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Rock-a-Bye Baby 

Four years after Kevin Wadle's death, the trial of Deborah Wadle continues

It was a month into a new and not unwelcome routine for Deborah Wadle, beloved wife, trusted friend, secretary for the Pikes Peak Women's Golfers, and full-time daycare provider for her husband's baby grandson.

That March morning, Wadle had been faxing back and forth with a client, trying to nail down a quote before the weekend. Her computer lab equipment business, Mitchell Marketing, was operated from her home on Dublin Boulevard in northern Colorado Springs, where she lived with her husband, Arnold.

According to court documents and trial transcripts that would record the course of events in detail, it was closing in on 3 o'clock, which meant it was time to get King Kevin, her pet name for the five-month-old who in spirit, if not blood, was her grandson. She grabbed her water bottle, hopped into her Jimmy SUV, and made the short trip to Austin Bluffs and Academy.

That's where Kevin lived with his mom, Kimber Wadle, in a two-bedroom apartment on which Kimber's father -- Deborah's husband -- had signed the lease a month before. Kimber had chosen the Foxfire apartment complex because it was a short walk to her job at the nearby King Soopers. She'd lost her driver's license a few years back and being close to work was essential.

This was part of the contract Kimber Wadle and her father had nailed down that summer. He would pay her rent, provide daycare, and help with baby-related expenses in exchange for, as Kimber would later testify, an understanding that she follow "general rules of budget counseling."

"It was my only option really," Wadle told the court.

Before Kevin was born, his mother had experienced more than just financial trouble. As a teenager, she had been hospitalized for mental illness, drug problems, and had spent time at Cedar Springs.

Bianca Lumsden, Kimber's supervisor at King Soopers, later testified that Kimber came into work with self-inflicted cuts on her body.

"She told me that she was depressed and that cutting herself made her feel good," Lumsden said.

Only a few weeks back from her maternity leave, Kimber was on a flex schedule at King Soopers, working as needed with two varying weekdays off. Once a week she'd fax her schedule to her father and stepmom, who would adjust theirs accordingly.

That late winter afternoon, when Deborah came to the door, Kimber woke Kevin up, said, "I love you," and handed him to his step-grandmother.

"A-E-I-O-U," Deborah Wadle said in the car. It was a game she and Kevin often played, a grandmother's fleeting hope that a five month-old might absorb the phonic significance of vowels.

But Kevin wasn't particularly responsive that afternoon, Wadle would later testify, and sat quietly in his car seat on the way to her house. Once there, she set the baby on the floor in his bouncing chair a few feet from her desk. Deborah and Arnold Wadle's home had an upright baby chair, a crib with a monitor and a fridge stocked with Enfamil baby formula.

It was 4 p.m. on Friday, March 12, 1999 -- five weeks before the massacre at Columbine High School, a year before the bursting of the stock-market bubble that began the Springs' high-tech exodus. Deborah, or Deb as her friends call her, was closing in on a quote for 128 computer chairs. The following day, she and her husband were planning to drive to McCook, Neb. to introduce Kevin to her mom, Glena Gouker.

She later told the emergency room doctors, detectives and her family that Kevin started fussing, to which, after watching Kevin 35 hours a week, she was not unaccustomed. Kevin had figured out that crying got him attention. Deborah would later tell Colorado Springs police Detective Richard Hunt it was something they'd been working on with him.

Deborah checked the baby's diaper and began preparing some Enfamil.

She then remembered to call her neighbor, Ann Hooker, to ask if she would bring in the mail and feed the cats while she and Arnold were in Nebraska.

In court, Hooker would recall hearing Kevin crying in the background. "Sounds like the baby's hungry," she said. "Better go feed the baby."

It was approximately 4:15 p.m. Wadle said she fed Kevin four ounces of formula, burped him, and then gave him three more ounces. She put the baby in his walker and played a little game, "Giggle while you walk, wiggle while you talk."

But Deborah couldn't get Kevin to burp again. She sat him down on his rocking chair and she said he turned bright red and stiffened up. She put him on the floor, where he suddenly turned on his side and formula spilled out his nose.

Within two hours, Kevin was at Memorial Hospital on a respirator. Three days later, Dr. Kenneth Kim would pronounce him brain-dead, and his mother, Kimber Wadle, would consent to having him removed from life support. He died on Monday, March 15. Age: five months, five days.

After an autopsy conducted by County Coroner David Bowerman, Deborah Wadle was arrested at her home on March 19 and arraigned on two felony counts: murder in the first degree and child abuse resulting in death.

The People v. Wadle

"Surely, deep down under the political motivations that seem to drive people, the district attorney's office must have some concern for human beings ... The only reason the case has gone this far is to protect egos."

-- Arnold Wadle, in a letter to District Judge Peter Booth dated Jan. 17, 2000

The People v. Wadle has dragged on for four years through two jury trials and will, in all probability, result in a third trial next year. It has torn apart a family, one whose seeds of destruction had been simmering for years through a volatile stew of divorce, remarriage and father-daughter estrangement.

But even such a painful past was a time when familial politics were not sundered by the weight of a dead child, whose death, the doctors at Memorial Hospital, the county coroner and the district attorney's office all agree, was the result of shaking at the hands of Deborah Wadle.

Coined in 1972 by pediatric radiologist Dr. John Caffey, the term "shaken-baby syndrome" refers to a series, or "constellation," of head injuries found in infants typically under a year old. These include retinal hemorrhages and a bleeding beneath the brain known as a subdural hematoma, neither of which present outward signs of injury.

District attorney prosecutor John Newsome, who had successfully prosecuted three shaken-baby syndrome cases in El Paso County before Wadle's case came to trial, laid out the devastation that results by shaking babies:

"Babies are vulnerable. They are not like adults. They are not fully formed. They have a large head compared to their body. They have undeveloped ligaments ... undeveloped necks. Infants have undeveloped, watery brains. They also have vulnerable bridging brains, which is how the brain gets blood. What happens during a shaken-baby episode is that the brain is accelerated and decelerated."

This acceleration, most experts agree, is often deadly. However, the number of deaths and injuries that have occurred as a result of shaken-baby syndrome cases are difficult to confirm, as they are often lumped together under the broader categories of child abuse or head injuries. Ann Wicks of the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome estimates that realistically, an average of 1,200 to 1,600 cases occur every year in the United States, based on numbers reported at large regional children's hospitals.

Dr. Randy Alexander, who lectures internationally on shaken-baby syndrome, said it takes only a few seconds of shaking -- typically three back-and-forths per second -- to seriously injure or kill an infant.

"[It's] the repeated back-and-forth shaking that does the damage, not a single shake," Alexander said. "The same way with an earthquake: It's the repeated quaking; it's not just a single jolt."

Since Caffey first published On the Theory and Practice of Shaking Infants in 1972, pediatric opthamologists, neurologists and other medical personnel have been trained to recognize the syndrome's symptoms.

Shaken-baby syndrome hit the international spotlight in the highly publicized 1997 case of British au pair Louise Woodward, who was convicted of shaking to death eight-month-old Matthew Eappen in Boston.

According to Toni Blake, a legal advisor to defendants fighting shaken baby convictions, Woodward, who was ultimately exonerated, reinvigorated interest in the phenomenon.

"Though the number of these cases being prosecuted has greatly increased since Woodward," Blake said in an e-mail, "so has the research on childhood head injuries, and consequently, the controversy surrounding the diagnosis."

Proof or horse manure?

The issue was not a paucity of evidence but conflicting interpretations of the same evidence by numerous experts.

-- Judge Sandra Rothenberg, Colorado Court of Appeals, People v. Wadle, Jan. 30, 2003.

Blake, who is often called on to advise the defense in such cases, argues that since 1972, the constellation of injuries related to shaken-baby syndrome has become something of a medical enigma.

Wadle's attorney Dennis Hartley, agrees.

"The definition of syndrome is: We don't know the cause," Hartley said.

At the hospital, Kevin Wadle showed no outward signs of being shaken. No bruises or grab marks, no skull fractures or spinal-cord injury. To the defense, this was further proof of their client's innocence.

"It's horse manure!" Hartley said. "That you can shake this kid with the same force as falling off a 10-story building and that there's no injury to these weak little muscles that are supposed to support the head? Get yourself a 15-pound sack of potatoes and shake that son of a bitch and see how hard you have to grip it."

But the prosecution's witnesses testified that shaken-baby syndrome doesn't require outward signs of trauma.

Though he notes that bruises and grip marks are found in 20 percent of shaken-baby cases, Alexander says a lack of external injuries "means nothing."

"In children who survive shaken-baby syndrome, we almost never see a spinal-cord injury," Alexander said. "When they put their chin forward and their head back, they have a more flexible neck than we do and if they go flopping back and forth, there's no tension on the neck."

During the trials, Hartley followed a similar defense strategy to that used by the defense of Louise Woodward. Not only did he argue that his client Deborah Wadle did not shake Kevin, but that shaken-baby syndrome itself does not exist.

Many of the defense's expert witnesses had also testified in the Woodward trial and at least two -- forensic pathologist Dr. John Plunkett and pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Ronald Vscinski --waived their normally high fees to testify in the Wadle case.

Throughout their testimonies, Hartley and his experts argued that Kevin Wadle suffered a seizure, asphyxiated on his formula and died. The cause, they claimed, was a pre-existing condition called cerebral venous thrombosis: a chronic swelling of the veins that take blood to the brain.

Kevin's retinal hemorrhages, they allege, were minute and enlarged only in the hospital from hypoxia, or lack of oxygen. The subdural hematoma discovered by the coroner had existed previously, they argued, perhaps from birth. This condition resulted in cranial pressure that caused Kevin's head to jump in size from the 70th to the 95th percentile during the last two months of his life. This same cranial pressure, they contended, also caused the retinal hemorrhaging.

During the trial, several friends and neighbors testified that they had been concerned about Kevin's health before his death.

But prosecutors John Newsome and Amy Mullaney repeatedly pointed out during cross-examination that none of these witnesses were trained medical doctors. And, they noted, none had relayed their concerns to Deborah and Arnold Wadle.

It's this sort of post-mortem quarterbacking that leads shaken-baby experts like Alexander to view the defense strategy of denying shaken-baby syndrome as little more than the manufacturing of a controversy.

And by most standards of mainstream medicine, shaken-baby syndrome does exist. The American Academy of Pediatrics as well as the National Association of Medical Examiners have both given their imprimatur to the validity of shaken-baby syndrome by publishing position papers on it.

'Not on the front lines

I never jump to conclusions. We do look at other things. We did blood cultures, we looked for infections, we looked at some metabolic things, organic ascidura. I looked at history, past history, how [Kevin] had been, his growth and development, what had been going on before he was at that point, you know, the physician's checkup. I looked at everything ... Everything was unimpressive, and yes, I came to the conclusion that Kevin was the victim of shaken-baby.

-- Dr. Kenneth Gheen, Memorial Hospital emergency-room doctor, in testimony before the court in May 2001

During the course of Wadle's two trials, the prosecutors relied on the opinions of Memorial Hospital's examining doctors, as well as the opinions of El Paso County coroner Dr. David Bowerman.

In her closing statement at the end of the second trial, prosecutor Mullaney criticized the defense's expert witnesses.

"They (defense's expert witnesses) are not on the front lines," Mullaney said. "They are not engaging in a legitimate medical debate. They have their show on the road and by their own admission travel around the country in defense of shaken-baby cases.

"I ... urge you to reject the suggestion to put shaken-baby [syndrome] on trial in this case because of words you heard from doctors for hire."

But for all the testimonial crossfire from medical experts, it was eventually the drug Paxil and the conscience of a juror that caused Deborah Wadle's second jury trial to end still enveloped in controversy.

The day after returning a guilty verdict, juror Robert Gambordella had trouble sleeping. The next morning he phoned jury foreman Tim Burke and said he had something on his mind. Later that day, in front of Booth and lawyers from both sides, Gambordella disclosed that another juror with training as an EMT claimed she knew that Paxil was not a normal anti-depressant but a medication prescribed for violent individuals.

Paxil is a commonly prescribed anti-anxiety medication that Deborah Wadle had been taking to help her deal with holiday-related stress.

During the second trial the jury had sent a note to the judge asking why a doctor would prescribe Paxil instead of some other anti-anxiety drug. They also asked to see a copy of the Physician's Desk Reference. Both requests were denied by the court, as juries must base their decision only on presented evidence.

However, juror Steven Vermeersch downloaded information about Paxil from the Web site www.mayoclinic.com, which he then shared with his fellow jurors the following day.

Booth conceded that this was a clear case of juror misconduct. But he would state at the August sentencing that if anything, the result of the jury tampering favored the defense, as the information they'd reviewed indicated that Paxil was benign.

A family divided

This baby had a birth defect of which I'm not surprised given the lifestyle of the birth mother. Her friends and boyfriends who hung around she and the baby lack a lot to be desired! -- Cynthia Brooks, a friend of Deborah Wadle, in a letter to Judge Peter Booth dated June 12, 2001

For as long as we've known the Wadle family, Deborah Wadle has done everything in her power to sever the relationship between her husband and his daughters.

-- Pamela Mutka, a friend of Kimber Wadle, in a letter to Judge Booth dated July 24, 2001

As Tolstoy famously began Anna Karenina, "Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The Wadles were no exception. Until Kevin was born, Arthur had not seen his younger daughter Karrie for five years. Kimber, meanwhile, was typically in touch when she needed something, Arthur testified.

Mutka's friend, Eileen Laughlin, reported that Kevin's birth was beginning to pull the family together.

"Kevin was starting to heal some of the bad feelings between these people," Laughlin said.

While the case primarily revolved around conflicting medical testimony, the trials blew open years of acrimony and bitterness.

In a letter to Judge Booth, Arnold Wadle wrote that he was "leery" about getting involved in Kevin's life. Initially, he didn't want to see him at Penrose Hospital when he was born on Oct. 8. He was not sure he'd be welcome. And while he and Deborah were granted a visit, they did not see Kevin again until Thanksgiving. Though by that time, he wrote Booth, he was hooked on his grandson.

Kimber had chosen not to tell her father she was expecting until she was six months into the pregnancy, and she never revealed the name of the father. Kimber was afraid, Arnold claimed, of the advice she knew he would give: abort. But because she was in the last trimester of her pregnancy, Arnold urged her to put the child up for adoption. He was concerned, he said, for Kimber's ability to care for a child. A concern, he claimed, that was substantiated after Kevin was born.

"More than once, he appeared to be absolutely soaked," Arnold Wadle told the court in the second trial. "He was still in the clothes that we had taken him home in the day before."

When Arnold Wadle walked through the door of his home that March 12 of 1999, he was greeted with an urgent yell from his wife. He wasted no time in taking over CPR on his choking grandson. It was 4:38 p.m. He was trained so well that responding paramedics would testify that they assumed he was a volunteer firefighter.

But the EMTs noticed something else: that Deborah Wadle was unusually calm. As responding EMT Christopher Larich told the court:

"When she opened the door, again I'm brand-new on the job, my first impression [was that] this was a false call. There was no crying, no facial expressions whatsoever, just very calm."

While the touchstone of their case rested on the opinion of the responding doctors and coroner, the prosecution presented a few instances of questionable behavior on the part of Arnold and Deborah Wadle.

It was noted that neither chose to ride with Kevin in the ambulance to Memorial Hospital. Instead, after the EMTs left, the Wadles proceeded to clean Kevin's vomit off the carpet. They also threw his pants in the trash compactor.

"It was an action that I felt needed to be done and Debbie needed a minute to compose herself. I needed a minute to compose myself," Arnold Wadle told the court. "We wouldn't leave a mess like that and go out the door."

Memorial Hospital social worker Lisa Strauss counseled and comforted the grieving family that day.

"It seemed almost rehearsed," Strauss told the court. "There were words that she (Deborah) used that were almost manipulative, I think. Deborah, initially, was flirtatious with the physician, Dr. Gheen. She was smiling, and she was looking at him in a way that was charming."

On the day that Kevin was taken to the hospital, Kimber Wadle never punched in at work. She felt nauseous and asked to be excused. She walked home, made cranberry juice and took a bath. She got on the computer and played a game. She opened her kitchen window and had a cigarette, which she still held in her hand when she answered the knock at her door around 6 p.m.

"I see you never smoke in the apartment," Arnold said to his daughter. Then he informed her to get her things together -- that Kevin had choked and was in the hospital.

On the stand, Kimber described her father's demeanor as calm and businesslike. "Everything to him is on an agenda, a daily planner."

It was later that evening that Kimber was informed that her son may have been the victim of shaking and that he probably was not going to survive. Deborah was interviewed by several detectives and was escorted home where Colorado Springs police photographed the house and conducted a video walk-through of the afternoon's events.

Hate-filled courtroom

I have traveled with Deb, played golf with Deb, attended church with Deb, and never have I seen anything but consistent loving, gentle behavior. I have never seen her lose her temper, or her personality deviate in any manner, even on the golf course -- and if you play golf, Judge, you know that in itself is quite a feat.

-- Linda Troyer, a friend of Deborah Wadle, in a letter to Judge Peter Booth

In August 1999, Deborah Wadle was released from the El Paso County Jail on $150,000 bond. In June 2000, she was acquitted on charges of first-degree murder. However, the jury deadlocked on the second charge of child abuse resulting in death. She was again released on a $150,000 bond.

The following spring, after a second trial filled with complex and conflicting medical testimony, a different jury found Wadle guilty of child abuse resulting in death. In Colorado, the charge comes with a mandatory minimum sentence of 16 years, which Deborah Wadle received at a packed, emotion-fraught hearing on Aug. 3, 2001.

During the trial, supporters of Kimber Wadle and those of her stepmother sat on opposite sides of the courtroom.

Eileen Laughlin, a friend of Karrie Mutka and Kimber Wadle, who had been at Penrose Hospital for Kevin's birth and at Memorial Hospital for his death, described the atmosphere as hate-filled.

During the arraignment hearing a week after Kevin's funeral, Laughlin recalled the way Deborah Wadle's supporters spoke to Laughlin -- and to Kimber Wadle.

"I just remember walking down the hall and people started sneering at us, 'There's the fucking whores; there's the white trash! Laughlin said. "I was like, my God, [Kimber] just buried her son, and you people are calling her a whore. Meanwhile, a lot of them had Bibles in their hands."

During the trial, supporters of Kimber and those of Deborah sat on opposing sides of the courtroom. Karrie Mutka confirmed that she and her sister were called names and spat upon, that Deborah Wadle, in a sarcastic tone, thanked her for coming out to support her.

After 18 months behind bars, Deborah Wadle's conviction was thrown out by the Colorado Court of Appeals as a result of juror misconduct. On Feb. 20, 2003, Wadle was released on $75,000 bond. Her case is currently on appeal with the Colorado Supreme Court. Her attorney, Dennis Hartley, said their most likely hope is for a new trial, which he does not foresee happening until next year.

Not in the mix

Your honor, those that say I have no or show no remorse are only being judgmental. How can you feel remorse for something you did not do?

-- Deborah Wadle, letter to Judge Peter Booth from Denver Women's Correctional Facility, dated Dec. 2, 2001

Lost in the allegations of the Wadle trial, the gruesome autopsy photographs of a child's brain, the testimony of a family divided, the ugliness on display in the courtroom, was the life of Kevin Wadle himself.

He lived only five months. Not yet a toddler, but old enough to develop a fear of Sesame Street and an affinity for Po, the red Teletubby, he could recognize names and voices; he laughed and cried, ate and slept. He moved to the beat when his mom played the Beastie Boys' roboticly melodic hit Intergalactic.

Deborah Wadle spent 18 months at Denver Women's Correctional Facility where her case manager said that she did not "get in the mix" with the other prisoners and that she was a regular at Sunday chapel services. She is currently free on bond, living in Colorado Springs awaiting word from the Supreme Court.

The Web site maintained by Arnold Wadle, (www.debbiewadle.org) includes a history of her case as well as periodic updates. Both Arnold and Deborah Wadle declined to talk with the Independent for this story.

Kimber Wadle had another child after Kevin's death; he was put up for adoption through a church agency. She reportedly still lives in Colorado Springs but could not be located to comment for this story.

After speaking at several anti-child-abuse rallies, Karrie Mutka, Kimber's sister, helped coordinate in Kevin's memory Pikes Peak Family Connections' KPC Kids Place, a nursery for local families experiencing stress.

Mutka works in the computer industry and lives with her husband in Colorado Springs. She said that she has faith in the prosecution of this case by the district attorney and that she believes Deborah Wadle ultimately will return to prison.

Exactly what transpired between Deborah Wadle's phone call with her neighbor Ann Hooker and her call to 911 may never be known. The only other witness lies in a grave on the west side of Colorado Springs. The marker is inscribed with a Teletubby and bears two middle names: Kevin Patrick Caleum. Left off is the last name, Wadle.

  • Four years after Kevin Wadle's death, the trial of Deborah Wadle continues

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