After all the ranting I’ve done about this case and this defendant in particular, you might be surprised to hear my feelings on this one.
19-year-old Madison Sasser accepted a plea agreement on Friday, January 29, pleading guilty to felony aggravated kidnapping in exchange for prosecutor Bjorn Boyer dropping her charge of felony negligent homicide, which could have earned her a $50,000 fine and up to 20 years in prison.
However, because Madison was 17 at the time of the incident tied to the kidnapping charge, she was tried as a juvenile and sentenced to youth probation with the Montana Department of Corrections until her 21st birthday, at which time she will remain on adult probation until the age of 25.
As part of the plea deal, she has also agreed to testify against her parents at trial.
Madison is one of five people, four of whom are family members, charged in connection with the February 2020 death of 12-year-old James Alexander “Alex” Hurley, who was beaten to death by his 14-year-old uncle, James Sasser III. After admitting before the court that he caused the injuries that led to his 12-year-old nephew’s death, James III was ordered in October to remain in juvenile detention until he turns 18, after which he will be on probation until the age of 21. He was also ordered to remain in counseling until he turns 25.
Family friend Gage Roush, who allegedly participated in one abusive incident that was recorded on cell phone video, was accused of beating Alex with a wooden paddle about a month before his death. Gage, who has reportedly expressed remorse, was given a five year deferred sentence in December.
Alex was found dead on February 3, 2020 in the West Yellowstone, Montana home of his paternal grandmother, Patricia Batts, and her husband, James Sasser Jr., who are the only two defendants awaiting trial for Alex’s murder. It is believed that Patricia Batts was the ringleader of a twisted family culture of abuse and torture against her grandson, the child of Patricia’s own son, Tommy, who died in early 2018.
When I first learned of Alex’s death, I felt very strongly that Madison, who reportedly texted her boyfriend that her nephew was like “a piece of shit off of my fucking shoe,” who she wanted to “go and die in the woods,” should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
The incident connected to the aggravated kidnapping charge to which Madison pleaded guilty occurred in December of 2019 when she was 17. A neighbor told police of witnessing Alex running away from the family’s house “as fast as he could,” only to be caught and restrained by Patricia and Madison until James III was able to catch up. The neighbor said James III then dragged Alex back into the house, punching the 12-year-old repeatedly in the face, while Patricia and Madison followed behind, doing nothing to intervene.
Investigators in the case discovered that Madison had intimate knowledge of the “systematic torture” of Alex that took place in her family’s home. She told police about a fight that erupted on February 1, 2020, exactly one year ago today, between her 14-year-old brother and their 12-year-old nephew, during which James III kicked and punched Alex in the head and smashed the younger boy’s head into a wall, denting the plaster.
Alex’s death was ruled a homicide caused by blunt force trauma to the head.
Text messages on Madison’s phone revealed that she texted her boyfriend about Alex, “I’m so heartless to him dude honestly. I beat the shit out of him just now.” Later, she added that she “beat the shit outta him my fucking hands hurt.”
Videos from the family’s cell phones painted a brutally clear picture of the torture Alex endured in the weeks and months leading up to his death. The videos depicted the pre-teen boy being beaten, forced to exercise, forced to stand nearly naked before a fan, made to go without a coat in sub-zero weather, being denied sleep, and being mentally abused, berated, and tortured by the family, especially Patricia. In the videos, Alex is seen crying, pleading for the abuse to stop, screaming, and threatening suicide.
The descriptions of these videos alone are heartbreaking. I can’t imagine the trauma viewing those videos has caused investigators in this case.
Patricia, James Jr., and James III were quickly arrested and charged in Alex’s death. When Madison was arrested several weeks later, I was positively gleeful. Because she was 18 at the time of Alex’s death, I was all for her being tried as an adult and sent to prison for the rest of her life.
However, with the passage of time and after much consideration, my viewpoint has changed. I know this is the point where our opinions may diverge, and I can certainly respect other opinions in the matter, but let me explain why I’m not furious over this young woman’s sentence.
As I’ve often said in the past, it’s a scientific fact that the human brain doesn’t finish developing until around the age of 25 to 27. It’s also a scientific fact that children are shaped by the environment in which they spend their earliest years. Madison’s brain developed within the home of her mother, who, based on the evidence in this case alone, exhibits clearly narcissistic and psychopathic tendencies. Those traits don’t come from a void; I have no doubt Patricia exhibited such tendencies throughout her entire life, and therefore throughout the lives of her children. Being raised by such a mother undoubtedly affected Madison’s brain development.
On top of that, the culture of abuse Patricia cultivated in that home, particularly when she took Alex in after Tommy’s death, incontrovertibly affected the minds of her children, including Madison, James III, and little H.S., who was six years old at the time of Alex’s death and who can reportedly be seen in some of the evidence videos ignoring or taking part in the abuse.
Living in an abusive environment is incredibly stressful and traumatizing at any age, and it changes the way your brain works. It puts you into a constant state of fight or flight. You learn ways to survive and to lessen the abuse against yourself by going along with your abuser’s whims. It’s very common in cases of targeted child abuse for other children in the home to either ignore or even participate in the abuse of the scapegoated child in order to align themselves with their abuser and, therefore, reduce the chances that the abuser’s ire will turn on them.
Yes, Madison was a legal adult at the time of her arrest, but that doesn’t mean she was mentally anywhere near maturity. According to her attorney, Elisabeth Montoya, Madison is immature for her age, adding that the young woman is wracked with worry and constant stress and regrets what happened to her nephew. I wouldn’t be shocked if Madison, James III, and H.S. are all diagnosed at some point with PTSD, as abuse survivors often are.
Montoya said that Madison saw her parents physically abuse Alex and deprive him of love, attention, and basic needs. The attorney said the Sasser family environment was defined by chaos, manipulation, instability, violence, and trauma, describing “a family that resorted to and normalized violence, torture, intimidation, and fear in their kids.”
She said Madison’s home life “was a war zone,” adding, “Alex was the enemy. And Madison’s parents were the generals. And the other kids in the household… were soldiers.”
Madison, Montoya said, was just a kid trying to please her parents by doing as she was instructed, “even if she was told to do things she knew were wrong…
“Madison will live every day with the wounds that her family caused to her, her siblings, and, ultimately and most severely, to Alex.”
Prosecutor Boyer said that Alex’s mother, Alicia Davis, who attended the hearing virtually, forgave Madison and asked him to request that Madison continue going to counseling and have no further contact with her parents.
Boyer also said that although his sentencing recommendation recognized Madison played a part in Alex’s death, “it’s something that I think she has shown remorse for. It’s a significant role, but it also recognizes that this was mostly the parents; even the role that her brother James had was mostly attributable to the parents.”
Madison’s agreement to testify against her parents at trial is a huge win for the prosecution. She is old enough to remember a great deal about the environment and the culture of the household and especially the events that took place in the house after Alex was taken in, which many believe Patricia orchestrated in order to obtain her son Tommy’s death benefits. Madison’s testimony will undoubtedly be damning, and her participation may very well lock in a conviction against Patricia at the very least.
Patricia’s trial is currently scheduled to take place in May of 2022, while her husband’s trial was scheduled at a separate hearing on Friday to begin on September 20, 2021 and to last ten days.
Justice for Alex may be slow, but it is coming.
Sources: Bozeman Daily Chronicle