Montgomery County authorities back off account in Skyler Kauffman death

Sue Smith and granddaughter Caitlyn Smith, 4, pay their respects at a makeshift memorial to slain 9-year-old Skyler Kauffman outside the Souderton apartment building where she lived.
Sue Smith and granddaughter Caitlyn Smith, 4, pay their respects at a makeshift memorial to slain 9-year-old Skyler Kauffman outside the Souderton apartment building where she lived. (MATT ROURKE / Associated Press)
Posted: May 12, 2011

The story was chilling.

Three weeks before 9-year-old Skyler Kauffman of Souderton was raped and strangled, she allegedly had been locked in an apartment and exposed to pictures of naked women by the man now charged in her death. Police had been called, but no charges were ever filed.

But a day after laying out that disturbing account, Montgomery County authorities backpedaled, saying their description of the April 18 incident was exaggerated in documents used to charge James Lee Troutman, a 24-year-old neighbor, in Skyler's death.

The revision came amid a growing chorus of questions from the girl's family and neighbors over whether police could have done more to prevent Skyler's death.

"Everyone did what they were supposed to do, and, unfortunately, it wasn't enough to prevent the death of this child," Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said at a news conference Tuesday.

In preparing the documents for Troutman's arrest Tuesday, detectives relied solely on Skyler's original account of April 18 and left out key details of what Souderton police found at the scene, authorities said.

Ferman's office and Souderton police have refused to release copies of the original incident report describing the girl's encounter with Troutman last month.

Ferman also declined Wednesday to comment on the differing accounts, citing the ongoing investigation.

But investigators involved with the case, those who have seen the original officer's report, and Troutman's fiancée painted a much different picture of the events of April 18 than the charging documents do.

"This is certainly the question on everyone's mind," said Souderton Mayor John J. Reynolds, who said he had reviewed the original document. "I wish all the appropriate information was out there."

According to the probable-cause affidavit used to obtain a warrant for Troutman's arrest Tuesday, Skyler and a playmate asked to use Troutman's bathroom last month while playing in the parking lot of the Souderton Gardens Apartments, near the Bucks-Montgomery County line.

"As the two girls used the bathroom, they noticed photos of naked women posted on the walls," the document states. "Upon exiting . . . Troutman asked the two young girls if they wanted to see his 'bird.' "

Skyler and her friend fled for the door, only to find Troutman had locked them in, Souderton Detective Joseph Rudner and Montgomery County Detective Christopher Kuklentz wrote in the affidavit. Once the girls escaped, Skyler's mother called police.

Three weeks later, Skyler was dead.

As that version of the story circulated Tuesday, community members were dumbfounded that police decided at the time that no crime had occurred.

"That's a bunch of crap," said Greg Bucceroni, a victims services volunteer who works with the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office. "There's a bunch of charges you could have charged him with - false imprisonment or corruption of a minor. They're trying to minimize their civil liability."

But the account presented in the probable-cause affidavit differs in significant ways from the report Souderton police originally filed, Reynolds said.

First, Reynolds said, the original report makes no mention of Troutman's locking the girls in his apartment. In fact, investigators conceded, it was Troutman who let them out after they used his bathroom.

As for Troutman's offering to show his "bird," the girls actually told police he said "pet bird," said two law enforcement sources close to the investigation who declined to be mentioned by name.

Troutman built birdhouses in his spare time and kept a birdcage in his apartment, his fiancée, Heather Clemens, said.

"The pictures on the bathroom wall were my idea," said Clemens, 21, who has struggled with her weight and maintains that she made the photo collage of scantily clad - not nude - models and celebrities clipped from magazines.

"I used them for weight-loss inspiration," she said.

Prosecutors confirmed her statement, saying the description of "naked pictures" in the murder affidavit was incorrect.

"You have to have a crime take place in order to file charges," Ferman said Tuesday. Authorities on Wednesday described the April 18 encounter as unusual but not necessarily criminal.

In fact, Skyler's mother, Heather Gebhard, did not mention the incident as officers searched for the 9-year-old into Monday night, they said. It was Troutman who brought it to their attention.

Still, the events of April 18 should have been a warning, Gebhard told a crowd of nearly 150 gathered at a vigil Tuesday night. She could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Clemens also conceded that perhaps she should have thought more about the encounter.

She arrived home that day to see police leaving her apartment, but Troutman assured her and her sister Mandy that nothing serious had occurred.

The women said they believed what Troutman told them and thought that if a crime had occurred there would have been more follow-up.

But sitting on a couch in Mandy Clemens' home in Sellersville on Wednesday, the red flag suddenly seemed so clear in hindsight.

"Heather and I didn't get the entire story," Mandy Clemens said.


Contact staff writer Jeremy Roebuck at 267-564-5218 or jroebuck@phillynews.com.

Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Mari A. Schaefer, Anthony Campisi, Larry King, and Adrienne Lu.

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