4. “They must have got it wrong”

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March 31, 1996                                              Grand Rapids, Michigan

On Sunday, the day after the choking, Stephanie didn’t see the Nelsons at 10 o’clock mass, so she called their house afterward on the chance they might be home. They weren’t.

At Target that afternoon, she let Jason pick out a balloon and teddy bear for Dinah. She knew the hospital wouldn’t let a two-year-old upstairs, so she stopped at home and left Jason with John before driving downtown. At the hospital, though, the volunteer at the information desk checked her terminal and quit smiling: She told Stephanie she wasn’t authorized to disclose whether Dinah Nelson was a patient. She declined to accept the balloon and teddy bear. Stephanie left the hospital puzzled, and then left another message on the Nelsons’ answering machine.

Stephanie claims she didn’t once think over the weekend that she could be suspected of anything, even after she was turned away at the hospital.

She still hadn’t heard from Beth Marie on Monday morning at 7:30, when Dinah was usually dropped off.  At 8 o’clock she called the Nelson house, got no answer, and left another message.

Stephanie was alone with Jason until just after lunch, when Renee Parks came by to leave her two youngest, Krista and Erica, 5 and 2.

Renee lived just a few doors away. She had four athletic daughters, all of whom adored Stephanie. Renee brought the girls over early that day, so she and her friend could chat before she left for work. They puzzled over why Beth Marie hadn’t called since Saturday night. After Renee left, Stephanie folded laundry in the playroom until the running started, and then she got down on the floor and organized a stuffed-animal derby.

At two thirty, she bundled up the children and herded them out through the garage, intending to play in the Trokes’ front yard and watch for Renee’s older daughters, who would be walking to Stephanie’s after school.

The sidewalk was bright with reflected light under the leafless trees, but gusts of chill wind snatched away the warmth. Stephanie was glad she’d put hats on the little ones.

They’d just passed Sue Troke’s front porch when Stephanie heard the screen door slam and turned to see Sue leaning out, tall and lean, thick curls askew in the breeze. A frown creased her face and a newspaper crackled in her hand. “Steph, have you seen the paper?  Listen to this.” Shielding her eyes from the sun with one hand, Sue read aloud:

A 6-month-old girl remained in critical condition today as Grand Rapids police tried to determine how she was injured. Dinah Nelson was on life-support at Butterworth Hospital where she was being treated for brain trauma and a damaged retina, police said.

The girl’s mother, Elizabeth Marie Lozano Nelson of 3759 Burton Street southeast, told police she picked up her daughter from a babysitter about 3 p.m. Saturday when she noticed the girl was listless. The babysitter told the mother the girl had choked on baby formula and that she had patted her on the back.

Investigators were trying to determine whether the injuries were caused by shaking the baby.

“This is the Dinah you take care of, isn’t it?” Sue asked. “That little baby they took away in the ambulance on Saturday?”

“That’s Dinah all right, but they must have got it wrong.” Stephanie reached for the paper. “Nobody’s talked to me about it.”

But while she scanned for the item on the page, a white sedan cruised past and pulled over to the curb in front of Stephanie’s house. A tall and graying man unfolded himself from the car. He’d probably been thin most of his life, but now he was showing a little paunch beneath his white shirt and tie. He looked at his watch and made a note on his clipboard before ambling up the driveway.

“I guess I’d better go talk to him, huh?” Stephanie gave the paper back to Sue. “Hey, guys, race you back to the house.” Jason was first off the mark, with Erica not far behind, but Krista hit the porch ahead of them both. The visitor turned and took in the four of them with a bland smile.

“I’m John Smith, Child Protective Services,” he said, and extended his hand.

“I’m Stephanie Olsa.” She reached out palm forward to shake, but then saw he was holding a business card, so she simply took it and invited him in.

As they passed the front room, she stopped to grab a basket of circus figures for the kids to play with. Her parents had used that space as their formal living room, but Stephanie had it set up as an indoor play yard, with enormous cardboard blocks and plastic ride toys and a ball bin like at a McDonald’s. John Smith looked around. “You run a day care here?” he asked.

“Not really,” Stephanie shrugged, “I’m not licensed or anything, but I have kids here a lot. We can sit down in the living room, back by the kitchen.”

Smith seemed more interested in Stephanie than in the story of the choking, so she told him how she came to be doing day care. Six months earlier her neighbors had asked her to watch their children one morning a week, on Wednesdays, while the women held a Bible study group. “The kids were over here all the time anyway, so I said, ‘Sure, I could do that.’” Then her friend Renee Parks had changed hours at work, and her day care didn’t have space in the afternoons, so Stephanie had started watching these two, Krista and Erica, another 15 hours a week.

Stephanie had met Dinah’s mother through an ad in the church newsletter, and had been watching her only a couple of months. “That’s been working out pretty well,” Steph concluded, “so I’m thinking of making a real business out of it. I have my first full-time baby starting in a couple of weeks.”

“And you’re not licensed?” Smith asked.

Stephanie felt a pang but answered calmly. “No, I’m not. I called the county, and they said I didn’t really need a license or anything.” When John Smith didn’t say anything, she offered more, “I’m just doing it while Jason’s little. My degree is in golf management—I was working down in Florida before my son was born. But staying home with him is so great I thought I could earn a little money babysitting and put off going back.”

Then Smith asked about the incident on Saturday.

Stephanie explained about the gasp, the back blows, the vomit, and the sleepiness afterwards. She told him the same things she’d told the paramedics, that Dinah was “groggy” after the choking, not quite awake but not asleep, either. According to Smith’s written report, Stephanie told him that Dinah was fussy on Saturday before the choking, that she was generally “a cranky baby who startles easily.”

Stephanie thinks they talked for no more than 15 or 20 minutes before John Smith thanked her and left. “You’ve been very helpful,” he said at the front door, almost friendly. “You have my card. Call me if you think of anything else.”

Over the next half hour, Carmen and Sara Parks arrived from school, not long before her husband came home. Stephanie told him about the visit from CPS, but neither of them thought it was ominous.

Stephanie was in the driveway tossing a basketball with Jason and the Parks girls when the police car pulled up, followed by John Smith’s sedan. Her husband saw them from indoors and came outside, where he met Smith and two detectives from the Grand Rapids Police Department. Sue Troke came striding across the lawn, just when they needed her. “Do you want me to watch the kids so you all can talk?”

So the 11 of them—six adults and five children—went inside: Sue and the kids stayed up front in the playroom; the Olsas and the investigators settled in the kitchen. Her husband got himself a glass of water but no one else accepted a drink.

Into the opening silence, Stephanie asked if there was any word on Dinah, and Detective Rex Marks, a short rounding man with a sweet baby face, told her the child was in bad shape—they weren’t even sure she was going to live.

Later, Stephanie and her husband disagreed about what exactly Marks had said about Dinah’s injuries. He insisted that Marks told them Dinah had “injuries to her head and other extremities.” Stephanie didn’t remember hearing any details early on, but the two of them agree the detective told them Dinah’s condition was dire. Further, she was definitely the victim of child abuse, and they needed Stephanie’s help figuring out what had happened.

Stephanie ran over the day’s events—when Beth Marie had dropped Dinah off, when Dinah had slept and eaten, how she’d been wakened in the early afternoon by “the squirrel man,” and, especially, how she’d choked on her bottle in the afternoon.

Then the detective wanted a lot of background: Where she’d been to college, what she’d studied, how long she’d lived in Grand Rapids, how long in this house.

Stephanie was surprised when they asked about an incident a few weeks earlier, when Dinah had reportedly rolled off the couch during a diaper change.

“Yeah,” Stephanie told them. “I was changing her on the couch right there”—she pointed over the counter—“and Carman and Sara ran by, right next to me. I turned to say, ‘Hey, guys, be more careful,’ and somehow Dinah twisted and fell off while my back was turned.”

“And she received serious injuries in that fall?”

“No, not at all. She hit her nose on my heel when she fell, I think—her nose was a little bit red, and she cried really hard. She didn’t settle down, she kept on crying, and after a while I called Beth Marie. It was almost time for Dinah to go home, anyway, and I thought maybe she’d feel better if she saw her mama.”

Was Stephanie aware that the Nelsons took Dinah to the doctor after that incident?

“Yeah, Mark came and picked her up—he said he’d take her to the med center, just to be sure, but I think he decided she was fine so he went on home.”

Then, John Smith got back to the choking. He asked Stephanie to demonstrate exactly how she’d handled it, and she showed them, turning an invisible baby over her left arm and patting its back with her right hand. “You know, back blows, like they teach you in first-aid class.”

At that point, the interview took a change in tone. “All of a sudden they were at me,” Stephanie claims, “like you see on TV, all three of them firing questions. ‘How long did you shake her?’ ‘How many times?’ ‘Did you hit her head on the table?’”

For the first time, Stephanie says, it occurred to her that maybe she could be responsible for Dinah’s injuries. She didn’t exactly break down and cry, but her voice cracked, and she had to blink back the tears. “I don’t know. I’ve never done it with a real baby before,” she told them. “Maybe I panicked and was rougher than I thought.” A dread was taking hold of her, as she replayed Saturday’s events in her mind.

The police pulled back then, nice guys again. They said they had everything they needed, and they thanked her for her help. Detective Marks said they’d like her to come down to the station tomorrow and take a lie detector test to confirm her statement. She said she’d be happy to do that. Marks gave her his card and told her to call him in the morning; he’d tell her what time to come in.

As the officers stood up to go, her husband started talking. “I have to thank you for acting like professionals,” he effused, pumping Marks’ hand. He told them about his own single contact with the police.

He and a buddy were renting a condo in Florida, finishing up their golf internships. He’d gotten a message at work to come home right away, but when he got there an officer stopped him in the parking lot, acting tough. “Do you know where your room mate keeps the drugs?” he’d asked. The young man who would later marry Stephanie had waited dumbly in the driveway while they turned the condo to chaos, pulling clothes out of closets and toothpaste out of the medicine cabinet. Eventually the manager came out, agitated, and told him that the feds were seizing the condo because the owner of that unit was delinquent in his taxes. He promised the boys another place in the same complex, and he even helped them move as soon as the agents would let them all in. No drugs were found. “What I still don’t get,” Stephanie’s husband concluded, “was why the cops treated me like a criminal. For a while there, I was sure my roommate was dealing and I was in all kinds of trouble, the ways these guys were acting.” He thanked Marks and Postma for treating them with respect this time.

On that note, the interview was over. The three investigators said good-bye and stepped outside—but they didn’t leave. They held a short conversation in the driveway and came back to the door. Stephanie answered. “Mrs. Olsa, you’re a suspect in a child abuse investigation,” John Smith told her. “You are prohibited from any contact with any child, including your own. Either you’re going to leave this house, or I’m taking your son into protective custody.”

“You can’t do that!” her husbsnf nearly shouted from behind her, but Stephanie put a hand on his wrist.

“Jason can stay here with my husband,” she told Smith. “I’ll go to my sister’s for the night.” The officers said they would wait until she’d vacated the premises.

While her husband glowered and the police listened to every word between them, Stephanie packed a bag and called her sister Jennifer, who lived just a few miles away. Sue Troke took the Parks girls home with her, and agreed to watch Jason the next morning when her husband went to work.

He said said he’d ask around at the club for a lawyer; there might a member who handles this kind of thing. “Good idea,” Stephanie told him, and “Don’t worry. It’ll all get straightened out.” The police watched while she kissed her husband and son good-bye, and they didn’t leave until after she’d driven off.

Even after all that, Stephanie says, she thought she didn’t have anything to worry about, because she’d done nothing wrong. Over cards that night, her sister agreed:  Nobody would seriously accuse Stephanie of child abuse, not with her record as a babysitter. As soon as the police started investigating, they’d realize Stephanie had to be innocent. The sisters decided not to call their parents in Connecticut. No reason to worry their mother, better to wait until it was all straightened out and tell her about it later.

(c) 2011 Sue Luttner

On to chapter 5   or   Back to the book outline

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