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'She slipped through every crack' | How a young girl’s death launched a multi-state abuse investigation

Police say 8-year-old Meela Miller endured horrific abuse by her legal guardian, leading many to wonder why she never got the help she needed.

AIRWAY HEIGHTS, Wash. — An Airway Heights couple is behind bars, accused of stunning child abuse that led to the death of an 8-year-old girl.

Police say their investigation spanned across two states after Mandie Miller, and her boyfriend, Aleksandr Kurmoyarov, drove to Mitchell, S.D. in December 2022, pulling a U-Haul trailer. Court documents say they arrived at a funeral home with a coffin containing the remains of a deceased child. 

Documents state the couple did not have the proper documentation for a burial, so the funeral home called the police. Detectives said Miller and Kurmoyarov “seemed very nervous after finding out they were supposed to have documentation.”

According to investigators, "Meela looked small and malnourished for her age." They noted "powdered laundry detergent" surrounding the coffin and bedding "to mask the odor."  

During a police interview after the couple's arrest, Miller told investigators Meela died on Sept. 10, 2022, more than three months after the couple arrived in South Dakota. Miller said Meela died after choking on a strawberry milkshake and said she didn't call 911 because it would take too long for the ambulance to arrive. 

Court documents state the couple didn’t report her death to police, “because they wanted to spend more time with her.”

When police interviewed Kurmoyarov, however, records show he never mentioned anything about Meela choking. Instead, Kurmoyarov only said she was "sick." Investigators also noted he "kept changing his story about Meela's death."

According to court documents, Kurmoyarov admitted to slapping the child twice on the day she died and also admitted to tying her up in a bathrobe “similar to a straightjacket” for four to six hours a day.

Kurmoyarov told investigators Miller would also hit Meela's toes with a hammer when she would misbehave.

Megan Rice lived one building over from where Meela, Miller and Kurmoyarov lived in Airway Heights. According to her, Meela was rarely ever seen.

"We knew something was up," Rice said. "We never saw that little girl out. She was seen one time, I think, moving in. We never saw her ever. And we were always so worried."

When police showed up at the Miller apartment one night in December, the neighbors feared the worst.

"It's been really hard to process. I was so sad and heartbroken, and now I'm just, I'm angry," Rice said. "I'm very angry. Because no kid deserves to go through any of that."

Court documents show multiple neighbors had called the police concerned about domestic violence and the child’s possible malnourishment.

Miller had been Meela’s legal guardian for the last seven years and is the sister of the girl’s biological mom. They’d lived in Airway Heights since May 2022. Before that, they lived in Cheney.

On multiple occasions, documents show neighbors and school counselors tried to get help. 

Body cam footage obtained exclusively by KREM 2 shows Cheney Police and a school counselor trying to knock on the family's door to check on Meela. At that point, Meela hadn't attended school in nearly two months.

In the footage, the police officer is seen knocking on the family's door but getting no response. A neighbor opened her door and spoke briefly with the officer. 

Because Meela's family didn't answer the door, the police officer and the advocate simply left.

"They don't have enough of an excuse to break down the door," Attorney Craig Mason explained. "And because they stayed behind the door, nobody could gather any additional information."

Mason, a family law attorney in Spokane, said this is one of the worst cases of child abuse he's ever heard.

"There's probably not a worse death that could have been inflicted on a child," he said.

Mason added that because she was so isolated, “I could see how she slipped through every crack.”

KREM 2 also contacted Child Protective Services (CPS), which is part of Washington’s Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), but were told they did not have an open case with the family within the last year. They also said they were not actively monitoring Meela. 

"Without sufficient criteria meeting the definition of abuse or neglect, DCYF does not have the authority to investigate," CPS said in a written statement. "Definitions of child abuse and neglect are established in statute. Truancy is not considered child abuse, and school districts respond to those issues." 

In our conversation with CPS, we asked why they weren't actively monitoring Meela when so many people were calling in, worried about her. CPS responded with the following statement:

Prior to the intake received on the incident involving the child’s death, we did receive four calls between February and August 2022. Those were all screened out as they did not meet the legal definition of child abuse or neglect as defined by RCW 26-44-020.

KREM 2 found police records of at least a dozen calls from concerned neighbors and school employees to Cheney Police, Airway Heights Police and CPS. According to one police report, CPS requested a welfare check on the child in Aug. 2022 after she hadn't been to school in three months.

When police responded, documents state the officer was allowed into the family's apartment, where he “saw the child breathing” and “sleeping under a pile of blankets”. At the time, Miller told police she was home-schooling Meela, and because she worked at night, she said the two typically sleep during the day.

Mason explained how the officer was given a “plausible explanation” of why the child was asleep during the day. 

“He sees her breathing normally; she's probably under a blanket or two, so he doesn't see she's malnourished," he explained. "And it looks normal.”

He added, "[The parents'] behavior of evading the school, evading the police, and their mistreatment of Meela was just the perfect little fit to miss every piece of protective institution that we have," he said.

KREM 2 did reach out to Airway Heights Police regarding Meela's death. The department said they could not comment since it is still an active investigation, but did sent the following statement:

"With our limited resources and the significant help from our partner agency at the Spokane County Sheriff's Office, we are working diligently to hold those people we believe are responsible accountable based on our ongoing investigation."

Miller and Kurmoyarov are currently in the Spokane County Jail on eight criminal charges, including homicide, child assault and unlawful imprisonment. They are scheduled to go to trial on those charges in April. 

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