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Complex portrait emerges of student charged with murder

Allegations she dumped baby in LA baffle friends

BILLINGS, Mont. -- 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 clever impersonations and rowdy singing cracked up her friends.

Now, Holly Ashcraft, 21, also is a University of Southern California student 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 Oct. 10 by a man searching for recyclables.

Deepening the mystery, law enforcement sources said Ashcraft, a third-year architecture student, 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 that the child in that earlier case was stillborn and that she had disposed of the body.

In this 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 paper has run stories on her case, and 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.

While 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, then a junior high school geography 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 his doorway on the west side of Billings. ''I'm puzzled. Other than that, I'll just leave it alone."

He's not alone.

Several friends and former neighbors said they were having trouble reconciling the bright, outgoing young woman they know with the unsettling picture painted by authorities in Los Angeles. Apart from any other consideration, several said, Ashcraft simply seemed too smart, too level-headed, for anything like that.

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. ''I think she probably went through a moment of shock."

Alina Stefek, 20, who was close to Ashcraft in elementary school and hung out with her a bit in high school, said that 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. Ashcraft said she was having fun at the university but also confided that she sometimes had trouble fitting in with students from wealthier backgrounds.

''I did worry about her being in an apartment by herself in the middle of Los Angeles," Stefek said. She said Ashcraft didn't indicate any serious problems at school or with men.

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

''I love her from the bottom of my heart," said Marlene Zentz, a former middle school and college teacher. Sheagreed 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."

Many of Ashcraft's classmates expressed bewilderment at the accusations she is facing. Several people who had seen her in the past few months said that the normally slender, 5-foot-9 Ashcraft did not appear pregnant. But they also voiced loyalty and a desire to protect her, urging classmates not to speak to reporters until more facts emerge.

Ashcraft remains in custody in Los Angeles, where she is being held in lieu of $2 million bail. She is scheduled to be arraigned Nov. 9.

Her lawyer, Paul J. Wallin, also has taken issue with early police statements that the child was full-term, saying a police report characterized the infant as of 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 called her mother twice, crying, from the jail. ''Common sense would dictate that a 21-year-old like this doesn't belong in there," the lawyer said. ''She needs to be with her mother, with people who can help her."

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