doll lying under blankets in a princess bed,” Hafenstein said, describing the morning of Feb. 1, 2014. “The little girl Kayleigh was cold as ice, colder than the room in which she lay,” he said.

Chambers, who had seen numerous dead bodies, had never encountered a body as cold as hers, Hafenstein said.

Napa City Fire arrived at the scene and confirmed that Kayleigh was dead. She was wrapped in a sheet and a body bag and transported to the coroner’s office, Hafenstein said.

An enlarged photo of Kayleigh’s bare and bruised body was shown to the court, eliciting a sobbing sound from the girl's mother, Sara Lynn Krueger.

Krueger, 26, is on trial for the alleged murder of Kayleigh. Krueger's boyfriend at the time, Warner, 29, is also on trial for the alleged murder. His trial is happening simultaneously before Judge Francisca P. Tisher in the same courtroom but is being decided by a separate jury in Napa County Superior Court. 

“The defendant (Kruger) had silenced Kayleigh but her body still spoke volumes,” Hafenstein continued. The coroner identified 41 distinct external injuries on the girl’s body, all of which occurred while she was still alive, he said. Kayleigh’s body showed that she had an injury to the front of her spine, had endured blunt force trauma to her abdomen and, in addition to having a broken rib, was dehydrated.

“He determined in the end that Kayleigh was literally beaten to death,” Hafenstein said.

Kayleigh’s injuries would have been “painful every time she took a breath,” he said – this time causing a woman watching the proceedings to tear up.

Why did Kayleigh have to die? Because her mother chose methamphetamine over her, because she was getting in the way of her drug use, Hafenstein surmised.

Before Krueger started using meth, she was a good mother, Hafenstein said. “Defendant Krueger showed love to her daughter, the kind of love you’d expect from a mother,” he said. Krueger took Kayleigh to the doctor for wellness checks and, “during her short life,” took her to the emergency room seven times, including one instance when she thought the girl had ingested hand sanitizer, Hafenstein said.

But things changed when she let Warner, “a man with no car, no job, no money, no nothing,” move into her home, Hafenstein said. That’s when she began doing meth again, that’s when blankets started to cover the windows and neighbors didn’t see as much of Kayleigh, he said. And when they did, he said, they noticed that she was pale with dark circles under her eyes. Krueger, too, he said, had lost weight, become unfriendly and seemingly stopped taking care of herself.

The next-door neighbor, who shared a wall with Kayleigh, would hear the little girl crying and “knock on her wall to let Kayleigh know she was there,” Hafenstein said. “Shut up before I hit you again,” this same neighbor allegedly heard Krueger tell her daughter.

The day before Kayleigh was found dead, Krueger and Warner contacted one of Warner’s friends to help them with the “dead girl in the apartment,” Hafenstein said. The friend, who had never called the police in his life, thought they had wanted him to beat someone up for them, but when he heard this, he told the couple they needed to call 911. They didn’t listen, Hafenstein said.

The friend called Richmond dispatchers the next morning.

After Kayleigh’s body was found, police began the search for Krueger and Warner. They alerted other authorities as well as the media. On Feb. 2, a woman sitting in the El Cerrito IHOP was skimming through articles on her phone. When she saw a familiar looking couple walk into the IHOP, she pulled one of the articles back up, Hafenstein said. When Krueger saw the look on the woman’s face, she and Warner left the restaurant only to be found and apprehended at the El Cerrito Del Norte BART station.

When Krueger was questioned about her daughter’s death, she was emotional, but didn’t explain the bruises on Kayleigh’s body other than saying that she had fallen off her bicycle, Hafenstein said. Krueger described her relationship with Warner as “complicated” but not abusive, he said.

Kayleigh’s 34 pound, 3-foot, 5-inch body was packed into a plastic bag, then into a suitcase and placed in the kitchen freezer, Hafenstein said. The food had to be emptied out of it in order for her to fit, he said.

“After three hours, she (Krueger) couldn’t let her stay in there” and she put her in bed and read her a story, he said. Then the couple left the apartment and went to the Home Depot parking lot to look for a ride to the Vallejo bus stop, eventually ending up at the San Francisco airport where they sat beside each other, sometimes smiling, acting “like it’s any other day while a little girl lay dead in their apartment,” he said.

Krueger chose meth over her daughter and “intended to kill her because Kayleigh was in the way of her drug use,” Hafenstein said.

After Hafenstein made his opening presentation to the jury, Krueger's attorney, Jim McEntee summed up his defense.

“Mr. Hafenstein gave a very excellent presentation – mine's not going to be at that level,” he said. "I know I don’t have emotion on my side.”

McEntee said that it’s true that “a little girl did suffer” and that she was “as cold as ice” when they found her, but these facts are sensational and are not proof that her mother murdered her.

When Krueger went to sleep on Wednesday night, or early Thursday morning, Kayleigh was next to her, McEntee said. Earlier that day, the Napa Police had come by for a welfare check and cleared the call, he said.

Kayleigh was “fine,” he said, and “Sara (Krueger) was a good mother. She was attentive, careful and kind to her child.”

Kayleigh was in good health during a welfare check earlier in the week as well, he said. The little girl came off as “bubbly” and questioned one of the officers about his uniform, he said.

That same week, Krueger and Warner had been fighting, McEntee said. Krueger told him to leave, but he said that the only way he would leave was if police were involved and, if that happened, he would call his friends, whom Krueger feared, McEntee said. So Warner stayed.

Thursday – while Krueger slept – is when Kayleigh was no longer fine, McEntee said. Warner punched the little girl “so hard,” he said, leaving her abdomen bruised. “That blow caused her small intestine to rupture … and she ultimately died due to an infection,” he said.

When Krueger woke up, she found Kayleigh dead on the bathroom floor, McEntee said. Krueger was in and out of consciousness due to the shock, he said.

“She did not report the incident and she was present but perhaps not aware of what Warner was doing to the child’s body” in regards to the refrigerator, McEntee said. The two fled the scene, trading a PlayStation for a ride to Vallejo, he said.

Krueger has a history of being abused, McEntee said. She was abused as a teenager, abused by Kayleigh’s father, Jason Slusher, and by Warner, he said. The abuse she suffered in life, in addition to drug use as a teenager, contributed to the “awful decision” she made to leave Napa that day with Warner, he said.

“Who did it?” McEntee asked. “The evidence is going to show it was not Sara Krueger. It was Ryan Warner who did that.”

“Kayleigh was not injured when Sara (Krueger) went to sleep,” McEntee said. “Sara Krueger did not do this. This is a woman who loved her child.”

Krueger’s jury was dismissed at 10 a.m. following opening statements. Opening statements in the Warner trial are scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. on Monday.

Both Krueger and Warner have been held without bail at the Napa County jail since their arrests on Feb. 2, 2014. If convicted, Krueger and Warner could face life in prison without the possibility of parole. The DA is not seeking the death penalty

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Maria Sestito is the former Napa Valley Register public safety reporter. She now writes for the Register as a freelancer.