March 30, 1996 Grand Rapids, Michigan
Squirrels in the trees were not a problem. It was early spring in the Midwest, and the mature trees around her parents’ house had transformed into a flying circus, where the acrobats chittered and leaped and held branch-shaking races through the twiggy canopies. Stephanie’s son Jason, almost 2, laughed at the squirrels in the trees.
But squirrels in the walls were another matter. The thumps and scurryings had started a few weeks back, and they weren’t going away. Stephanie and her husband were caretaking the house for the year, while her dad worked out of state, and Stephanie knew it was her job to oust the rodents. She hadn’t liked any of the names in the yellow pages—A-1 Pest Control, Orkin, Rose Pest Solutions (serving Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana)—so she’d called Critters-Be-Gone, a one-man operation recommended by a neighbor. The one man was Jeffrey Metz, and he was coming out this afternoon. She was glad she’d acted.
Her husband John had left early that morning—Saturday was the busiest day of the week at the country club where he staffed the pro shop and gave golf lessons. Stephanie and Jason had slept in and then lingered in the playroom, tossing a stuffed soccer ball back and forth, but now it was time to get going.
Stephanie checked her angle with the kitchen doorway. “Okay,” she agreed. “Your ball!” With a socked foot she kicked the toy, banking it off the wall toward her goal.
Jason was running after it when the phone rang. Stephanie let him win the race to the kitchen, then sprinted past him to the extension across the room.
“Steph? It’s Beth Marie. I’m bringing Dinah over now. Is that OK?”
Steph glanced at the clock. 9:30. “I didn’t think you were coming until 10:30. I haven’t taken my shower yet.”
“I need to be there at 10:30, and I have to pick up my friend. Can I come right now?” Beth Marie lived maybe half a mile away; she could be there in minutes.
“Sure. I’ll shower later while Dinah takes her nap.”
“Great. I’ll be right there.”
Stephanie had been building up a small day care business—Beth Marie was her first mom from off the immediate block. Stephanie didn’t usually work weekends but she’d agreed to watch Dinah that day so Beth Marie could attend a teacher’s conference at the Amway Center. Beth Marie was studying to be a teacher, and her professor had told them to go.
Stephanie and Jason were eating breakfast when Beth Marie came in, in a flurry of cold air and energy. Petite and pretty, with thick dark hair and big brown eyes, she looked like a young professional, in a tailored skirt and matching jacket. Dinah, almost 6 months old, was fussing in her car seat.
“I think she has a touch of the flu,” Beth Marie warned. “She threw up her dinner last night, so I didn’t bring any baby food, just the two bottles.” Beth Marie tended to talk fast; she reminded Stephanie of a bird, always moving, easily startled.
Beth Marie started removing Dinah’s snowsuit, but the little girl screamed in protest, so Beth Marie lifted her out of the car seat carried her to the living room floor, across a built-in counter from the kitchen.
Next to the sink, Stephanie was taking a warm washcloth to the spattering of yogurt and Cheerios on Jason. “I can hold her in a minute,” she called over the counter, “Just let me get him cleaned up.”
“She slept wild last night,” Beth Marie called back. The baby kept waking up, Beth Marie said, so she’d brought the child into bed with them. “She was tossing and turning, all over the place. She’ll be ready for a nap, that’s for sure.”
Jason ran from the kitchen, leaving a trail of yogurt footprints. Stephanie sighed and reached for the floor sponge. Beth Marie was trying to settle Dinah into an infant seat on the kitchen table, but Dinah was crying and fighting the safety strap. “Just another minute,” Steph said. “Try putting her in the walker there. She won’t go anywhere, she can’t reach the floor yet.”
Dinah only fussed a little as she was eased into the walker, but when Beth Marie turned to go, Dinah reached out and cranked it up again. “Mommy has to go, Dinah. Bye, bye.” Beth Marie headed for the door. “Thanks, Steph. See you at 3.”
Both Stephanie and Beth Marie described the drop-off pretty much that way at trial: the snowsuit, the baby seat, Dinah’s screaming in the walker as her mother left. Beth Marie told Stephanie that Dinah had thrown up her dinner and “slept wild” the night before. Although the medical records say “no history of cold or flu symptoms,” both of the child’s parents testified that Dinah had thrown up the previous night, and that’s what Stephanie remembers being told.
After Beth Marie left, Stephanie claims, she finished cleaning up the floor, washed her hands, and then picked up the sobbing baby. She patted Dinah’s back and whispered to her while walking the kitchen. She could see Jason over the counter in the living room, climbing on the cushions he’d pulled from the corner. Gradually, Dinah relaxed; she even smiled and grabbed at a rattle when Stephanie offered it. She allowed herself to be shifted into the infant seat on the table. But as Stephanie turned to clear the breakfast dishes, she heard the rattle hit the table and Dinah’s wail rising. After calming the baby again, she tried easing her back into the walker, but this time Dinah started screaming, hard and high.
Stephanie carried Dinah to the living room, she says, where she leaned against the couch and settled the baby just so in the crook of one arm, a position she’d developed over months of caring for surely the fussiest baby she’d ever known. It worked, slowly. Dinah cut back to sobs and then to moans; finally, she seemed to be gazing out the window, solemn but uncomplaining.
This time Dinah allowed herself to be slipped into the walker, where she held her rattle and watched as Stephanie and Jason restacked the pillows—Dinah was usually fascinated by Jason’s doings. Some minutes later, though, when Jason knocked over the Duplo(c) bin with a sharp plastic clatter, Dinah began wailing again. Figuring the child might be ready for a nap soon, Stephanie picked her up and settled back in against the couch.
“Baby, you’re in luck,” she said, “It’s a goof-off morning.” So with the hand that wasn’t holding Dinah, Stephanie assembled plastic-block pillars on the rug while Jason ran his toy cars among them.
Stephanie herself was feeling lucky, to be playing here on the floor with her own toddler. She’d always loved children, had babysat her way through high school and college, but her menses had never stabilized, and she’d been diagnosed infertile as a teenager. Her surprise pregnancy at age 29 had felt like a prayer answered. After Jason was born, when her parents offered them the house rent-free for a year, she’d jumped at the chance to quit her job and stay home with her son. With only one of them working, she and John were getting along again, and they’d saved some money for a down payment on a house of their own.
When Dinah drifted off to sleep. Stephanie carried her upstairs to the Fold-n-Go and turned on the baby monitor. She’d showered and was cleaning up the breakfast dishes when Dinah’s wailing erupted from the speaker on the kitchen counter.
Dinah quit the hard crying almost as soon as Stephanie picked her up, but she didn’t quite settle down. “Are you hungry, maybe? Let’s go down and heat up a bottle, huh?”
In the kitchen, Dinah drank most of a bottle, slow but steady, before pushing it away. Moments later, with a single belch, she spewed out what looked like everything she’d drunk—pale curds and viscous, milky strands spattered her pink overalls, the floor, and the end of the counter.
Later, at trial, Stephanie and Dinah’s parents all reported that Dinah spit up a lot. They’d thought she was digesting better lately, though, probably maturing past a delicate stomach. That day, Stephanie was sorry to see the vomiting back—she hoped it was just the flu.
She claims she found a yellow playsuit in the diaper bag and changed Dinah, head to toe. She poured the unused formula down the sink, threw away the plastic liner, and put the empty bottle and the soiled overalls in the diaper bag.
Dinah rested in the infant seat, apparently content while Stephanie made a couple of PBJs and sliced an apple. The early afternoon passed about as peacefully as any afternoon can that includes a toddler and a baby.
Dinah had just gone down for a second nap when Mrs. Metz called on behalf of Critters-Be-Gone. Her husband was running late, she said, he’d be there about 2 pm. Then Stephanie’s sister Jennifer stopped by—Jennifer was leaving a short, troubled marriage, and her older sister was a good listener. Jason squeezed past his mother and aunt and scampered out into the thawing front yard.
The sisters were still chatting on the porch when Metz’s blue truck pulled into the driveway. He shut the door clean and careful, and then paused a few feet short of the porch while Jennifer gave her sister a hug and said good-bye. When the way was clear, he stepped up and introduced himself. He needed to see the walls where she’d been hearing noises, he said, may as well start outside.
When Metz was done in the back, he wanted to check the second floor, where he’d seen a walnut tree brushing the roof. Jason ran ahead of them on the stairs, but Stephanie slowed him down with a warning, “Go quiet, Jason. Dinah’s asleep.” She turned to Metz, “There’s a baby napping in that room. If we talk soft she might not wake up.”
As soon as the bedroom door opened, though, Dinah started crying hard. “She always wakes up mad,” Stephanie apologized, lifting the baby up and onto a shoulder, “But she settles down if you hold her.” She stroked her back.
The squirrel man nodded sympathetically. “I can take it,” he said, “I got kids of my own.” Dinah calmed down quickly, both Metz and Stephanie later testified.
Metz slipped into the half-empty closet and found the attic access. Stephanie was about to follow Jason back down the stairs when the workman reappeared. “OK,” he said, “How do I get to the basement?”
They went down together and she showed him the basement door. She had to check on her son, she told him, “I’ll just leave all the doors unlocked so you can come in and out, OK?”
He’d already disappeared below.
Stephanie found Jason in the living room by the kitchen. Dinah watched from her baby seat on the counter while Steph made a snack for later.
Metz and Stephanie both remember that Metz came through the kitchen several times over the next half hour or so, with his eyes generally on the walls or his measuring tape. “You ever hear noises at the front of the house?” he asked once, on his way through.
“No, just along the back.”
Dinah was getting fussy again. Stephanie heated up the second bottle, thinking maybe the baby was hungry, flu or no flu. She leaned against the kitchen counter, the girl in her arms, idly holding the bottle for Dinah and listening as the Little Mermaid sang her dreams in the living room behind her. Dinah was sucking slowly, seemingly content.
When she felt Dinah shudder, Steph pulled the bottle away. It trailed a string of white goo. Stephanie was wiping a strand off Dinah’s chin when the little girl suddenly gasped, a look of surprise on her face and her mouth in a perfect O. Stephanie realized the baby wasn’t breathing—she must have inhaled some formula. Stephanie had practiced the move again and again on a first-aid training doll: She turned Dinah head-down over one arm and patted her back firmly. Within seconds Dinah spit up a mouthful of formula and gasped for air. When Stephanie heard the baby breathing again she thanked God and her own mother, who’d insisted on the first-aid classes years earlier.
Upright again, Dinah kept breathing. She seemed awfully sleepy, though. Stephanie stayed calm—she was sure the baby hadn’t been without oxygen for long; she must be all right. She tried to wake her up by talking to her. No change. Dinah was holding her head up, her eyes half open, but she didn’t seem to be looking at anything. “Stay awake, Dinah,” Stephanie told her, “You’re mama will be here any minute.”
Stephanie tickled Dinah’s foot—the baby jerked it away. That was a good sign, she remembered from somewhere or another. She tried to make eye contact—the baby seemed indifferent to her. Then Stephanie noticed Dinah’s breathing, gone shallow and weak. But then, when Steph listened closely, Dinah seemed to be breathing fine again. Had she imagined it? The baby seemed so sleepy, though!
Stephanie heard a knock on the door: Beth Marie, Dinah’s mother, a few minutes early. Relieved, Stephanie shifted Dinah to her shoulder for the walk to the front of the house. “I’m glad you’re here,” she said as she opened the door. She felt Dinah lying limp on her shoulder.
“It looks like I caught her napping,” Beth Marie guessed.
“No, I don’t think she’s asleep.” Stephanie turned her back so Beth Marie could see the baby’s face. “She’s not quite awake, either, though.”
The breathing was still stronger, but now Dinah wasn’t lifting her head.
“She’s been like this for maybe 10 minutes,” Stephanie told Beth Marie, worried again now because Dinah wasn’t perking up at the sight of her mother. “She choked on a bottle. I turned her over and gave back blows, like you’re supposed to, and she started breathing again. But now she’s like this. What do you think?”
“No, she’s not asleep,” Beth Marie ‘s voice was edged with fear. “Her eyes are, like, half open.”
“I thought maybe she was just sleepy, but then she started breathing funny.”
“What do you mean, ‘funny’?” This time the fear was sharp.
Dinah sounded like a baby with a cold, rasping through the mucous, but with a steady breath. “This is better,” Stephanie said, relieved again now, “She was breathing real shallow a few minutes ago.” She carried Dinah back to the kitchen. Beth Marie followed. They both listened carefully—Dinah still sounded congested, but she was still breathing steadily. Maybe she was just a sleepy baby with the flu.
Over the next couple of minutes, though, Dinah’s breathing went jagged again, and raspy. “This isn’t right,” Stephanie forced out the words, past a tongue gone thick and dry. She wanted to be wrong, but Beth Marie heard it, too.
“Oh, my God, it’s getting worse. What do we do? I’ll drive her to the Med Station.”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Here, I’ll get the car seat,” Beth Marie started toward the table, but stopped. “No, wait… can you hold her in the back seat while I drive?”
“Sure… uh, no,” Stephanie waved toward Jason, now asleep in front of the television. “It’ll take too long to get Jason moving. Call 911.”
While Beth Marie went to the phone in the corner, Stephanie still held the baby, rocking gently back and forth, patting Dinah’s back and listening desperately to her breathing. From the 911 tape:
She was routed to Medical Dispatch. “Okay. 4827 Hidden Oak Drive, Southeast?”
“And the baby’s six months old?””
“Okay. Ma’m, does he have a history of breathing problems?”
“She,” Beth Marie corrected.
“No,” Beth Marie said. “This is something that’s happened within the last two days.”
“Okay,” a brief pause. “What does it seem like? I mean is it…”
“She isn’t…,” Beth Marie interrupted, paused, started over, “She seems very lethargic; she can barely breathe. There’s a lot of phlegm in her throat.”
“Okay. Is she awake right now?”
“Partially awake, partially half asleep. Real lethargic.”
“Okay, but how does she seem to be breathing? She’s breathing hard?”
“Very raspy. Choking, raspy.
“Okay. This will be a Med-One.”
“Med-One is acknowledged. I’ll be off.”
Beth Marie phoned her doctor next, and her husband at work; she was calling her mother as the fire team entered, a minute ahead of the ambulance crew. When the paramedics arrived, they addressed Stephanie, who was still holding the baby. “OK, now, Mother….”
“No, she’s the mother,” Stephanie pointed to the corner of the room, where Beth Marie was on the phone.
The other paramedic reached for the baby. “I’ll take her.”
While the first EMT took a patient history from Beth Marie, Stephanie stayed with the man who’d scooped up Dinah. He put a finger into the infant’s mouth and pulled it out curled like a hook, glistening with slime. He shined a small light in Dinah’s eyes, moved a finger in front of her face, listened to her chest. He tickled her feet; she pulled them back. “You say she was having trouble breathing?”
“Yeah, she was like raspy.” Stephanie explained about the choking, the back blows, the vomit. “And she’s been like this since, like she’s not awake or asleep either one.”
“She’s breathing fine now.” He had set her on the table and was checking vital signs. “Heartbeat’s good,” he noted. Finally, he straightened up. “We’ll take her in. It looks like she’s had a seizure.”
“It wasn’t anything like that,” Stephanie countered. “She just gasped, like, and started choking.”
“It’s not always like they show on TV,” he said.
Fump. Fump, fump. Muffled hammering from above. The paramedic looked up. “That’s just the squirrel man,” Stephanie told him.
Outside, the ambulance and fire truck had drawn a small crowd—neighbors were clustered two doors up, too sensible to come closer and risk getting in the way.
Inside, Beth Marie was finishing a call to her sister—this was 1996, before everyone had a cell phone.
“It must be the same thing she had last night,” Beth Marie said, as she gathered up her baby carrier, car keys, purse.
Stephanie followed her out with the diaper bag. “I put the bottle here in the outside pouch, in case you need it. It’s still half full.”
In the driveway Beth Marie hesitated. “What about my car?”
“Get it later,” Stephanie said. “They’re waiting for you.”
“I’ll call you.” Beth Marie climbed up into the ambulance.
At least that’s how Stephanie tells it. Her neighbor Sue Troke, watching from her yard a few doors up, remembers seeing a final exchange between Steph and Beth Marie next to the ambulance, after the firetruck had left, but she was too far away to hear what they were saying.
As she headed inside Steph saw two of her friends at the table in the kitchen at the end of the hall. When had they come in? Then she heard Sue Troke at the front door. “Steph, are you all right?”
Turning, Steph saw Sue’s growing silhouette against the brightness outside. As the taller woman hugged her, Steph sagged with relief and let the tears rise briefly.
She straightened up. “Thanks, I’m fine.” She took a few deep breaths. “I hope Dinah’s OK. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
While Jason still slept in the living room across the counter, Stephanie went through her story for the third time: the choking, the sleepiness, the breathing. “The ambulance guys didn’t seem too worried,” she concluded. “They said she’d had a seizure. What’s that mean, I wonder?”
After the neighbors left Stephanie cleaned up the linoleum one more time and called John at work to tell him what had happened. She was still on the phone when Jeffrey Metz came downstairs, unaware of the drama. He told her he’d laid some traps, and he would come back in a few days to check them. “Have your husband get those holes closed up under the eaves,” he advised her. Questioned later, he couldn’t say whether the baby was there or not when he left, although he remembered seeing a little boy asleep on the floor. From upstairs in the attic, he hadn’t heard the sirens, hadn’t seen the ambulance and fire truck. All he’d heard from down below was a few muffled voices. The only sentence he’d heard clearly was, “That’s just the squirrel man.”
Beth Marie called that evening from the new DeVos Children’s Hospital in downtown Grand Rapids. The doctors didn’t know what was wrong yet, Beth Marie said, they were running more tests. They wanted to know if there had been any kind of accident. Had Dinah hit her head or anything like that?
No, Stephanie said, just the choking.
When the phone rang again at about 11 pm, Stephanie expected Beth Marie, but her sister Alison was just calling to chat from her college dorm on a Saturday night. After hearing Stephanie’s story for the first time, Alison remembers, she asked her sister if she wasn’t worried someone might think Dinah’s problem was her fault somehow, but Steph had brushed the idea aside.
Stephanie claims she went to bed that night worried about Dinah but not herself. She didn’t yet know that the doctors had diagnosed Dinah Nelson as the victim of child abuse, and that she was the only suspect.
(c) 2011 Sue Luttner
DUPLO is the copyright of The Lego Group.