Man charged in death of 9-year-old Souderton girl

May 11, 2011 12:03:33 PM PDT
A Montgomery County neighborhood is mourning the loss of a 9-year-old girl as a fellow neighbor faces charges for her murder.

As the sun set on Tuesday, a crowd of hundreds emerged outside the Souderton Gardens Apartments on East Chestnut and North 2nd streets to hold a vigil for Skyler Kauffman, a third grader who lived in the complex.

Teddy bears and stuffed animals kept piling up amongst candles and balloons as people poured their hearts out to the family of the 9-year-old. There were hugs and many tears.

Members of the family at the vigil shared their thoughts with Action News.

"That was my sweet pea," Skyler's maternal grandmother Pam Gebhard said.

Her paternal grandfather Spencer Kauffman told Action News he was in a state of disbelief.

The child's father, Eric Kauffman, wondered about the justice, "Last night, while I was having dinner she was being strangled, so where is the justice in that?"

"It was a 9-year-old innocent child, what did she do to him? It's my only child. Nobody can bring her back," Skyler's mother Heather Gebhard said.

Skyler was last seen at 5:30 p.m. Monday playing in the parking lot of the apartment complex. Police say her parents became concerned when she didn't show up for dinner.

Authorities from across the county mobilized for the search and an Amber Alert was issued.

Eventually, they found a blood trail in the basement of her home that ran cold.

Then, around midnight, authorities discovered her body wrapped in a blanket and buried in the dumpster several hundred feet away from her apartment.

Several hours after the discovery, police announced charges against 24-year-old James Lee Troutman.

Troutman, who also lives in Souderton Gardens, was taken into custody. Investigators say he choked the child to death in a basement and sexually assaulted her.

"This is one of those terribly disturbing situations where something happens seemingly out of nowhere," Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said.

Court documents say Troutman admitted to choking the girl and hitting her head against the floor a couple of times.

Those same documents say police found bloody clothes in Troutman's apartment and he claimed he killed the girl "because once he took her down to the basement, he knew she could get him in trouble."

Police say they also found blood on Troutman's shoes and clothes, evidence the 9-year-old fought to the end.

The court documents say Troutman lived with his fiancée. She tells police on Monday she heard a girl screaming and crying "no" for several minutes, but she never investigated.

Troutman, wearing a bulletproof vest, covered his face as he entered the courthouse Tuesday afternoon.

Police had to tape off the area outside the courthouse, a street away from the apartment complex, for security reasons due to angry residents.

"I didn't know even know he was capable of murder, I didn't expect that from him but he is a weird guy," neighbor Joe Garis said.

"My daughter has associated with the gentlemen in the past and that's really scary, it could have been one of mine, it could have been my kids," neighbor Wendy Hansen said.

Once inside the courtroom, a Montgomery County district judge denied bond for Troutman.

Police became suspicious of Troutman during their search for Skyler.

As an officer questioned him, he says the man immediately gave an alibi and nervously offered up a story about how he came in contact with Skyler last month.

Skyler's mother and others spoke of the same story at the vigil. They say Troutman lured Skyler and her friend into his apartment after he overhead one of them say she needed to go to the restroom.

The court documents say the girl and a friend used Troutman's bathroom and somehow got locked in his home. Skyler's mother says that happened because Troutman tried to lock them inside. The girls then screamed for help.

Skyler's grandfather says her mother called police, but officers said he didn't commit a crime.

"I'm aggravated because this should have never happened, it never should have happened," Skyler's grandfather Steve Gebhard said.

"They blew me off, they came out that the girls were twisting their words. They pretty much said that my daughter and her friend twisted everything. Now, this cop is going to have this resting on him forever, that it could have been prevented. My daughter would still be here," Skyler's mother Heather Gebhard said.

Skyler would have been 10 years old next month.

Skyler was enrolled as a third grade student at E. Merton Crouthamel Elementary school in Souderton. Counselors and school psychologists are on hand at the school to assist students and staff as they mourn Skyler's death.

Family friend Stewart J. Foland II says he's known Skyler since she was a baby.

"What should be done to this guy? You honestly don't want my answer," Foland said. "She's a gem, there's not a word to condemn her. She was an angel. She's going to be taken care of, that's all I can tell you, and it shouldn't have happened."

Relatives want authorities to seek the death penalty for Troutman upon conviction and they had one message for him.

"Honestly? Rot in hell," Heather said.

As Troutman sat in a jail and neighbors and family cried, late Tuesday evening, police continued the investigation and removed the dumpster where an officer found Skyler's body from the apartment complex, along with bags of evidence.