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Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News
First in a four-part series.

These are the stories no one likes to contemplate.

In the end, they are the short stories of 9-month-old Breanna Loveless, 2-year-old Edward Raymond Gularte IV, and Andrew Tilt, who was 5 months old. In police reports and court records, you learn details about the life of little Wyatt Radmall, who didn't live to age 2. You get to know Jeremy Bunting, 4, and Trinity Kale, who was 8 months old.

At least these children have names. Crimes against these young ones — because of their severity, or the gift of enough evidence, or an aggressive prosecutor — have moved into the public spotlight. So, there may be a small tribute to these children, a photograph or a brief in the newspaper.

What is worrisome to child advocates is that for every named child, there are many more who have not drawn the attention of the public or a tenacious detective or an assertive prosecutor. In homes around Utah, there are, by all accounts, defenseless infants and toddlers who are shaken or beaten or smothered at the hands of parents and caretakers and who go to early graves without justice being served.

"People are getting away with killing children," Utah State Medical Examiner Todd Grey said.

For two months, the Deseret Morning News investigated suspicious child deaths and the way they are prosecuted in Utah. These cases raise troubling questions in a pro-family society.

For a variety of culture and evidentiary reasons, Utah prosecutors have a hard time filing criminal charges in child deaths. Furthermore, juries rarely convict in child abuse cases. Some say those who are convicted receive light sentences. And as the state medical examiner and others confirm, some people get away with murder. Child victims fall through the cracks of the criminal justice and child welfare system.

In a four-part series, "Killing Our Children" will outline the complicated factors officials face as they investigate and prosecute these crimes.

First, though, there are the children.

Andrew Tilt was born premature about the time the 2002 Winter Olympics came to Utah. He weighed 1 pound, 7 ounces and was only 12 inches long at birth. He spent his first four months at McKay-Dee Medical Center's neonatal intensive care. As it turns out, he was safer there than at home.

He had underdeveloped lungs and was susceptible to pneumonia like many premature children. He absolutely needed extra attention. His mother called him her Angel Boy, and Andrew grew to 9 pounds.

But his father, Patrick Tilt, was apparently distraught at the possibility of having to care for a sick child. One night, Andrew's dad got up in the middle of the night. He later confessed to squeezing the boy until he stopped breathing. He then returned his son to his crib.

Andrew had nine broken ribs when doctors performed an autopsy.

A jury found Tilt guilty of murder and sentenced him to five years to life in prison.

Some cases, like Andrew Tilt's, are clear-cut. As clear-cut as a child homicide case can be. Others are not.

Consider these three sets of circumstances.

• In the late 1990s, a Davis County woman had three babies allegedly die of sudden infant death syndrome within 22 months.

Statistically, experts say, it is impossible to have three SIDS deaths in one family. A forensic expert was prepared to testify that all three were homicides. Law enforcement and child advocates were suspicious of the deaths and pressured the Davis County Attorney's Office, but officials there never did file criminal charges in any of those cases.

• This week, Utah County prosecutors continue to investigate the death of a 7-month-old girl who died in her parents' arms last Jan. 31. A day earlier, her 13-year-old baby sitter said the baby had fallen from a couch or bed. But an autopsy showed the infant died from head wounds inflicted by shaking.

Utah County prosecutors are considering filing child-abuse homicide charges against the baby sitter.

Deputy Utah County Attorney Chris Yanelli calls it a heartbreaking case. The teenager, he says, is a good girl who has never been in trouble. She burst into tears both times Yanelli has gone to speak to her.

• Little Breanna Loveless had bruises all over her body when she died Feb. 23, 1996. She was 9 months old. A number of her bones were broken. She was underweight and had a tear behind her left ear, and she had been tortured. The problem for investigators was the only cause of death identified in the autopsy was "pneumonia."

Prosecutors were left to determine who tortured her and how she died.

"These are tough, tough cases," said Kristin Brewer, director of the Office of the Guardian Ad Litem.

"Most child abuse homicide cases involve a lot of very complicated medical testimony," said Assistant Utah Attorney General Craig Barlow, who heads the Children's Justice Division.

"Another great challenge is the probably laudable instinct most people have — that no one knowingly or intentionally would harm an infant."

Yasmin Moody, 3, traveled the country with her mother and stepfather.

She lived in nine cities in seven states from Florida to Utah through her short life. Along the way, Moody was beaten and tortured.

Her parents beat her when she wouldn't eat. When she did eat, she threw up sometimes.

She'd only been in Utah for three weeks when someone called paramedics to report the young daughter of these vagabonds was having a severe allergic reaction to some kind of medication.

But paramedics noticed suspicious injuries on the girl and whisked her to Ogden's McKay-Dee Medical Center. Within hours the girl was flown by medical helicopter to Primary Children's Medical Center.

Doctors found she had a broken finger, broken ribs, cigarette burns on her chest and small bumps all over her body from the infection. She had bruises on her head, back and bottom from what prosecutors believe was a hairbrush.

Parents told police Yasmin suffered the injuries falling off her bike.

The young girl finally died from an infection due to child abuse at Primary Children's Medical Center in August 2002. The official cause of death: homicide by battered child syndrome.

Craig and Sawsan Whitelaw pleaded guilty to murder in 2002 and were sentenced to five years to life in prison.

Frustrated Weber County authorities who investigated Yasmin's case said someone should have done something to protect the child as the couple traveled from state to state. Later police found out the couple had escaped child welfare investigations in two states.

Hands, fists and feet were used as weapons on more than half of the 225 children younger than 4 who were murdered in the United States in 2003, according to FBI statistics. Head injuries, usually from shaking, and abdominal injuries from beating are the leading causes of trauma death for children younger than 1.

And the fatal blows on children — in Utah and throughout the nation — are usually the culmination of previous abuse. Half of the children who die from shaking show signs of past injuries including broken ribs, bruises and brain swelling.

At least 36 children age 6 or younger in Utah have been killed as a result of physical abuse or neglect since 1999, according to a Deseret Morning News search of court records and newspaper archives.

Shaking and beating were the most common causes of death. Children also were strangled, suffocated and squeezed. Two died in intentionally set fires. A brother and sister had their throats slashed.

The Utah Division of Child and Family Services intervened in about one-third of those families before the child died, according to a Deseret Morning News analysis of summary reports of the Utah Department of Human Services Child Fatality Review Committee. Child welfare workers' "emphasis on family preservation" in one case contributed to the suffocation death of a 6-month-old boy in 2001, according to the committee's findings.

"In this case, the desire on the part of the division (DCFS) to keep the children in their homes overrode the need (to ensure) that children are protected and they have a safe environment," the report said.

This is just one of the complicated considerations facing officials in these cases that involve the community's most vulnerable residents. There are more.

Prosecutors, investigators, social service workers and police say child deaths raise a difficult question: Did the person intend to kill the child?

"You very rarely have quote 'motive,' " said Barlow, who has been involved with a dozen child homicide cases.

"We know people get frustrated," he said. "If someone shakes a child in frustration, I think there should be some accountability but, gosh, is that a criminal act?"

And in investigations of child deaths, there are usually few witnesses to help officials answer that question. Other factors are at play.

Children younger than 3 have rudimentary language skills. The lack of witnesses make it difficult to link the crime to a specific person.

On top of those problems, police detectives receive little, if any, specialized training for child death investigations. So, officers unwittingly fail to gather sufficient evidence of a crime.

Prosecutors, too, may not have much experience with child homicide cases.

The medical findings from an autopsy often muddy the waters for prosecutors. Grey's office may list the cause of death as "undetermined," but there is a crucial disconnect in the way this word is interpreted by prosecutors. Grey, whose office examines the bodies of nearly 200 children younger than 18 each year, says an "undetermined" finding could also mean suspicious.

He said prosecutors could use specific details and opinions about the cause of death from an opinion he renders in his autopsy reports. A badly decomposed body found in a remote area, for example, might be so deteriorated that he can't say what killed the person. But other evidence could indicate homicide.

But prosecutors say that's not reality.

"What the medical examiner has to say is almost tantamount," said Salt Lake County Deputy District Attorney Jim Cope, adding he has never prosecuted a case where the cause of death was undetermined.

"It's an absolute hurdle that if you can't overcome, you can't do it," said former Salt Lake County prosecutor Greg Skordas, who now works as a criminal defense lawyer.

"That becomes a proof problem," said Weber County Attorney Mark DeCaria. "We try and put together the most logical scenario with the help of the medical examiner, though he might not be able to say categorically what the cause of death was."

Prosecutors hesitate to file first-degree murder charges against alleged child killers, opting instead for the lesser charge of child abuse homicide, which is no higher than a second-degree felony.

"I don't see that as not doing justice," Barlow said. With a plea, you get the bad guy, you get some acknowledgement, and families of the people can heal rather than have a case that drags on, he said.

Barlow recently won a first-degree murder conviction with a case the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office twice rejected, once shortly after 5-month-old Luther Deem suffered a permanent brain injury from what appeared to be shaking and then 12 years later when he died from severe neurological damage.

When a case does go to trial, defense attorneys are good at giving juries an out, an alternative explanation as to what might have happened. Jurors quickly latch onto those theories because they don't want to believe a parent or caretaker would beat or shake a child to death.

"The truth of the matter is immaterial," says Grey.

"The defense is giving people an out," he said. "People don't want to believe this is going on in our community."

True, said Tim Langan, a 53-year-old retired UPS driver who served as jury foreman during one of the state's high-profile child homicide trials.

South Weber day-care provider Jeri Daines was charged with murder for allegedly shaking 4-month-old Clancy Peterson to death. The jury acquitted her, Langan said, because the prosecution didn't present a strong case for murder. Jurors did not see the grandmotherly Daines as a killer.

"In order to convict them, you have to believe they're actually capable to commit the type of act they're accused of doing," Langan said. "It was hard to believe she would have done that."

Still, the question remains:

If this happened to a stranger, an adult stranger, what would the penalty be?

This 2-year-old boy had 60 injuries on the inside and outside of his body.

Edward Raymond Gularte III told police his 2-year-old namesake must have been fatally injured falling down a flight of stairs or rough-housing with his 3-year-old brother.

Assistant Utah Medical Examiner Maureen Frikke found injuries covering the body of Edward Raymond Gularte IV that she testified couldn't have come from a fall or rough play with a sibling. Severe blows to the abdomen killed him. His liver had a 1 1/2 inch long tear. Part of his small intestine was cut in half.

Edward Raymond Gularte III ultimately pleaded to a reduced charge of third-degree felony child-abuse homicide in the death of his son.

First District Judge Gordon Low suspended a zero-to-five-year prison sentence. He ordered Gularte III to 15 months in jail. The judge gave him credit for time served, and Gularte was released.

At the heart of this emotional subject is the will and the philosophy of prosecutors rooting out truth and justice for these children.

Wasatch Front county attorneys' offices differ in the way they prosecute child abuse-related homicide. Weber County takes a hard line, but Salt Lake County doesn't appear as tough. Utah and Davis counties have few cases. There are even fewer in rural counties.

"I'm rather cynical about any prosecutions in child deaths," Grey said.

The Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office relies heavily on the child abuse homicide statute, which does not rise to the same degree of severity and penalty as murder, which is a legal term. Though it might be easier to get a conviction — prosecutors reason that some jail time is better than no jail time, but that does not always spell justice.

In the late 1990s, Rob Parrish, who was part of the Children's Justice Division of the state Attorney General's Office, questioned what he saw as a disturbing pattern in the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office of reducing child abuse-related homicides to third-degree felonies, which carry no more than five years in prison.

Parrish, an expert in child abuse investigations and prosecutions who conducts training seminars across the country, said he could have helped prove murder in nine cases. But he wasn't asked.

"My concern is that children who die from abuse should at least be granted justice," Parrish, who now works as a guardian ad litem in Davis County, wrote in a 1998 memo.

If adults were the victims of the type of fatal assaults committed on children, "there's little doubt" the result would be a murder or manslaughter conviction and at least 15 years in prison.

"It is not justice when the most any child murderer faces is zero to five years in prison," he said.

"When you cause death to a child and get nine months in jail and probation, I have a hard time with that."

Salt Lake Deputy District Attorney Cope said what happens is that neither the defendants nor the prosecutors want to take their chances with a jury. A plea agreement is reached, and the judge issues a prison sentence.

"The guy just doesn't have to stay as long as other people," he said.

From Parrish's vantage point, not much has changed since he tried to bring attention to what he saw as a soft approach in Salt Lake County seven years ago. In fact, he says, it has taken a step in the wrong direction.

"What I'm seeing is a lot of backsliding both among law enforcement and otherwise," he said.

Of 13 cases in Salt Lake County since 1999, the district attorney's office filed murder charges in five, but no one was convicted on that charge.

A jury found one guilty on a reduced charge of second-degree felony child-abuse homicide, three pleaded to guilty to second-degree child-abuse homicide. The fifth case is pending.

Though circumstances differ in each case, a study of cases shows Weber County prosecutors appear to take a tougher stance against child murder than do their counterparts in Salt Lake County.

"Child-abuse homicide is an easy way out for prosecutors. I'm not happy with it. It lessens the value of a child's life," said DeCaria, the Weber County attorney.

"My view is that if someone beats a kid up until he dies, that's not going to cut it as a child-abuse homicide. You talk to defense attorneys and they act like he was just trying to punish this kid. You take steps that indicate depraved indifference to a child's life, you're going to murder, not child homicide in this county."

Of eight child abuse-related deaths in Weber County since 1999, prosecutors filed first-degree murder charges in six. Four pleaded guilty or were found guilty at trial and received five years to life in prison. County prosecutors also filed one capital homicide charge during that time. That defendant pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of murder for beating and shaking his 4-month-old son to death. He also received five years to life.

Cope said Salt Lake County prosecutors "tend to call a spade a spade. If we have a child-abuse homicide, we're going to call it that. If we have a murder, we're going to call it that.

"Very few people intend to kill the child when they do what they do. They're just doing something crazy or stupid or outrageous, but they're not really wanting to kill the child. That's the result, but that's not their intent when they start out."

No child killer in Salt Lake County in the past five years has received a sentence greater than one to 15 years in prison. Prosecutors tend to resolve cases through plea agreements on lesser charges.

This infuriates Parrish.

Given that interpretation, he said, "the great majority of child abuse and child murder will go unpunished in the criminal courts."

Experts recognize that most serious physical abuse and child murder is not premeditated or "intentional" but rather is an impulsive act.

"My argument is that when someone does something life-threatening to a young, helpless child, the perpetrator is at least aware of the substantial likelihood of causing a serious physical injury to the child," he said. "If death results, our law holds them accountable at the same level as if they had intended to kill."

Parrish continues, "If someone actually premeditates the death of a child and then kills the child, that is aggravated murder and could be punished by the death penalty."

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Prosecutors don't necessarily have to prove intent to get a murder conviction. Showing the defendant was aware his or her actions toward a helpless infant or toddler were reasonably certain to cause death is enough, Parrish said.

Parrish points to a recent Salt Lake County case in which Adam Sean Jeppson was charged with second-degree felony, child-abuse homicide in the death of 4-year-old Carston Williams. The boy died from severe head, neck and back injuries.

"When a toddler is beaten like that, there's no way that the perpetrator could have failed to be aware of a substantial risk of serious physical injury," Parrish said. "And if death results, that's murder."

Coming Monday: A little boy's life becomes a landmark legal case


Contributing: Zack Van Eyck

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com; lucy@desnews.com