Today’s update concerns the story of eight-year-old Autumn Hallow, who died of asphyxiation and starvation on August 13, 2020 in the Elk River, Minnesota apartment belonging to her father and stepmother.
Despite 31 calls to local police and child welfare agencies by Autumn’s mother, Kelsey Kruse, and other witnesses, Autumn and her brother remained in the care of their father, Brett Hallow, and his wife, Sarah Hallow, who used the COVID-19 pandemic as their excuse not to allow the children to see their mother. Despite a court-ordered 50/50 parenting time agreement, Kelsey hadn’t been given access to her children since January of 2020.
Just before 4:00 PM on Thursday, August 13, 2020, first responders arrived at the Hallow apartment, located in the Depot at Elk River Station complex, where then-28-year-old Sarah was performing chest compressions on her stepdaughter’s lifeless, rigid body. Autumn could not be revived, and sadly, she was pronounced dead at the scene.
Charging documents stated, “Based on the condition of [Autumn’s] body, law enforcement believed [she] had been dead for some time.” Autumn was described as “extremely frail and thin;” her fingers were blue, she was missing chunks of hair, and there were abrasions and “pin-like” marks on her forehead, in addition to blood investigators found in the bathroom.
Brett and Sarah told investigators that Autumn, who they said hadn’t been eating lately, was found face down and partially submerged in the bathtub. However, an autopsy revealed that Autumn weighed merely 45 pounds* when she died; she was “markedly cachetic” and had almost no body fat. Her muscles had atrophied, and she had experienced significant hair loss. There were signs of bruising on her hips and hands, wounds on her head, and bleeding in her abdomen and her brain.
*This week, prosecutors stated in court that Autumn actually weighed 33 pounds at the time of her death.
Other children who lived in the home told investigators that Brett and Sarah often restrained Autumn before zipping her into a sleeping bag with only her head exposed. Her younger brother told police Autumn had to sleep that way when “she is being bad.” She was forced to spend the night in the sleeping bag in the living room, kitchen, or bathtub. Autumn was punished when she wet her pants, urinated on the floor, or tried to get food.
Autumn’s death was ruled a homicide caused by asphyxial injuries and blunt force trauma.
Brett Jason Hallow and Sarah Kay Hallow were arrested the day after Autumn’s death. Each was charged with one count of second-degree murder without intent while committing a felony and one count of first-degree manslaughter, and they were held in the Sherburne County Jail.
Additional evidence, including security video taken inside the family’s apartment, led prosecutors to state that they were prepared to upgrade the couple’s charges to first-degree murder, which may have been the impetus for a plea agreement to be made.
After nearly ten months, it was announced in June of 2021 that Brett and Sarah Hallow accepted a plea agreement, pleading guilty to second-degree murder and admitting to beating and starving Autumn in the weeks leading up to her death. In addition to second-degree murder, Brett and Sarah also pleaded guilty to multiple new charges relating to the abuse of Autumn’s brother and another child in the home as far back as 2019. At the time of the plea hearing, their sentencing hearing was scheduled to take place on Thursday, September 23, 2021.
At last week’s hearing, Judge Karen B. Schommer sentenced 30-year-old Brett Hallow and 28-year-old Sarah Hallow to 480 months, or 40 years, in the Minnesota Department of Corrections. Because the couple’s charges included enhancements for “particular cruelty,” they both received the maximum allowable penalty.
Autumn’s mom, Kelsey, who has an ongoing $30 million lawsuit against Sherburne County Child Protection, Elk River Police, and other mandated reports for negligence and for failing to intervene to protect Autumn, read a heartbreaking impact statement at the sentencing hearing, which you can read below in its entirety:
“Autumn was my blonde hair, blue eyed, deep dimpled baby. She was born 6 weeks early, although you’d never know this. She excelled in school, and had unimaginable love for her family and friends. She was always jumping everywhere, doing cartwheels, and dancing. She loved karaoke, coloring and being outside. When Autumn would hug you she would wrap her legs around you and would squeeze so tight. I specifically remember when I went to surprise her at lunch during her last school year, she was coming down the hall and when she saw me her face glowed. She ran up and jumped into my arms and wrapped her legs around me. This is a moment I hope I will never forget. Aside from the day Autumn died, today is one of the hardest days of my life. To stand in front of the court and speak about how the selfish acts of Brett and Sarah have affected my life after they took my beautiful daughter from me is so incredibly difficult for me. I believed that one day I would watch Autumn fall in love, and she would be a mother and outlive me. I believed these things when I was more naïve about evil. So now, it ‘s with bittersweet love that I see many of Autumns friends living the lives they deserve to live and that she also deserved to live. After Autumn was released to the funeral home I saw her for the first time. I walked into the room and she was laying there lifeless, and little. Her head was shaved, she had marks on her face and scalp. Under the sheet, her shoulders looked so small. I kept staring at her trying to recognize her. She did not look like the Autumn that I remember and I was convinced it was not her. I have a lot of the same feelings after Autumn passed as I did the 7 months she was withheld from me before she passed. The feelings are just magnified. I missed her then but now I miss her more. I was confused and angry but now I’m more confused and angrier. Day after day, I mourned the loss of Autumn before she even died. I didn’t know what was happening to her . I didn’t understand why I couldn’t talk to her or see her. I think about that last week before her death. Starving, sick, and full of pain. I wish I knew. I wish I broke into their house and saved her. I wish I could have nursed her back to health and she was still here. I think about that all the time. I live with these thoughts every day. Autumn was so excited to be a big sister when I had my youngest daughter. Sadly she only got to meet her a couple times. Even though our house is full of pictures of Autumn my daughter will never truly know her big sister. Having lost a child, something you never think will happen to you, I am terrified of losing another one of my children because I know its possible. My son, who was also a victim of Brett and Sarah’s abuse lost his best friend when Autumn was taken from us. He knows that could have happened to him and he knows some of the pain she went through. I am afraid he will grow up to be anything like his father. I hope I saved him in time to not affect his future. The hardest part is not that my daughter is dead. It’s how she died, how she suffered. Imagining how much pain she was in. Every day I wake up and I will suffer until I go to sleep thinking about this. I think losing a child is the greatest loss you can endure. I find peace knowing that my kids never have to look into the eyes of their abusers again. Autumn no longer has to feel terrified, unloved or unwanted. She is safe and she is with me again. Hundreds of thousands of people, if not more know about what happened to Autumn but I live with it every day. I lay in bed and close my eyes and picture what she looked like days before she died. I imagine what she was thinking or how she felt. The what ifs and should have destroy me inside and the guilt weighs so much. I’m afraid I will forget the way her voice sounded when she would say “mom” or I’ll forget what she looked like without looking at a picture. Brett and Sarah ruined my life, my children’s lives, my families lives, and their families lives. They not only robbed my daughter of her life, but me of my future. I will never be known as just Kelsey Kruse anymore. I’ll be known as the person whose daughter was horrifically murdered by her father and step mother.”
Kelsey also read a statement from Autumn’s 11-year-old brother, which read in part:
“Even though I know they are locked up, I feel like my dad or Sarah is watching me through my bedroom window at night. I know my dad and Sarah aren’t getting a life sentence, but they took my little sister’s life from her and they deserve to spend the rest of their life in prison.”
Sherburne County Attorney Kathleen Heaney said, “The loss of a child is grievous; the loss of a child at the hands of two who were entrusted to care for that child is beyond comprehension. While there is no measure in the criminal justice system that accounts for the loss, I hope that the sentencing today will allow the family, friends, and community some modicum of comfort knowing that those whose acts led to the loss of [Autumn Hallow] were held accountable.”
During the sentencing hearing, Sarah Hallow broke down, apologizing to the family, whose civil attorney, Rich Hechter, later said, “So while the words may have been uttered like ‘I’m sorry,’ I don’t think there was enough true remorse or guilt behind it.”
I have to agree there. More likely than anything, Sarah’s remorse is for herself.
Brett Hallow did not make a statement during the hearing.
Of their 40 year sentences, Brett and Sarah are expected to spend 27 years in prison with the remaining 13 years to be served under supervised release. The judge informed the defendants that disciplinable offenses committed while in prison could earn them additional prison time.
Brett Jason Hallow is incarcerated in the Minnesota Correctional Facility at St. Cloud.
Sarah Kay Hallow is currently serving her sentence at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee, where she may have the chance to rub elbows with other child-killers I’ve written about, namely Shy Ann Hentges and Kellie Jo Anderson. Some day in the not-too-distant future, I would expect Elise Nelson to join them (I’ll be crossing my fingers).
Click here for my previous coverage of Autumn’s story.
Sources: Lakeland PBS, Elk River Star-News, KTSP, KARE11, Minnesota Department of Corrections website