Kelsie Marie Blankenship was 22 years old when, on October 7, 2017, she found her one-year-old daughter, Sereniti Jazzlyn-Sky Blankenship Sutley, dead in her crib in the family’s apartment in Conneaut, Ohio. An autopsy later determined that Sereniti had been raped and beaten to death.
Kelsie’s 37-year-old boyfriend, Joshua Dale Gurto, was charged with aggravated murder, three counts of murder, one count of rape, one count of felonious assault, and one count of domestic violence; before he could be apprehended, he fled, leading police on a three-week manhunt that culminated in his arrest at a convenience store in Franklin Park, Pennsylvania.
A year after Sereniti’s death, Kelsie was also arrested and charged with two counts of felony murder, one count of felonious assault, two second-degree felony counts of endangering children, one third-degree felony count of endangering children, and one misdemeanor count of domestic violence.
After Kelsie’s indictment, the death penalty specification attached to his aggravated murder charge was dropped. Prosecutor Nick Iarocci declined to explain why the decision was made, saying it was the “fair and correct thing to do” and that the reason “may come to light in the future.”
In December of 2020, Joshua was indicted in a 2004 rape case after an investigation by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s relatively new Cold Case Unit. It was, in fact, the first indictment connected to the Cold Case Unit’s work. Joshua’s charges in that case include two first-degree felony counts of aggravated burglary, one first-degree felony count of rape, and one second-degree count of felonious assault.
Joshua’s trial for Sereniti’s rape and murder is scheduled to begin on May 4, 2021.
Kelsie’s trial was scheduled to begin in February, but that was not to be. Instead, last week, the new Ashtabula County Prosecutor, Colleen O’Toole, announced that her office had reached a stipulated plea and sentencing agreement with now-26-year-old Kelsie Blankenship.
In exchange for pleading guilty to reduced charges of involuntary manslaughter, a first-degree felony, and third-degree felony child endangerment, Kelsie was sentenced by Common Pleas Judge Marianne Sezon on March 5, 2021 to six years in prison.
It is unclear whether Kelsie’s sentence includes the nearly two-and-a-half years she has already served in the Ashtabula County Jail, where Joshua also remains imprisoned.
Prosecutor O’Toole said, “The death of this child was a tragedy for not only the family, but for the community as a whole. My sadness and condolences go out to all those affected by this tragic death. The conviction and sentencing of Ms. Blankenship provides a step toward the finality and closure needed for the family…
“To some, this stipulated plea agreement for a six-year sentence may seem too little for the loss of the life of a child. This agreement accurately describes Ms. Blankenship’s role in this death as proven by the evidence, but also allows Ms. Blankenship to admit and accept her accountability and allows the family and victims to heal and move forward. Finality is necessary for the family and the victims in this matter and society. Nothing we can do will bring this beautiful, innocent child back to us.”
Ms. O’Toole also acknowledged the efforts of the local and state law enforcement agencies who took part in the investigation. “If it was not for them and their exceptional and rigorous investigation work on this case, there would be no justice for Sereniti.”
Click here for my ongoing coverage of Sereniti’s case, or click here to listen to my podcast episode about Sereniti.
Sources: Star-Beacon, News 5 Cleveland
Thank you, Laine. I personally cannot look at the beautiful photos of Sereniti without a feeling of love for her. It makes it all the more incomprehensible to think that her caregivers saw her as someone to be raped at the age of 1, and beaten. Keep reminding us, Laine, that these children’s lives matter. I will be following your updates. Jess xx
Thank you so much, Laine. You, my friend, are a hero for keeping these baby’s memories alive.