The Sioux Falls mother who lost her three children in a house fire just days before Christmas is headed to prison.
Rhiannon White, 35, was found with meth, ecstasy, and marijuana in her system following the deadly fire. But Judge Brad Zell says he did not sentence White to six years in prison Wednesday to punish her but instead to help her overcome her addiction.
White admits to doing drugs in the hours before the tragic fire in December.
"She made the choice of getting off work early on a Friday night, not returning home, going to a bar, drinking on top of prescribed medication, using ecstasy, using methamphetamine, then coming home, not checking on the children," Deputy Minnehaha County State's Attorney Tom Hensley said.
Prosecutors say after White got home she stayed up with her husband smoking cigarettes in the living room and looking at Christmas ads. It's the spot where investigators believe the fire started. They then went to bed only to be woken up by a fire alarm followed by frantic moments trying to get the kids and themselves out of the house.
Judge Zell made it very clear at the beginning of the hearing that he does not believe that even if White was sober on December 22, 2012 that anything would have been different the day her three children died in the fire. He says White's husband tried to go down the hall and get the children but was overcome by the fire.
Judge Zell rejected a no contest plea White entered to child neglect charges Wednesday saying there was no evidence White neglected or abused her children. He then fashioned a sentence that will give the 35-year-old mother the help she needs.
"I do not believe in reviewing the facts that if you had been sober, if you hadn't been out that night earlier that anything would have changed. Mr. White I believe did what he could do under the facts and circumstances," Zell said.
That's why Zell sentence White to six years for her drug use that night. He says since this is her first offense she will be eligible for parole in about 13 months, which is just enough time to complete the meth treatment program at the women's prison.
White thanked the court for putting her in jail and keeping her away from drugs.
"Thank you for saving my life. I have made and gone through many changes in the 144 days I have spent in the Minnehaha County Jail," White said.
Gene McDaniel, one of White’s mentors since the fire, was in court and believes the sentence gives White a chance to get control of her life.
"There always needs to be a chance for hope and support and a chance for a brighter future and I think that's what the judge was trying to do today. I think that was an outstanding decision," McDaniel said.
"I truly believe when everything gets sorted out and she gets in control of this addiction she can be a very positive member of our community.”
The Minnehaha County State's Attorney commended Judge Zell for his sentence saying it was 'very fair and just.'
The official cause of the fire was ‘undetermined.’