PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A Warwick woman learned her punishment Wednesday for the 2019 death of her adopted daughter.
Michele Rothgeb, 58, was ordered to serve 18 years in prison, which was the maximum sentence from the plea agreement she accepted earlier this year.
Under the deal, she pleaded no contest to a manslaughter charge in the death of 9-year-old Zhanae Rothgeb, who had cerebral palsy and was found unresponsive in their bathtub after being left alone for hours. Her body temperature was just 87 degrees when she arrived at the hospital, according to prosecutors.
Police said Rothgeb had left the girl and several other children in the care of her 15-year-old grandson, who has Asperger’s syndrome, which investigators learned had become a routine. Police also discovered that Rothgeb had failed to give Zhanae her medication to prevent seizures.
Rothgeb sobbed at the stand while taking accountability for her daughter’s death.
“It’s my fault. I’m responsible,” she said. “I’m the mom. I’m supposed to take care of it and I didn’t.”
Rothgeb also pleaded no contest to eight counts of child neglect (one for each of her adopted children) and one count of animal cruelty. All of those children have since been taken in by different families.
“This emotionally shattered me,” Rothgeb added. “I loved my children. I’m ashamed and I’m really sorry.”
At the time, police said the children were living in squalor at the Oakland Beach Avenue home, which was littered with trash, dirty diapers and insects. They also said it smelled of feces and urine, and their dog was in such bad shape it had to be put down.
The defense said Rothgeb fostered kids with special needs and had a longstanding record of excellence in child care, but prosecutors claimed it was all a ploy.
“Narcissism and greed. Not just for money — of which she received substantial amounts — but also greed for Facebook likes, for the social media publicity and the strangers’ messages praising her perceived selflessness for adopting special needs children,” one prosecutor said.
The adoptive parents of one of the children told the court their son was mentally and emotionally abused.
“He’s been through probably more than we will ever in a lifetime. He was filthy, dirty and hungry. All he needed was love and care,” Marie Deloreto said, in addition to asking the judge not to be lenient on Rothgeb.
The case led to changes at the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), including a cap on the number of children that can be a foster home.