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Tiny victims leave tiny clues
Gannett News Service Series
Marjorie Lundstrom and Rochelle Sharpe
Getting Away With Murder: Tiny victims leave tiny clues
In the tiniest of murder victims, even the best medical detectives can miss the clues. Shaking a baby to death may leave no obvious trace. Drowning a child could easily be called an accident. Locking a child alone in a house that later burns might seem like an unpreventable tragedy.
The subtlety of these child-abuse and neglect cases has turned some coroners and medical examiners into super sleuths.
In Ohio, more than 50 doctors performed thousands of tests between 1986 and 1989, but none could figure out why Matthew Peters kept vomiting. The answer came too late for the 3-year-old boy, whose real problem was his mother.
The boy died last year in Hamilton, near Cincinnati, because his mother suffered from Munchausen Syndrome by proxy, a bizarre psychiatric illness that compelled her to induce illness in her child to gain attention for herself.
“You only find what you look for, and you only look for what you know,” said Dr. Harry Bonnell, chief deputy coroner in Hamilton County.
It was Bonnell who discovered what every other physician in the Peters case had missed: a small body full of poison. After completing the autopsy, Bonnell compared the results with the mother’s stories and unveiled a web of lies.
Judi Peters, a single mother, pleaded guilty last year to filling her child with Ipecac – a medication that induces vomiting – for his entire life. The fatal dose had been administered to the boy while he was hospitalized in intensive care; his mother later confessed she had poured it into his stomach tube.
No one ever suspected the doting mother, who seemed so concerned about her child’s plight that civic and religious groups held fundraisers to defray medical costs.
“She got a lot of sympathy from people,” said Mark Piepmeier, chief assistant Hamilton County prosecutor, who saw her sentenced to five to 12 years in prison. “She loved the limelight. That’s why she did it.”
In most cases of Munchausen Syndrome by proxy, an uncommon disease that afflicts mainly women, mothers don’t intend to kill their children, said Dr. Alex Levin of Lansdale, Pa., an expert on the mental disorder.
One woman kept oxygen tanks in every room of her house, claiming she couldn’t get dressed some mornings because she was so busy resuscitating her children, said Dr. James D. Frost Jr., a Houston physician who treated one of the woman’s children. In fact, the woman was covering her children’s mouths and noses with her hand until they almost suffocated, then was reviving them just in time, he said. The mother was caught before any of the children died, said Frost, who had a video camera set up in one child’s hospital room and taped her in the act.
Munchausen Syndrome by proxy is not the only form of child abuse that confounds death investigators.
Rib factors – a common child abuse injury – may not be apparent in a standard autopsy, said Dr. Paul Kleinman, who recommends that all dead babies have detailed X-rays. Doctors, who routinely use X-rays to treat live patients, now believe these images can reveal fractures to expose a murder.
“This has had a tremendous impact on our success in prosecution of abuse cases here,” said Kleinman, director of pediatric radiology at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.
Many parents have argued that “mysterious” fractures in their child’s body were due to cardiopulmonary resuscitation, but Kleinman says his research has refuted such claims.
Technology also is helping experts detect “shaken baby syndrome,” the violent death of an infant that leaves few traces. Unlike adults, babies have watery, gelatinous brains and weak neck muscles that can’t withstand shaking, said Dr. Jonathan Arden, deputy chief medical examiner for New York City. When the baby is shaken, blood vessels surrounding the brain can be torn.
In Florida, state trooper Kurt Frank Frueh claimed his 4-month-old stepdaughter slipped from his arms during a bath, but six doctors testified that a violent shaking had caused bleeding in her brain, spinal cord and behind her eyes. He was sentenced this year to 12 years in prison.
All the sophisticated methods for detecting child abuse may mean nothing without aggressive leg work at the death scene. Many coroners and medical examiners conduct their own death-scene investigations, although some large cities have turned over the spadework to former police officers, morticians and nurses. In rural Florida, officials are videotaping the death scenes and sending the tape to Jacksonville for expert analysis.
“I wish I had a nickel every time someone came into the office and says his kid fell down the stairs – and then you find out they live in a trailer,” said Gary Spangler, director of the Missouri Department of Social Services.
Comparing the details of the death scene with the parents’ story often provides the evidence to crack a child-abuse murder case.
Alan Kunzman, a former deputy coroner in Southern California, was skeptical when a man claimed at the hospital that his girlfriend’s 5-year-old son had fatally injured himself while playing outside. “There wasn’t an inch on that little boy’s body that wasn’t bruised or marked in some way,” he said.
Kunzman didn’t believe the boyfriend, but he couldn’t believe what he found at the death scene, where he spent a grueling 14 hours.
The plaster walls, speckled with hair particles and blood, were indented where the boy’s head had been slammed, he said. Next to the sofa, Kunzman found a cloth belt – freshly cut – that matched the ligature mark around the child’s neck. The boy had been tied like a dog to the couch, just out of reach of a peanut butter sandwich, he said.
“I went home and just wanted to hold my boys,” he said. “You feel so helpless. By the time I get there, it’s over and done with.”