Plea deal denied in death of toddler left in van

Logan Starling’s family stood up in court on Wednesday, fighting for justice. 

Starling was found dead in his father’s girlfriend’s minivan September 2018.  Investigators say Mariah Butler, 27, drove Starling and four other children to the Elite Preparatory Academy in Orlando, Florida, where they attended school, and she worked.

“This plea bargain is a slap in the face to my family, and it’s nothing more than an inconvenience to her,” Roy Werner, Starling’s maternal great-grandfather, said to the judge. 

Investigators say video shows Butler, her mother, and the other four kids walking into the school, but Starling wasn’t with them.    ​

“It’s heart-wrenching to know how he passed. [He] sat in that car, fighting his way out,” Terrie Squires, Starling’s maternal grandfather, said through tears.  “He never made it.”

After investigating for several months, the state attorney charged Butler with aggravated manslaughter of a child and child neglect.  Butler entered a guilty plea in court on the lesser charge of child neglect. The state attorney extended that offer in exchange for five years of probation.  Starling’s family argued that’s not enough. 

“If this is all she gets, you might as well put a sign up that says ‘Go ahead, leave all your kids in a hot car. You'll only get five years probation, no big deal,’” Squires said.  “Had she checked on him the very first time, we wouldn’t be standing here right now.”  

According to investigators, school employees started asking where Starling was a little after 10 a.m. that morning, and they say Butler did not go to look in her car until after 2 p.m.  Butler did get her chance to speak in court, but she never apologized for Starling's death.   

“I love all my children.  I love both Autumn and Logan,” Butler said.  

After listening to all the testimony, Judge Keith White took a short recess.  When he came back, he called the attorneys up to his bench for a private conversation, later revealing he offered Butler a stricter sentence.  The judge did not reveal what that was.  Instead, he addressed the court saying, “the court is not prepared to accept the negotiated resolution presented today.” 

Starling’s family is encouraged that Judge White agreed that the punishment of five years of probation does not fit the crime.  

“From the get go I said all I want is justice for Logan.  That plea deal was not justice at all.  This just tells me that there’s a chance of getting some justice,” said Werner.

If Butler does not accept the sentence Judge White offered in private, she will go to pretrial November 19, with trial scheduled for December 2.