Updated July 13, 2021 - 8:30 am
A judge presiding over a lengthy custody battle for 16-year-old Sierra Halseth foresaw trouble months before she and her boyfriend were charged with fatally stabbing her father, court videos obtained by the Las Vegas Review-Journal show.
“This entire case discourages me,” Family Court Judge Charles Hoskin said in early March, about a month before the body of Daniel Halseth was found stabbed and burned in the garage of his northwest Las Vegas home. “It is possible that after taking evidence I just rip the child out of dad’s home and put the child solely in mom’s home.”
Sierra’s mother, who now goes by the name Elizabeth Helgelien, had been granted primary custody after Daniel Halseth filed for divorce in 2011, but the girl’s parents started to dispute custody arrangements last year, court records show.
Halseth’s body, stabbed 70 times, was found April 9. His body had been stuffed in a sleeping bag before it was set on fire, resulting in burns to about 40 percent of his body, an autopsy report stated.
His daughter and her boyfriend, 18-year-old Aaron Guerrero, have been indicted on charges of murder, conspiracy, arson, robbery and fraudulent use of a credit card in connection with his death.
The girl’s attorney, Michael Sanft, said the acrimonious custody dispute could help shed light on what happened.
“There’s more to the story than what we’ve heard so far and what’s been released in the media,” Sanft said. “It’s a process, and this process takes time. And at some point in the future, there will be a complete picture for everyone to understand as to what happened and why this happened. We ask for everyone to reserve judgment until they see the complete picture.”
‘I want my daughter back’
At the March hearing in front of Hoskin, Helgelien said she had not seen her daughter in months.
“Daniel and his home isn’t a healthy one,” she told the judge. “He has clearly been bashing me and speaking negatively about me and lying to Sierra, which has negatively impacted my relationship with her. … I want my daughter back. I want her to be healthy again, and emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically healthy again. I want what’s best for her, and she deserves that.”
Halseth then implied that his ex-wife was lying.
“It feels like reality TV every time I hear Elizabeth speak …” he said. “I have no idea why she’s saying the things that she’s saying.”
The series of videos obtained by the newspaper capture court hearings that date back to August, when Halseth was ordered to return Sierra to her mother’s custody after Hoskin found that he was in violation of their agreement.
But by the time the parents attended a virtual hearing the next month, Sierra was already back with her father.
Halseth wanted primary physical custody, telling the judge that Sierra was in a “toxic environment” at her mother’s home.
He told the judge that Sierra was staying with him in his four-bedroom home, and “the living arrangements are perfect here.”
Halseth filed a motion to alter the custody agreement and “to address CPS intervention.” A spokeswoman with Child Protective Services has declined to release any potential records related to Sierra to the Review-Journal, citing confidentiality.
Helgelien called her ex-husband’s allegations “made up” and suggested that Halseth did not make a sincere effort to return Sierra to her.
“He can say he returned her, but it was an obvious plan for her to return to him in a couple of hours,” Helgelien said. “And he literally just dropped her off just to say, ‘Your honor, I followed the court orders to drop her off.’”
The judge said he was troubled by an apparent lack of communication between Sierra and her mother, and he wanted the girl to be interviewed through what’s known as Family Court mediation.
Attorney Louis Schneider, who focuses on family and criminal law but was not involved in the custody dispute, said marriage and family therapists can help cultivate new relationships between children and their parents. Therapist reports in such cases are typically sealed.
In Nevada, Family Court judges typically prefer joint physical custody in order to allow children equal time with each parent, Schneider said.
‘We need to get therapy in place’
At an October hearing, the judge pushed for reunification therapy in an effort to facilitate joint custody.
“I saw a lot of things with Sierra that caused me concern,” Hoskin said. “It indicates to me that something else is going on with Sierra. … And I don’t know who at this point is to blame for that. But I’m less concerned about placing blame than I am with regard to this child and the child’s relationship with a parent.”
The parents quarreled over whether Sierra had received proper counseling.
“We need to get therapy in place at this point moving forward,” the judge said. “I haven’t gotten to the bottom of what is or isn’t happening with Sierra, but I am extremely concerned with what is or is not happening with Sierra. … Hopefully this is not something one of the two of you are promoting, because the lifetime damage to this child is something you’ll have to bear on your conscience moving forward.”
Before a hearing in December, Halseth filed a letter to the judge that he said was written by Sierra.
The judge quickly admonished Halseth.
“It’s wholly inappropriate to involve a child to this level,” Hoskin said. “I would think as long as we’ve been litigating this case you would be aware of the inappropriate nature of having a child be this involved in the litigation.”
Helgelien questioned whether her daughter had actually written the letter, which was not made public.
“This behavior is absolutely not Sierra,” she said, “not the relationship I’ve had with her.”