Toddler suffers violent death
Utah's first recognized case of nonaccident, trauma fatality
Jason Olson, Deseret Morning News
This is the heartbreaking story of little Ronnie Davies.He would be 23 today had he lived. Instead, an examination of his life and the criminal case that followed his death serve as a landmark in Utah's prosecution of child homicides.
Brent Chandler: "OK, interview will conclude ... . And we would like to wish you, by the way, the best of luck in this situation. We would like to see him pull out and survive."
Leland Thomas DeMille: "He's going to. He's got to. We still got to take him to Disneyland." Interview conducted by Brent Chandler, chief of Washington Police Department, with Leland Thomas DeMille on May 7, 1985, two days after 3 1/2-year-old Ronnie Davies was rushed to a St. George hospital with a skull fracture and brain injury.
An emergency room nurse met Jan Davies on May 5, 1985, as she rushed through the sliding doors at Dixie Medical Center with Ronnie in her arms.
"He fell from the toilet and hit his head," Davies told nurse Charlene Hopkins. The child was gasping at this point, his hazel eyes dilated and rolled back, his body limp.
Emergency room crews started artificial respiration and an intravenous line and put a tube into his lungs so the boy could breathe.
And a few minutes later, when X-rays and a CT scan revealed a skull fracture that looped from the boy's right frontal lobe around and down to his spine, nurses and doctors also noticed his little body was covered with bruises. Some were fresh, and some the green-tinged color of healing injuries. There were bruises on his upper abdomen, on his legs, arm, elbows and chin. A welt on his belly crossed over to his back. Later, his autopsy showed that even the muscles in his neck were bruised and traumatized.
An exhaustive study of this case of hospital records, nurses' and doctors' comments, witness statements and court testimony reveals the unsettling story of Ronnie Davies' short life.
It is the story of a young boy whose days seemed plagued with accidents, falls and injuries to his head. It is also a story of the adults around him who were too distracted, overwhelmed or troubled themselves to care.
It is also the story of a mother with a history of being around children who ended up injured. A woman who, by all accounts, did not see the real picture of what was happening with her son.
It is also the story of a criminal justice system that might just as easily have let the criminal case involving Ronnie Davies disappear. However, all these documents and records also reveal the doggedness of a young, small-town police chief who made it his mission to sniff out the truth in the case of a 3 1/2-year-old boy who was beaten almost to death and then later died in May 1985.
So, the story of Ronnie Davies begins with efforts to save his life.
In a remarkable communication, Dr. Lonnie Hammargren of Sunrise Humana Hospital in Las Vegas advised St. George doctors by telephone about how to drill a small hole in Ronnie's skull to relieve pressure on the injury.
Blood spurted 10 inches into the air as Utah doctors did the procedure. Ronnie was still unconscious but stable, and the boy was flown by medical helicopter to Las Vegas, 130 miles away.
Six minutes after the helicopter landed, Ronnie was in the operating room.
A survey of documents, transcripts and medical records from the week he died chronicle Ronnie's slow float out of this world.
There was a flurry of activity to save Ronnie on Sunday evening everything from artificial tears for his eyes that would never open again to more surgery to relieve pressure constantly building in his brain. The boy never regained consciousness.
May 6 "Blood transfusion."
May 7 "No clinical changes."
May 8 "Critical state continues."
May 9 "No response to pain. Patient is clinically, cerebrally dead," a morning report reads. "Child has no apparent blood flow to the brain," Hammargren wrote at 3 p.m.
Later: "Patient on ventilator. Patient demonstrates no heart rate."Patient declared dead at 3: 45 p.m."
"His heart just stopped and beat one time and that was it ... We probably wouldn't have been able to start the heart again anyway. We'd just been adding to the hospital bill and putting that poor little body through some more." Interview with Pam Couevas, Ronnie's nurse at Nevada's Sunrise Humana Hospital, where he died.
Leland Thomas DeMille has always gone by Tom. Back in the mid-'80s, he was a 5-foot-10-inch strapping guy a sometimes weight lifter and bodybuilder with a bad temper and a history of violence, according to his ex-wife. DeMille was born in Cedar City, grew up in Washington city, Washington County, and hooked up with Jan Davies, Ronnie's mother, in September 1984. It was right about the time Jan split from Ronnie's dad. By December, Tom had moved in. Later, Tom's ex-wife told police he had punished her 10-year-old son by punching him in the stomach. She said Tom DeMille had beaten her occasionally, bruised her kidneys, given her black eyes and split her lips. But Jan Davies told police she and Tom had never done more than "cuss Ronnie and swat him on the butt." For a while, DeMille was working for a stucco company in Washington County, but he hurt his back sometime that winter and ended up at home watching Ronnie. Evidence gathered after the boy's death showed the relationship between Ronnie and his mother's boyfriend. "I don't think I could make it without you," Jan Davies wrote in a letter to Tom dated May 1 of that year. "I know a lot of the problem has been Ronnie and the pain you've been feeling. Ronnie loves you, even though he whines and cries, he loves you . . . if he was just a little older, I think he would understand more and try harder." Police found another letter in a search warrant of the couple's home.
Leland Thomas DeMille has always gone by Tom.
Back in the mid-'80s, he was a 5-foot-10-inch strapping guy a sometimes weight lifter and bodybuilder with a bad temper and a history of violence, according to his ex-wife.
DeMille was born in Cedar City, grew up in Washington city, Washington County, and hooked up with Jan Davies, Ronnie's mother, in September 1984. It was right about the time Jan split from Ronnie's dad. By December, Tom had moved in.
Later, Tom's ex-wife told police he had punished her 10-year-old son by punching him in the stomach. She said Tom DeMille had beaten her occasionally, bruised her kidneys, given her black eyes and split her lips.
But Jan Davies told police she and Tom had never done more than "cuss Ronnie and swat him on the butt."
For a while, DeMille was working for a stucco company in Washington County, but he hurt his back sometime that winter and ended up at home watching Ronnie.
Evidence gathered after the boy's death showed the relationship between Ronnie and his mother's boyfriend. "I don't think I could make it without you," Jan Davies wrote in a letter to Tom dated May 1 of that year. "I know a lot of the problem has been Ronnie and the pain you've been feeling. Ronnie loves you, even though he whines and cries, he loves you . . . if he was just a little older, I think he would understand more and try harder."
Police found another letter in a search warrant of the couple's home."Baby, I want you to be happy," Jan Davies again wrote to Tom DeMille. "I don't want all the problems we've been having. I don't want to split us all up. I don't want Ronnie to come between us. What can I do?"
"I don't know what I'll do about Ronnie. The only thing I can think of is to send him away. I'm one hell of a mother." Letter from Jan Davies to Tom DeMille from early May.
The week preceding Ronnie's death was a rough one for the small family of Jan and Ronnie Davies and Tom DeMille.
Jan called in sick to her job as a dispatcher for the St. George Police Department on Wednesday, May 1. And Ronnie went to a baby sitter that evening because Jan and Tom needed to talk. The 10-year-old baby sitter from the neighborhood, Mary Moyes, said he ate half of a peanut butter sandwich and played with his toys but then asked to lay down.
"He wanted a cool cloth for his head," the girl told investigators. "He said his head hurt."
Jan stayed home with Ronnie on Thursday, but early Friday morning took him to a new preschool, Play Technology, for several hours.
Ronnie's registration application to the preschool, written in Jan Davies' loopy hand, informed the staff her son liked music.
"I would like him to learn a few basic skills to prepare him for kindergarten," she wrote. "And for him to be able to interact with other children."
Staff at the day-care center later told police he hung out by himself that day. The group talked about the number 4, and Ronnie chose purple pens for coloring.
A photographer was there that day, snapping shots of the children for Mother's Day presents. In his picture, Ronnie has a tender smile and tired eyes. He played in the sand pile, staffers reported, and used the sand sifters.
Mica Nichols, who spruced up Ronnie before his photograph that day, said he lay down on a blue mat after lunch and fell fast asleep. There were dark circles under his eyes, she said. Jan Davies had to wake him up to take him home.
"He was a sweet boy," Nichols said. "A real sweet-natured, kind little boy."
Ronnie didn't feel well on Saturday, either. Tom took care of him all day. He hung out around the house, asked for ice for his head, and crawled up on the couch and slept most of the day.
Sunday morning, though, on May 5, he woke up feeling "as good as gold," according to DeMille. "You know, I was really happy with him Sunday because he was feeling so good."
|Ronnie Davies' autopsy report noted a fractured skull as well as multiple bruises.Requires Adobe Acrobat.|
Jan Davies was at work, but by DeMille's account, the man and the boy worked outside burning weeds and cutting the lawn until they stopped for a lunch of fish sticks.
At 1 p.m., Ronnie called his mom. "I'm helping Daddy in the yard. I'm playing with my trucks," Ronnie told her. "Be good," his mother told him.
After lunch, the two lay down to rest for a while, then Ronnie got up to go to the bathroom.
Ronnie called to Tom to help him in the bathroom. Tom says Ronnie was standing next to the toilet when he cried out, then collapsed."At that point I didn't really know what to do, so I put some cold water on him," DeMille said. When Ronnie didn't respond, DeMille called the boy's mother, who drove home, then drove the boy to the emergency room.
Homicidal traumatic injuries. Increased intracranial pressure due to blunt force trauma to the head." Ronald Wayne Davies' cause of death, as listed by the Clark County Office of the Coroner-Medical Examiner.
Nobody really knows what happened that day 20 years ago. To understand fully what Chandler surmises happened and he is emphatic it is only his conjecture one has to know a little about the architecture of a typical Washington city home at the time.
There weren't many basements at that time. Instead, builders used what was called a "monolithic pour," one massive, continuous application of concrete with footings but no joints. The whole floor of the house was concrete.
In testimony, one physician testified the trauma to Ronnie's head was equal to the circumstances if he'd been dropped from a third-story window and hit his head on concrete. "That had to have been one hell of a blow," Chandler said.
So, while doctors and witnesses effectively shattered DeMille's story that Ronnie was standing at the toilet and passed out, DeMille maintained his innocence throughout the trial.
Chandler, Parrish and others have only the truthfulness of the evidence. Otherwise, they have conjecture."He was perhaps picked up by his little feet and swung against something. Swung hard . . . against the bathtub or the concrete of that monolithic pour," Chandler said.
"I said ,'Is Tommy mean to you?' and (Ronnie) would say, 'no.' He'd just shake his head and then he'd say, 'I want some candy,' and I don't know why he would cry, but every time, he cried." Interview with Jan Snyder, one of Ronnie's baby sitters, who reported the boy had bruises on his arms and legs in the months leading up to his death.
|Ronnie was admitted to a St. George hospital on May 5, 1985, with a brain injury.Requires Adobe Acrobat.|
Running throughout Ronnie Davies' life is an unforgivable amount of references to falls and accidents.
Four days before Ronnie landed in a coma, DeMille said Ronnie had tumbled down a slope while the two were hiking at a Washington dam. He thought he'd grabbed the boy before he hit his head, DeMille told doctors and investigators.
The same day, Ronnie's mother told a Dr. Lonnie Hammargren that Ronnie had "fallen off a table" recently.
Medical staff also heard Ronnie had fallen off a swing at preschool a few days earlier and been punched in the stomach by another child. Chandler and prosecutors could never verify any of these incidents in a study of Ronnie's injuries and in multiple interviews.
They did find evidence that Ronnie had been admitted to Dixie Medical Center at the end of December five months earlier with blows to his head. Tom was baby-sitting the little guy at that time, too, and told hospital officials and police Ronnie had slipped and hit his head getting out of the tub.
The investigation turned up several more suspicious injuries to the little boy in the last several months of his life.
On Jan 21, Ronnie's father came for a visit. "When I got there, Jan wouldn't let me take him. My little boy had a black eye and a fat lip," Harley Davies told police.
In one interview with police, Jan Davies said Ronnie had also "tripped on a can three weeks earlier and hit his head. "He got up," Davies told police. "He didn't complain."
The boy's pain and injuries seemed to mount in April.
In the last few weeks she watched the little boy, right up until late April, Jan Snyder said Ronnie was sick all the time. He threw up a lot sometimes three or four times a day for days on end. He'd lay around not moving much some days and slept the whole time.
"What's the matter?" his baby sitter would ask.
"My head hurts," he'd say.
"Sometimes he would hold his head and scream," Snyder told police.
In a later interview, Jan Davies said her son had been subject to "the usual falls" in April. "He went backward out by the side of the house. Fell back and hit his head."
She said her pediatrician, Dr. Shepard, had suggested she get Ronnie a football helmet, "because he had a habit of always hitting his head."
For Jan Davies, it was her second round of trouble with police regarding an abused child.
A few years earlier, in April 1980, suspicions arose about Jan Davies and Harley Davies, her husband at the time. The two were living in Nevada.
Harley had a 3-year-old girl named Angel, and someone told officials the baby had a bad bruise on the right side of her head.
In old court documents and police interviews, Jan Davies admitted to shooting speed and being high when Angel was hurt.
A prostitute was living with Jan and Harley Davies at the time, according to police records.
"Jan claims she and Sharon were both high and got into a fight, and Angel fell off the bed and hit her head."
Child welfare officials removed the girl from the Davies' home for a while after an investigation, but she was returned months later after the couple apparently quit using drugs. Court records ordered them to complete parenting courses. It is unclear if they ever did.
When Angel was returned to the home, a social service worker noted Jan was pregnant. The baby would later be named Ronald Wayne Davies and be known as Ronnie.No one contacted for this story knows whatever happened to Angel.
Today Leland Thomas DeMille, 48, is a free man.
After more than 15 years in prison, he was paroled in August 2001 and stayed out of trouble until his probation was terminated in June 2003.
"He paid his debt to society," said Jack Ford, a Utah Department of Corrections spokesman.
At sentencing, 5th District Judge J. Harlan Burns told DeMille his conviction usually warranted a 0-5 year sentence. Then he sentenced DeMille to a minimum of 10 years in prison. Under pressure from victim advocates, the parole board did the rest, keeping him in custody several more years before letting him out.
"Fifteen years doesn't even begin to pay the debt," Chandler said. "It doesn't."
Contacted by the Deseret Morning News last week at a telephone number in St. George, DeMille wanted to move past the incident. He said he didn't want anything written about the case.
"That's in the past," he told a reporter inquiring about Ronnie Davies. "I don't want to talk about it."Efforts to contact Jan Davies for comment were unsuccessful.
Former Washington Police Chief Brent Chandler is 59 now. He lives in Salt Lake City and works for the state of Utah in law enforcement. He stayed in Washington County less than a year after the Davies case went to trial.
It was the first and only homicide case Chandler ever investigated. And as it turned out, the case cost him dearly.
"My mayor was not happy. Politicians in the area were not happy. Paul Graf, the county attorney, was not happy," he said.
After weighing the evidence in the case for about two months, the local county attorney's office ultimately begged out of the prosecution, citing a conflict of interest because someone in Graf's office had represented Ronnie's mother when she divorced his dad.
Chandler isn't sure why everyone was so reluctant about the case.
Maybe they thought the prosecution would show the community in a negative light. Maybe nobody could really believe a mother who worked as a police dispatcher for St. George would be involved with someone who would hurt her child.
Maybe officials were overwhelmed with the complexity of evidence, all the intricate medical details about Ronnie's brain injuries, the magnitude, when and how they could have happened.
Maybe, too, officials had a hard time resting their case on the work collected by a police chief who'd been in the job only 1 1/2 years. There were four officers on the force at the time.
"I was in way over my head," Chandler said recently. "We had to swim really hard to get this thing done."
But swim he did. With Washington city officer Reed Allsop, who had a 3-year-old child of his own then, Chandler waded through 15-hour days, countless trips between Washington, Utah and Clark County, Nev. He called attorneys at the National Child Abuse Center in Denver for advice about the case.
He interviewed nurses, doctors, witnesses, baby sitters and others that amounted to 2,500 pages of transcripts, testimony and medical records.
Dave Schwendemann and Rob Parrish, who both then worked for the Utah Attorney General's Office in Salt Lake City, took over the case.
When Chandler and officials from the attorney general's office went to arrest Tom DeMille in the early afternoon that summer of 1985, the Washington police chief found the suspect at home.
Jan Davies was there, too, pregnant with another child.
Chandler shook DeMille's hand. "I think you know this is coming. You are under arrest."
DeMille and Jan Davies were married before the trial. Because they were now married, Jan Davies couldn't be forced to testify against her husband in the death of her son.
A jury convicted DeMille of felony second-degree murder.
Today the case is recognized by attorneys and child advocates as a turning point in Utah's history the first case in Utah to be recognized as a non-accidental trauma child death.
"I didn't know at the time we started that Utah hadn't done much of this kind of prosecution at all," Chandler said. Children with head injuries were presumed to have suffered "accidents." There hadn't been many child homicides in Utah at the time.
"This was the cutting edge," he said.
Rob Parrish, now a guardian ad litem for the state, agrees. The case was the first in which a parent or parent's paramour was charged with and convicted of murder in a child's death. Prior to that time, almost all such cases were charged as manslaughter, with much lighter penalties.
It's been 20 years since detectives from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department first called Chandler. "You have a likely homicide victim down here," the Las Vegas detective told Chandler.
Chandler knew the boy. He knew the family. He'd watched a dozen times as little Ronnie Davies huddled at the feet of Jan and Harley Davies as Chandler and other Washington police officers came to call about domestic disturbances at the family's Washington residence.
"What's the prognosis?" Chandler asked the Las Vegas officer.
"Not good. This child is probably going to die."
Twenty years later, Chandler remembers the investigation's tiniest details.
"This case, I get lots of mixed feelings about it," he said last week from his Salt Lake City office. "It angers me to the point that I want to explode. The next minute, I want to sit down and cry."
He calls Ronnie's story a heartbreaker.
Looking back, he says although he paid for pursuing the case as aggressively as he did, he'd do it again just the same."It got me, politically, to do this case. Big time," Chandler said. "But you know what? I sleep very well."
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