Kent-area man gets 50-year prison sentence for killing stepdaughter

A 40-year-old Kent-area man was sentenced June 18 to 50 years in prison for killing his 3-year-old stepdaughter in 2003 in an attempt to recover life insurance money from the girl's death.

A King County Superior Court jury found Joel Zellmer guilty of second-degree murder April 28 for the drowning death of Ashley McLellan at a pool in his backyard.

King County Superior Court Judge Catherine Shaffer issued the sentence in Seattle.

King County Sheriff's Office detectives arrested Zellmer in 2007 at his home in the 22000 block of 159th Avenue Southeast in unincorporated King County, east of Kent.

Zellmer was married to McLellan's mother, Stacey Ferguson, at the time of the girl’s death. Zellmer said he found McLellan in the family pool at his home at about 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 3, 2003. McLellan never regained consciousness and died two days later. Ferguson was not at home during the incident.

According to court documents, after initially ruling the drowning an accident, investigators from the sheriff’s office reopened the case after finding that the death fit a pattern of bizarre injuries and near-drownings to young children of women that Zellmer dated or married.

Zellmer had convinced Ferguson, whom he had married three months before Mclellan's death, to take out a $200,000 life insurance policy on the girl's life.

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