June 2, 2016
A woman who arranged the abduction of her daughters from foster care pleaded guilty Friday to felony conspiracy charges and will spend up to eight years in state prison.
Cindy L. Fortner, 46, of Cold Brook Road in Homer, admitted in Broome County Court that she drove to her daughters’ school in late April 2015 to help abduct Shaeleen Fortner, then 13, and Kylea Fortner, then 15. The girls’ mother, who had previously lost custody of them to social services, pleaded guilty Friday to two felony counts of fourth-degree conspiracy. She admitted agreeing with her co-defendant Amanda Hellman to commit the kidnapping.
Broome County Court Judge Kevin Dooley is expected to sentence Fortner on Sept. 20 to consecutive penalties, for a total of 2⅔ to 8 years in prison.
Prosecutors say Fortner arranged the teens’ April 27, 2015, abduction while they were in foster care and that she acted in defiance of a Family Court order. State police spent 11 months looking for the girls, and they were found in March at Hellmann’s residence in Vestal after law enforcement investigated a lead spurred by a phone tip.
“It was an important case because neither the mother, nor Hellman, had permission to take these children,” Cornwell said Friday outside the courthouse. “The judge already determined that the Department of Social Services would have custody … and you can’t defy that authority; you can’t defy that law.”
Although Fortner was originally charged March 11 with felony kidnapping, Cornwell said his office’s further review of the case and discussion with the defense helped determine an outcome that “we think to be fair and reasonable under the circumstances.”
Court papers say Fortner committed “overt acts” after the girls’ abduction from foster care to prevent them from being discovered. She is also accused of hindering the police investigation by not revealing the girls’ location and who they were staying with, despite being questioned multiple times by law enforcement, according to court papers.
Prosecutors contend the girls had been staying with Hellmann, 29, who has pleaded guilty to a felony count of kidnapping in exchange for 10 years in prison. She is awaiting sentencing.
The arrest of the girls’ mother on March 11 came after state police interviewed a slew of witnesses — some 50 were spoken to during their 11-month-long investigation — and chased more new leads 24 hours after Hellmann was taken into custody March 10, according to Cornwell.
Kylea and Shaeleen Fortner are shown in an image released by New York State Police during the search for the two teens.
Fortner and Hellmann, who were in a romantic relationship, picked the girls up in a car around 2:20 p.m. on April 27, 2015, before they could get on a Susquehanna Valley school bus to return to their foster home, Cornwell said in March.
The girls were found safe at Hellmann’s Torrance Avenue home on March 9, in spite of several prior visits by law enforcement that produced no clues as to the girls’ whereabouts, according to police records.
Investigators had been searching for the girls since their disappearance was reported, but Torrance Avenue neighbors in March told reporters the girls would sometimes be seen outside riding bicycles during that time.
The girls had been listed by police as teenage runaways.
On Friday, Cornwell said the sisters remain in the care of social services. State police conducted a long and thorough investigation, Cornwell said, which helped his office secure “a just result” in this case.
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