EXETER, R.I. (WPRI) ─ A local farmer claims he was conned by a woman who’s been charged in the death of her adopted daughter.
George Whitford tells 12 News that back in March, he was on social media when a post pleading for help caught his attention.
He said the woman who created the post, named Shelli Guisinger, was looking for a place where she could park her handicap-accessible van and mourn her child’s death.
Whitford said he reached out to the woman and allowed her to stay on his farm in Exeter.
But what Whitford didn’t know until months later was that the woman was actually Michele Rothgeb.
Rothgeb, 57, was arrested in January 2019 after 9-year-old Zahnae Rothgeb, who had cerebral palsy, was found unresponsive in a bathtub at their Oakland Beach Avenue home.
Police said Zahnae had been left to play by herself in the tub for hours and was being cared for by her 15-year-old brother, who has Asperger’s syndrome.
Rothgeb was arrested shortly after Zahnae’s death and has since been charged with manslaughter, as well as seven counts of child neglect ─ one for each of her adopted children that were living with her at the time.
“When I found out who she was and read up on her, I was totally disgusted on who the person was in the backyard,” Whitford said. “She was using this dead child as an excuse for people to feel sorry for her.”
Whitford said Rothgeb lived on his property for four months under the alias she gave him.
Since he was busy taking care of his sick father, Whitford said Rothgeb was able to fly under the radar for months, that is, until he and his friends learned her true identity.
“A friend of mine was coming over the house to take care of his goats,” Whitford recalled. “He and a couple friends decided to go hang out with her one night and she gave them some type of information that made [them] suspicious of who she was.”
Rothgeb was supposed to appear in court Wednesday for a pretrial conference, but only her attorneys were in attendance. She turned herself in to authorities on Thursday and is being held without bail until her next court appearance on Sept. 23.
Whitford is hoping that by telling his story, no one else will fall victim to Rothgeb’s lies. He’s asking anyone who’s seen her to contact the authorities so she can be brought to justice.
Rothgeb pleaded not guilty to the initial two charges in June 2019.
Zahnae’s death led to sweeping changes at the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF).
A report released by DCYF’s oversight agency, the Office of the Child Advocate, found Rothgeb should never have been a licensed foster parent and concluded: “the actions or inactions of DCYF staff contributed to the death of this child.”
Since Zahnae’s death, the state has capped the number of children who can live in a foster home at five. Some homes still have up to eight children because they were grandfathered in, according to the DCYF. The agency said each of those homes has been reassessed since then, and they all have two parents and do not have the same number of children with special needs living under one roof.