A Puzzling Trail to USC Baby Death

Times Staff Writers

A gifted, hard-working student, mature beyond her years. A talented athlete who played three sports in high school. A popular, high-spirited girl whose impersonations and rowdy singing cracked up friends.

Now, USC student Holly Ashcraft, 21, also is a young woman charged with murder, alleged to have left her newborn son in a trash container near her Los Angeles apartment. The baby's body was discovered just after midnight Oct. 10.

In Billings, a city of 100,000 where Ashcraft grew up in a tidy, white farmhouse set among sugar beet and grain fields, news of her arrest has gripped and shocked many. The local newspaper has run stories on her case, the details of her alleged crime printed next to a glossy yearbook photo of the clean-cut high school senior.

A popular Billings radio station urged listeners to call in with opinions. The callers, most of whom said they did not know her, said she should have given the baby up for adoption.

But for her friends, and even her parents, the case is not that simple.

Although Ashcraft excelled in academics and sports, she also got into trouble for partying toward the end of high school.

For much of her senior year, Ashcraft lived at a friend's home because of tensions with her mother, a junior high school and college teacher.

Her parents separated when she was about 15, and Ashcraft had not been in close contact with her father since.

"I love her," said her father, Terry Ashcraft, a metal tradesman, standing in the doorway of his modest house on the west side of Billings. "I'm puzzled. Other than that, I'll just leave it alone."

Several friends and former neighbors interviewed last week said they were having trouble reconciling the bright, outgoing young woman they know with the unsettling picture painted by authorities in Los Angeles.

Some friends said they worry that Ashcraft's tendency to be strong and independent -- and, sometimes, to bottle up her feelings -- may have contributed to a bad decision.

"She'd never ask for help for anything," said Candice Tesinsky, 20, who has known Ashcraft since grade school. Tesinsky's voice caught as she spoke of Ashcraft and her situation: "I think she probably went through a moment of shock."

Alina Stefek, 20, who was close to Ashcraft in elementary school and also hung out with her a bit in high school, said the news of the arrest seemed surreal. "I felt a lot of empathy for her. I wondered how she could feel so alone," Stefek said. "I think she has a very strong character, and it surprised me that out of anyone it was Holly."

Stefek said she had last seen Ashcraft at a party in early 2004. Her friend said she was having a lot of fun at USC but also confided that she sometimes had trouble fitting in with students from wealthier backgrounds.

Ashcraft's mother, Marlene Zentz, who flew to Los Angeles after her daughter's arrest, also expressed support for her last week while acknowledging that they had clashed at times.

"I love her from the bottom of my heart," said Zentz, who agreed to be interviewed about Ashcraft's childhood but would speak only in limited terms about her current troubles. "She is a distinguished and wonderful girl, and I am very proud to be her parent."

Ashcraft grew up in a rural neighborhood of Billings, where most homes were set on farms of at least five acres. She and her older sister always seemed like pleasant, well-brought-up girls, neighbors said. The sisters played basketball outside their house and took cookies to an elderly woman who lived down the road.

Friends also said Ashcraft was friendly with a lot of guys in high school, but didn't date a lot. "She was independent," said Jacque Walen, who played basketball, softball and volleyball with her. "She went out and had fun."

During those years, Ashcraft's mother seemed strict and focused on her daughters' academic success, neighbors and friends said. Her husband worked as a pipe fitter and welder at the Exxon oil refinery but was hurt on the job and went on disability. The couple separated in 1998 and divorced in 2000, but appeared to remain on civil terms. Terry Ashcraft would stop by to work on the house or fix the car.

But about the beginning of her senior year, Ashcraft -- along with her sister, some friends said -- badly upset her mother by holding a large party at the house while Zentz was out of town. About 100 people showed up, drinking beer and liquor, friends recalled. The police eventually arrived too, Tesinsky said.

Zentz said the party was a factor -- but not the only one -- in Ashcraft spending her senior year living with the family of her best friend, Kim Pogue.

But she characterized the strains between them as the often typical tensions between many mothers and soon-to-be-adult daughters, and said Ashcraft made the choice herself to live with the Pogues. Zentz said she agreed to the move because she knew her daughter would be well-cared for.

Zentz, who struggled at times to hold back tears as she spoke, said the two still saw one another that year on the Billings campus of Montana State University, where Ashcraft was taking many of her courses her senior year and where her mother was doing research.

Now, Zentz said, the Pogues are likely to join her and other family members in Los Angeles for any court proceedings. "We are all one big family for Holly now," said her mother, who now lives in Washington state.

To friends in Billings, Ashcraft seemed to be thriving at USC. She came back on school breaks saying she was having fun in the big city. Stefek recently joked with another friend about "how [Holly] was going to run some architecture firm some day."

Early on at the university, she lived in student housing but lived alone this year in a one-room apartment above the popular 29th Street Cafe. The baby's body was found in a trash bin near the building.

Deepening the mystery, law enforcement sources said Ashcraft, a third-year architecture student at USC, also was investigated -- but not arrested or charged -- in April 2004 after she arrived at a downtown Los Angeles hospital having just given birth but without a baby. She told authorities the child in that earlier case was stillborn and that she had disposed of the body on her own.

Many of her classmates expressed bewilderment at the accusations Ashcraft is facing.

Several people who had seen her in the last few months said that the normally slender, 5-foot-9 Ashcraft did not appear pregnant. But they also voiced ardent loyalty and a desire to protect her, urging classmates not to speak to reporters until more facts emerge.

"She is so genuine, so real," said one, who asked not be to identified. "Nobody wants to say anything that could hurt her. There is potential punishment at the end of this."

Ashcraft remains in custody at the Twin Towers jail in downtown Los Angeles, where she is being held in lieu of $2-million bail. She is scheduled to be arraigned Nov. 9.

Her attorney, Paul J. Wallin, takes issue with early police media statements that the child was full-term, saying that a police report actually characterizes the infant as of only 30 to 32 weeks gestation.

Police confirmed Monday that the child was not full-term but they and the district attorney's office emphasized a preliminary coroner's report saying the infant was born alive.

Wallin said Ashcraft, who is housed alone, has twice called her mother, crying, from the jail. "Common sense would dictate that a 21-year-old like this doesn't belong in there," the attorney said. "She needs to be with her mother, with people who can help her."

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Chong reported from Billings and Trounson from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Nancy Wride, Richard Winton and Jonathan Abrams also contributed to this report.

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