Child death disclosure hindered by Bureaucratic circumventing, ignorance? Part 3
Part 3: Bureaucratic circumventing; avoiding disclosure by statutory maneuvering?
Is mandatory disclosure, being avoided by Bureaucratic circumventing?
Is Child fatality disclosure hindered by Bureaucratic circumventing and ignorance?
Part 3 of a 4 part investigative report
Circumventing is defined as:
- Find a way around (an obstacle).
- Overcome (a difficulty), typically in a clever and surreptitious way.
According to ACF in their Policy Interpertation Questions and Answers section, the only legally allowed reason to refuse disclosure in child fatality and near fatality cases is if that disclosure would jeopardize a criminal investigation or proceeding.
In Memory of Connor and Cameron Maxwell
William Maxwell Loved His Family Then He Killed Them, Say N.C. Police
November 3, 2009 1:12 PM
By Neil Katz
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (CBS/AP) People who knew William Maxwell say that the 47-year-old real estate developer and active church member loved his family more than anything.
But police say that didn’t stop him from shooting to death his wife and two children then himself Monday night in a gruesome murder-suicide that has shaken an upscale Fayetteville, N.C. community, one hour south of Raleigh.
Authorities did not hint at a motive.
Police said Tuesday that Maxwell killed wife his wife, Kathryn, and their children, 17-year-old Connor and 15-year-old Cameron, before turning a gun on himself.
“Billy, if you knew him, loved his family. Everybody knew that. That’s what makes this so tragic,” said John Cook, pastor of Snyder Memorial Baptist Church, where every member of the family was active. “Obviously something tragic was going on for this to happen.”
Friends and neighbors say the Maxwells were a friendly family who kept a meticulous yard and were active in their church and their children’s religious high school.
“They were just wonderful people, active in their church,” said neighbor Kay Edwards, who has lived next door since 1994, when she moved back into the home where she grew up and where her 94-year-old mother still lives. “They were just good neighbors.”
Edwards said she would often see family members walking their small dog through the quiet, leafy neighborhood.
“We’re just all in shock,” she said Tuesday. “You could not image this happening.”
William Maxwell was a builder and land developer who built residential subdivisions in Cumberland and Harnett counties, said John McKinney of Fayetteville, who described himself as Maxwell’s business partner and friend for more than a decade.
“He was a devout Christian and I really loved his family,” McKinney said.
William Maxwell followed his father into the residential real estate business and also owned a couple of local car washes, while his wife Kathryn was a stay-at-home mother who taught Sunday school at Snyder Memorial, McKinney and Cook said.
Years ago, Kathryn, 43, taught in Fayetteville’s public schools, said neighbor and state Sen. Tony Rand, whose wife worked with her.
Connor Maxwell performed in a dance troupe and sang in the big Christmas celebration at the family’s church, which has about 1,800 members, Cook said.
She was a senior while brother Cameron attended 9th grade at Village Christian Academy in Fayetteville. The school is affiliated with Village Baptist Church. “We’re obviously very saddened by this tragic event and we’re really concentrating right now on just meeting the needs of the students and staff at the school,” said Lou Nelon, the church administrator. “Those kids were very well loved and respected. They were very well known here in town,” Nelon said.
In a neighborhood with well-manicured lawns where many houses sit on hill tops, a steady stream of cars drove by the house on Tuesday, slowing for drivers to gape at the crime scene.
Evelyn Diaz, a Maxwell neighbor for about a year, said she remembered the father and son working on the meticulously-kept lawn. One woman who said her husband coached basketball at Village Christian Academy with Maxwell came Tuesday to lay a bunch of yellow daisies on the lawn.
Suzie Martell, a neighbor and a student at Fayetteville Technical Community College, came by the house to snap some pictures with her cell phone. “The family was great. The husband obviously prospered in his field,” said Martell.
Fayetteville is about 50 miles southwest of Raleigh and home to the Army’s sprawling Fort Bragg.
In Memory of Makayla and Kaylob Dean Peek
When the autopsy said SIDS, investigation stopped
BY FRED CLASEN-KELLY - THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER
GASTONIA — The 911 caller described a terrifying scene: A man in a convenience store parking lot was choking an infant.
Moments earlier, the man hit the baby’s mother, the caller said. By one account, he had struck the woman in the face and the baby fell from her arms to the ground.
Now, the man held 1-month-old Makayla Peek in the air by her throat as bystanders begged him to stop, the caller said. After five to 10 seconds, he put her down and stormed off on foot.
Later that night, Makayla’s mother, who was sleeping with the child, awoke to find her dead.
Two years later, she lost another baby. She again was sleeping with her child, this time a son.
Today, no one has been charged in either case, an example of how even the mention of SIDS in an autopsy can complicate criminal investigations.
The cases were among several North Carolina infant deaths reviewed by the Observer in which law enforcement said the SIDS label discouraged them from seeking charges.
Crimes are difficult to prosecute when the possibility of SIDS is mentioned in an autopsy because it describes a natural death.
What happened to Makayla remains a mystery. Was she fatally injured in the parking lot? Did her mother, who witnesses said was drunk or high that day, unintentionally suffocate her as they slept? Or did something else kill Makayla, possibly SIDS?
Belmont police opened an investigation, suspecting homicide. When a baby is choked and then dies, “it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out,” Chief David James said.
An emergency room doctor told police Makayla suffered a skull fracture, likely from being shaken, dropped or a hit on the head.
But a Gaston County medical examiner ruled the cause of death undetermined. An autopsy report says the medical examiner did not find a skull fracture and wrote the death was “consistent with SIDS.”
Police questioned Makayla’s mother and her mother’s then-boyfriend, but, after 14 months, closed the case.
Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell declined to file charges, saying the autopsy findings left him with no medical evidence.
The second baby, 2-week-old Kaylob Dean Peek, died March 5, 2009, after sleeping in bed with his mother.
A second unexpected infant death puts law enforcement authorities on the alert for reckless behavior or potential homicide.
Just like in Makayla’s case, authorities did not pursue charges after Kaylob’s cause of death was ruled undetermined but “consistent with SIDS.”
Accounts show Makayla’s short life was surrounded by turmoil.
In the hours before Makayla died, Joanie Hopkins and her boyfriend, Jason Michael Wilson, appeared under the influence of drugs or alcohol, according to police reports and records from the Gaston County Department of Social Services.
One woman said Hopkins acted drugged and her eyes were rolling to the back of her head. Another person said Wilson drank and took pills that day.
The behavior did not shock people who knew them. Two weeks after Makayla was born, someone called DSS to report Hopkins and Wilson had used drugs in the baby’s presence.
About the same time, friends worried about the baby’s safety because Hopkins “would be so high Makayla would fall out of the car seat,” said Margaret Thompson, Hopkins’ mother.
DSS and court records say there were allegations of domestic violence between Hopkins and Wilson.
At least two other Gaston County women have sought protective orders against Wilson, according to court records. In August, one woman claimed that Wilson threatened her and her 1-year-old daughter. She said Wilson told her, “You deserve to have me kill you and your family.”
By the throat
About 9 p.m. on June 5, 2007, the couple rode to the Kingsway convenience store in Gastonia, with Makayla in the car, a police report says.
An argument ensued.
A woman inside the store heard the commotion and went outside to see what happened. She told police she saw a man hit a woman before a bystander pulled him away. She asked not to be identified in this story for safety reasons.
The woman said she went back inside the building, but she heard screams again. When she looked outside this time, she said she saw a man “holding a baby by its throat, its feet dangled in the air.”
Another person told police Wilson came to her home later that night and gave an account of what happened in the parking lot. She said Wilson told her that he hit Hopkins in the face and “she dropped the baby on the cement.”
Hopkins told police she drove Makayla from the store to her home, arriving about 10 p.m. She said she fed Makayla a bottle, burped her and went to sleep with the infant on her chest.
About 2:30 a.m., Wilson knocked on Hopkins’ door. When Hopkins came to the door with Makayla in her arms, both Wilson and Hopkins said they noticed Makayla wasn’t breathing. They called 911.
The operator instructed the couple to start cardiopulmonary resuscitation, but “all that seemed to be happening was Jason and Joanie arguing in the background,” a report said.
Hopkins told the 911 operator differing accounts of what happened, police said. At first, she said the baby fell off the bed. She later said she was sleeping with the baby on the couch and she must have rolled over on her.
Emergency responders arrived and attempted to revive Makayla, but one rescuer said she showed signs she had been dead for an extended period of time.
‘She died of SIDS’
Hopkins said she couldn’t remember exactly what happened the night Makayla died.
When a police officer arrived, she repeatedly said “I did not drop her again.” In a later police interview, she said she “knew that Jason killed her baby, she just doesn’t know how he did it.”
Hopkins, 30, declined comment for this story.
Wilson, 29, denies that he choked Makayla or hit Hopkins at the Kingsway store.
Wilson told police he was trying to leave her car when Hopkins began screaming and confronting him. Wilson said he pushed her away and left.
Contacted by the Observer, Wilson yelled and threatened a reporter. “She died of SIDS,” he said.
His father, Eddie Wilson, said his family has tried to move past the tragedy. Eddie Wilson said Jason Wilson was trying to help Makayla the night she died. “He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Asked about the allegations his son was seen choking the infant, he said, “If that were true, wouldn’t he be charged?”
The district attorney’s office would not pursue charges. Belmont police closed the case Oct. 30, 2008, more than a year after Makayla died.
James, the department’s chief, said the medical examiner’s findings derailed the investigation. He said he complained about the findings to Dr. John Butts, the state’s chief medical examiner.
Butts said he does not recall receiving the complaint.
James said he is upset because a Gaston Memorial Hospital emergency room doctor said preliminary X-rays showed Makayla had suffered a skull fracture.
A radiologist’s review said “there was a suggestion of a depressed skull fracture” and asked for more studies, but they were never done, the autopsy report says.
The autopsy performed by Dr. Peter Wittenberg in Gaston County found no skull fracture.
Wittenberg referred questions to Butts, who is responsible for overseeing medical examiners statewide.
In an interview with the Observer, Butts dismissed the possibility Makayla suffered a skull fracture, saying the hospital must have interpreted the X-rays wrong. He said he sees no reason to review the X-ray.
An autopsy is far more accurate than an X-ray, he said. “In an autopsy you hold the bone in your hands,” Butts said. “An X-ray, you are looking at shadows.”
Butts added that during an autopsy, “if there’s a fracture, you can’t miss it.”
He said the medical examiner wrote that Makayla’s death was “consistent with SIDS” because the autopsy revealed no explanation for the death. Butts said it was classified undetermined based on the circumstances surrounding the death.
The ruling means the autopsy did not find evidence linking the baby’s death to the alleged choking, Butts said.
“If you cannot connect the two, how can you get up in court and testify this child is [dead] because someone maltreated them a few hours before, but somehow didn’t produce any marks?” he asked. “Your position is indefensible.”
But Chris Hendricks, a Gaston EMS operations supervisor, sat on an expert panel that reviewed the case and issued a report detailing how police, doctors, DSS and others performed their roles.
“There are too many questions for it just to be a SIDS case,” Hendricks said.
The panel found that “all resources available to the local Medical Examiner were not thoroughly utilized.” They said “local law enforcement did not communicate all relevant scene/investigative findings to the local Medical Examiner.”
The report also said Hopkins had been warned about the danger of bed-sharing the infants, which has been identified as a risk for suffocation.
Bell, the Gaston County district attorney, said there is not enough evidence to convict anyone in Makayla’s death. He said he had anticipated the autopsy would show different results.
Bell said he considered filing lesser charges against Wilson, but decided he was not going to “put the mother through the suffering,” he said.
Thompson, Makayla’s grandmother, said she has tried to work with police but investigators tell her they share her frustration with Bell’s stance.
She said an officer from the Gaston County Police told her that he met with Bell and Gaston County DSS to present evidence that shows connections between the deaths of the two babies.
Few details are publicly available in the death of the second baby, Kaylob.
An autopsy said Hopkins fed him in the middle of the night. “The mother took the infant to bed with her. In the morning, mother found the infant cold and dead,” the report says.
Gaston County Police Sgt. Steve Dover said police found no indication of foul play, but the investigating officer “didn’t like the determination of SIDS. It bothered him that it was the second child” who died.
A report from the expert panel that reviews such cases is not yet available, a state spokeswoman said.
Bell said he reviewed the cases with police but authorities found no evidence of a link.
The medical examiner’s ruling influenced his decision not to pursue charges in both cases, Bell said. “The doctor says it’s consistent with SIDS, so we have no evidence to show it wasn’t SIDS,” he said. “You can’t prosecute on what you suspect.”
A grandmother’s grief
Thompson said she doesn’t believe her grandchildren died from natural causes. What sticks in her mind is the mention of SIDS in the autopsies.
“Two little babies dying with SIDS is almost impossible,” she said.
On a recent day, Thompson visited Evergreen cemetery in Belmont, where Makayla and Kaylob are buried in adjacent graves. Grass obscures the tiny 7-inch-wide grave markers bearing their names, dates of birth and dates of death.
Thompson said she wanted to purchase tombstones for her grandchildren but was told she would need consent from Hopkins. She said Hopkins rarely speaks to her.
The grandmother recounted the events surrounding Makayla’s death and one of her last conversations with her daughter. Tears streamed down her face as she recalled how Makayla seldom cried.
“I don’t want to sound redundant,” Thompson said, “but I am just amazed they didn’t file charges.”
In Memory of Austen Blake Minter II and Serenity Tyvon Minter
Police seek answers as family mourns mom, kids slain in murder-suicide
Destiny Minter may be the only one who knows why her mother’s boyfriend opened fire on his family before taking his own life.
Police say the 7-year-old who survived a gunshot to the face and is recovering in a Charlotte hospital is detectives’ best hope for understanding what led to Friday’s murder-suicide. Two adults and two children were found dead in a home at 1303 Dean Drive north of Dallas.
Capt. Joe Ramey of the Gaston County Police Department said investigators plan to interview the girl when her condition improves.
“We’re mostly concerned with her health and well-being, so we’ll heed the advice of doctors as to when would be an appropriate time,” Ramey said. “We may never know the exact reason for why this occurred, but we’ll try to get the best information available and put together as much information as we have.”
Austen Blake Minter, 25, shot and killed his girlfriend, Tracy Lee Hedgepath, 24, and two of their children, 6-year-old Austen Blake Minter II and 3-year-old Serenity Tyvon Minter, according to police. He also allegedly shot Destiny Minter, who was still alive when her grandparents got to the home to check on Hedgepath after she didn’t report to work.
“The young girl was able to come to the door,” Ramey said.
Destiny was in the home surrounded by her dead mother and siblings for several hours before her grandparents arrived, but may have been incapacitated or unconscious for part of the time, according to police.
Detectives say Hedgepath was about three months pregnant with her and Minter’s fourth child.
“There’s no rhyme or reason for an individual to commit these types of acts, shooting anyone, much less shooting children so young,” Ramey said.
Police say Austen Minter had a history of domestic violence complaints. Arrest records show he was charged twice in 2008 with violating a domestic violence protective order and had also been charged with domestic criminal trespassing and assault on a female.
Ramey said Hedgepath had applied for a domestic violence protective order in 2008, but she had never completed the process to have the order enforced.
She and Minter were living together at the time of the fatal shooting, but had an on-again, off-again relationship, Ramey said. Minter had moved out of the Dean Drive home a few months ago, but had recently moved back in.
“There are always opportunities for individuals to try to get away from situations such as these,” Ramey said. “It boils down to people making the right choices and the perpetrator as well as the victims working out their differences or seeking out the help that is available. You can’t make people do these things. All you can do is offer.”
Hedgepath’s sisters said they feared Austen Minter and saw a recurring pattern of abuse.
“He was a horrible person — he always hit on her,” said sister Billie Verrier. “We feared for her life. We knew that one day, something was going to happen. He wouldn’t stay away from her.”
The 25-year-old had threatened to shoot his girlfriend before and had been in violent altercations with his own family members, according to Hedgepath’s family. Police confirmed that Austen Minter was shot during a gunfight with his stepfather, but weren’t immediately able to provide details of that incident.
“He was a monster, that’s all I’ve got to say about him,” said Kellie Harris, another of Hedgepath’s sisters. “He was abusive to his own family. He wasn’t a man, he was a monster.”
A hardworking mom
Relatives and neighbors said Tracy Hedgepath worked tirelessly to provide for her children and cherished the time she spent playing with them.
“She was a wonderful mother, and they were wonderful kids,” said Harris. “She worked every day of her life, and she raised those kids on her own.”
Hedgepath was the youngest of eight children and had six sisters and a brother. She graduated from North Gaston High School in 2003. Verrier said she worked at Kmart in Gastonia for nearly seven years.
“She worked every day for her babies,” Verrier said. “She was a very loving sister. She’d be there for you in a minute if you needed.”
Police say Destiny Minter is expected to survive her injuries, but doctors have yet to determine how much treatment she’ll need and what permanent damage she’ll suffer. Social workers will determine who will take care of the girl, Ramey said.
Verrier said she or her mother plan to take Destiny in. She said the girl’s grandparents and aunts will tell her about her mother’s kind and loving nature as she grows older.
“We’ll say that her mom was a wonderful person and that she loved her and so did her sister and brother,” Verrier said. “Her mother would want her to be strong. All we can do is comfort her and let her know that she’s loved — not just by us, but by her mom, too.”
Police say Austen Minter shot his girlfriend and their four children in the kitchen area of the tidy ranch home. Detectives found a .380-caliber handgun with five rounds fired, Ramey said Saturday. The police captain said he’d wait for autopsy reports before discussing where the four deceased had been shot.
Hedgepath’s parents made a 911 call after arriving at the Dean Drive house around 7:30 p.m. Friday. The young woman’s co-workers had called to notify her parents that she hadn’t come to work.
Ramey said police didn’t find a suicide note. Investigators were searching for those who had seen the family recently and may have been aware of any disputes.
“We don’t have any indication of what brought about the events of yesterday,” Ramey said. “That’s what we’re trying to get to the bottom of. We’re looking for people who might have a better insight into how their relationship was recently.”
Ramey said police would order toxicology tests to determine whether Austen Minter was under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Police were also reviewing Austen Minter’s criminal history and records of calls to service to the house.
“It’s a very tragic and unfortunate situation for both families involved and for the neighborhood,” Ramey said. “It’s just a difficult situation for everyone who’s involved.”
While sorrow and grief engulf the Hedgepath family, the slain woman’s sisters take comfort in knowing that she’s forever free from the painful cycle of domestic violence.
“She’s with God now — her and the babies both,” Verrier said. “They don’t have to suffer no more.”
Gazette Interactive Editor Kevin Ellis contributed to this story. You can reach Corey Friedman at 704-869-1828.
Austen Minter, who police say shot his girlfriend and their three children before turning the gun on himself Friday, has a history of domestic violence and gun charges. The 25-year-old has never been to prison, but had been given probation for a misdemeanor charge of assault by pointing a gun in August 2009, according to the N.C. Department of Correction.
Following are charges Minter has faced in Gaston County. A complete criminal record check was not available in time for this story.
April 23, 2007 — Domestic criminal trespassing and discharging a firearm into an occupied property. He posted the $25,000 bond.
March 22, 2008 — Violation of a domestic violence protection order and driving charges (invalid plates and driving without a license). Posted $1,000 unsecured and $500 secured bonds.
May 28, 2008 — Violation of a domestic violence protection order and failure to comply. Posted $25,200 bond and $200 for the failure to comply.
Dec. 4, 2008 — Resisting a public officer and assaulting a female. Posted $5,000 bond.
Feb. 11, 2009 — Assault with a deadly weapon, intent to kill, assault by pointing a gun, discharging a firearm within city limits. Original $50,000 bond was reduced to $15,000 on Feb. 18, then posted.
SOURCE: Gaston County Sheriff’s Office
Information compiled by Victoria Kurzweg/The Gazette