Case Update: “Father” of 2-Year-Old Arianna Starkey Accepts Plea Agreement and Receives 10-15 Year Sentence

Arianna Jade Starkey.

Justice has yet to be reached for two-year-old Arianna Jade Starkey, but this week, we’re one step closer.

Thanks to a negotiated plea deal, 25-year-old Austin Lee Starkey of Logan, Ohio was sentenced to 10 to 15 years in state prison for his complicity in the death of his own precious baby girl. 

On January 8, 2021, Austin’s live-in girlfriend, 27-year-old Destani Dawn Neel, called 911, reporting that Austin’s two-year-old daughter, Arianna, had become trapped between the wall and a piece of furniture and was not breathing. Hocking County EMS arrived at apartment 15 in the Logan Place Apartment Complex to find the blonde, blue-eyed toddler unresponsive and rushed her to Hocking Valley Community Hospital, from where she was transferred to Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus.

Sadly, Arianna passed away on January 10, 2021. She was survived by her mom, Kassie; her stepfather, Jerry; her older brother and newborn sister; and two step-siblings, as well as many other loving family members.

When questioned by Hocking County Sheriff’s deputies prior to Arianna’s death, Austin and Destani allegedly lied to mislead the investigation. According to authorities, Arianna’s injuries were caused by an assault. Not fooled, police arrested both Austin and Destani, who has two children of her own. The two were initially charged with one count each of permitting child abuse, a first-degree felony, and endangering children, a second-degree felony; they were both booked into the Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail. 

Their charges have changed a few times since their arrest. Ultimately, Austin was indicted earlier this year on one count each of murder, second-degree felonious assault; first-degree felony permitting child abuse; and third-degree felony tampering with evidence, as well as one count of second-degree felony endangering children and one count of third-degree felony endangering children.

By accepting the plea agreement this week, Austin pleaded guilty to charges of permitting child abuse, evidence tampering, and endangering children. According to the Logan Daily News, Austin’s charges of permitting child abuse and third-degree felony endangering were merged. 

Arianna on life support.

A condition of the plea agreement is that Austin will testify against Destani if her case goes to trial. Destani faces a possible death penalty if she is convicted.

At the plea hearing on Tuesday, July 6, 2021, Hocking County Assistant Prosecutor Ryan Stickel told Judge John T. Wallace that although Destani Neel was directly responsible for Arianna’s death, Austin bore responsibility for allowing it to occur instead of intervening to protect his daughter. “[Arianna] met her death while in the care of her own father, but it was not at his hands… He chose Destani Neel over Arianna Starkey, and it led to her death.”

Arianna in her Nana Christina’s arms.

Arianna’s maternal grandma, Christina Davis, gave an emotional victim impact statement, telling Austin, “I will never forgive you for what you have done.” She said that Arianna’s older brother “wakes up every morning asking for his sister… Why didn’t her own father protect her? How and why did he let this happen to this sweet, innocent baby girl?”

Judge Wallace said of Austin, “His crime was one of omission,” adding that even animals “ferociously” protect their offspring. Austin, however, “chose his relationship [with Destani] over his far more important relationship” with his daughter.

The judge spoke directly to Austin, saying he had hoped without success to read some emotion on the young man’s face during the hearing. He told Austin he should consider himself “very lucky” to be offered the plea agreement, which Assistant Prosecutor Stickel suggested only occurred due to Austin’s supporting role in the crime. 

Austin was sentenced to 10 to 15 years in state prison with credit for 178 days time served. Destani continues to await trial on her charges, which include:

  • Aggravated murder, an unclassified felony, with a specification for a victim under 13 years of age
  • Murder, an unclassified felony
  • Endangering children, a second-degree felony
  • Endangering children, a third-degree felony

When Austin and Destani’s upgraded charges were announced in March, Prosecuting Attorney Ryan R. Black said, “These are tragic circumstances. Nothing is more unconscionable than the murder of a child, made especially horrific by it being perpetrated by the victim’s caregivers. The brutality involved makes this case particularly difficult to stomach. It also demonstrates just how necessary it is to be absolutely tireless in our pursuit of justice for Arianna. I am confident that the determined work of the Hocking County Sheriff’s Office’s detectives and investigators has built a strong case and that it will lead to an equally strong result. We have every intention of using every resource available in that pursuit.”

Hocking County Sheriff Lanny E. North said, “Cases involving the murder of innocent children, especially when they are so young, are among the most heinous cases that law enforcement officers are ever tasked with investigating. I would like to thank Prosecutor Black and his assistant prosecutors and the detectives who spent countless hours on this case to make sure it was investigated thoroughly so justice could be sought on behalf of Arianna.”

Destani’s attorneys have retained multiple experts to prepare for her defense, including a consulting investigator, a mitigation specialist, a consulting psychologist, and an expert in the field of pediatric medicine, pediatric critical care, and child abuse. 

Destani remains in the Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail on a bond of $1 million. Her children were placed into the custody of Hocking County Children Services when Arianna was hospitalized.

  • Arianna Starkey with grandma and great aunt
  • Arianna Starkey and mother Kassie Belknap
  • Arianna Starkey and her maternal great-grandfather. (Facebook)
  • Arianna Starkey
  • Arianna Starkey with grandma Christina Davis
  • Arianna Starkey with older brother

Click here for my ongoing coverage of Arianna’s story.

Sources: The Logan Daily News, The Athens Messenger, The Highland County Press

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