BRIDGETON — Stephany James sent 8-year-old Aryonna Watson to her death when she “angrily and sternly” ordered the youth to cross a dangerous Vineland intersection the evening of May 16, prosecutors alleged Friday.
The order came after the girl had already made one diagonal crossing alone of the intersection of Delsea Drive and Sherman Avenue. She was looking for James at a Rite Aid pharmacy, Cumberland County Assistant Prosecutor Charles Wettstein said.
James had left Aryonna alone at a bus stop on a corner of the intersection that was diagonal to the pharmacy with some purchases James made at a nearby ALDI supermarket, Wettstein said. James wanted the child to return to the corner to stay with the purchases, he said.
Aryonna never made it across the intersection, which has four lanes for traffic and one center turning lane. She was struck by a car and died three days later.
“Ms. James grossly deviated from a reasonable standard of care,” Wettstein said. “She left (Aryonna) alone for a period of time at a bus stop. She ordered (Aryonna) to cross the intersection to care for the packages. One would reasonably expect that a person would be by (Aryonna’s) side at all times.”
Wettstein’s comments came as James, 32, was arraigned before Superior Court Judge Cristen P. D’Arrigo at the Cumberland County courthouse in Bridgeton on charges of aggravated manslaughter and reckless manslaughter.
James was charged with those offenses Wednesday, but only after authorities used officials from the U.S. Marshals Service to find James, Wettstein said. James had moved since the time she was first charged in connection with Aryonna’s death, but apparently never informed authorities of the change, he said.
Authorities have listed James as a Bridgeton resident. They confirmed Friday that James lived at a Fairfield Township trailer park that uses a Bridgeton post office. James eventually moved in with her grandparents, who live in Cumberland County, they said.
The short, slight James stood shackled and shaking in an orange Cumberland County jail jumpsuit during Friday’s proceedings. And D’Arrigo let James’ bail remain at $200,000, even though James’ attorney, Joseph Hoffman, argued for a lower bail.
Hoffman said James is no flight risk. James remained in Cumberland County after she posted the $25,000 bail set on charges of endangering the welfare of a child and hindering prosecution that were initially lodged against her, he said. James has no family outside the county, he said.
James began to cry as Hoffman told D’Arrigo that James is “beyond devastated” by what happened to Aryonna.
“Her and all of our hearts go out to the victim,” he said.
Hoffman also told the court “there is reason to believe” that James is neurologically impaired and suffers from cognitive difficulties.
“We’re not dealing with a person with average intelligence,” Hoffman said. “There is no allegation by the state that my client intended any harm to this child.”
Wettstein said James did not take Aryonna “for any criminal purpose.” However, James, who authorities identified earlier as a friend of the Watson family, did not have permission from that family to take Aryonna to Vineland, he said. James also lied to authorities during the subsequent investigation, he said.
Aryonna was struck about 8 p.m. by a car driven by Robert H. Zajac, 45, of Swedesboro, Gloucester County. Police said Zajac saw Aryonna after the vehicle in front of him swerved, and that Zajac could not stop his vehicle in time to prevent hitting Aryonna. No charges were filed against Zajac.
“There was nothing that the driver could have done,” Wettstein said Friday.
Aryonna was taken to Inspira Medical Center Vineland after the collision. She was then transferred to the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., where she died three days later.
While authorities list Aryonna as being a Bridgeton resident, she was a second-grade honors student at the Fairfield Township School. Fairfield Township borders Bridgeton, and some Fairfield Township properties have a Bridgeton postal address.
The child’s mother is Stephanie Watson, of Bridgeton.
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