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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

North Carolina Officials Conspired To Hide Baby Murders (SIDS), Federal Probe Needed

When the Autopsies Said SIDS In N.C. Baby Deaths Criminal Investigations Stopped

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."

Drug history

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."

911 Call

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?"

Case closed

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.

No Prosecution

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."

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Sources: McClatchy Newspapers, WRAL, Google Maps

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