Nursery Crimes

The case of the battered Avondale quadruplets includes horrific injuries, a misdiagnosis, a mystery witness, a mentally ill mother, a crude police report, missions of mercy rebuffed. Expect it all to get sorted out in a criminal court.

Just before dawn on April 6, a Phoenix woman we'll call Susan Johnson told a nurse about a conversation she'd just overheard at Phoenix Children's Hospital.

According to a sealed Avondale Police Department report--a copy of which New Times obtained--Johnson said she'd heard another woman tell a man, "I think I shook him to[o] hard this time. I may have broken his back."

The 62-page report generated by the west Valley police agency doesn't indicate if the man responded.

The woman overheard allegedly was Elizabeth Shannon Whittle, 23-year-old mother of the "Avondale quads," as they'd become known to Valley residents a few months earlier. Whittle was talking to the quads' 21-year-old father, Tony Perez, according to the police report.

The evening before, April 5, the Avondale couple had driven 3-month-old Anthony Perez to an emergency room after his maternal grandmother noticed his head was badly swollen and he was barely conscious.

Doctors at Phoenix Children's Hospital determined that Anthony had suffered multiple broken bones, including a fractured skull, ribs, collarbone and arm. He was having convulsions, and was bruised over much of his body.

Also, Anthony's retinas were hemorrhaging--often a telltale symptom of "shaken baby syndrome," a medical term describing injuries that result from violent shaking.

Worst of all, Anthony's brain was bleeding badly.
Doctors unanimously concluded that the bleeding was caused by a devastating blunt-force blow, and that his injuries were consistent with child abuse. Examinations of the other quads a few days later revealed similarly serious injuries, though not as immediately dire as Anthony's:

* Baby Damian had suffered 17 rib fractures, two skull fractures, bone-chip fractures of both knees, and permanent brain damage.

* Baby Megan had suffered 13 rib fractures, two skull fractures, fractures of the left arm, right collarbone, and fractures of both thighbones, and permanent brain damage.

* Baby Robert had suffered seven rib fractures, a skull fracture, broken arms and other injuries. It's unclear from the Avondale report if he, too, suffered permanent brain damage.

* Baby Anthony had suffered 11 rib fractures, two skull fractures, a broken right arm, and sustained severe, irreversible brain damage.

It had taken a frightening degree of force to injure the babies so badly.
And doctors say the injuries occurred at different times, over a period of several weeks.

Whittle and Perez denied wrongdoing in untaped police interviews at the hospital early that morning.

"In this writer's opinion," state Child Protective Services (CPS) caseworker Judy Almy wrote April 16, "Anthony and his siblings were the victims of severe physical abuse resulting in life-threatening injuries which most likely will result in multiple, lifelong disabilities. . . ."

Despite that opinion--which echoes those of doctors who have treated Anthony--no one yet has been charged in the assaults. But sources at the Maricopa County Attorney's Office say that a decision on how to proceed is imminent.

The Avondale police report depicts Whittle and Perez as the prime suspects of assaulting their own babies.

A likely motive?
To try to keep the quads from being so much trouble. As pathetic as that sounds, medical literature says that's often the excuse given by people who shake and abuse their babies.

It could be argued that medical personnel could have prevented some of the serious injuries to the quads.

The Avondale report indicates that on March 22, Whittle and Perez took Anthony to Samaritan West Valley Health Center in Goodyear for emergency treatment of what doctors then suspected was meningitis.

There, Anthony was x-rayed. But neither doctors at West Valley nor at Phoenix Children's Hospital--where he was transferred--gave the x-rays a thorough examination, if they looked at them at all.

If they had, they certainly would have seen that Anthony had a freshly broken collarbone, which doctors concluded after his April 5 hospital admission had been caused by a powerful blow.

Pediatric experts contacted by New Times say the broken bone likely would have raised red flags that Anthony had been abused.

Those suspicions, in turn, may have prevented Anthony and his siblings from sustaining more injuries, including--some doctors have told investigators--injuries that rendered Anthony permanently blind and deaf.

On top of that, a doctor at West Valley drew bloody spinal fluid (it's supposed to be clear) from Anthony during a procedure on March 22. Two taps at Phoenix Children's Hospital a few days later also produced bloody spinal fluid.

Medical texts indicate that the presence of blood meant either that the doctor's technique had been faulty, or that the spinal fluid contained blood from Anthony's already battered brain.

Doctors at the two hospitals apparently didn't consider the more sinister possibility until after Anthony was readmitted to the hospital on April 5. By then, he had been damaged beyond repair.

News of the abuse was a big deal, especially in light of the controversy that had enveloped the quads even before their births.

A December story in the Arizona Republic contrasted the Avondale couple's financial struggles with the good fortune--literally--of the Iowa parents of septuplets born in November.

The Avondale quads had been conceived without the use of fertility drugs--a one-in-10,000 shot--but radio talk show callers and newspaper letter writers blasted the unmarried Whittle's failure to use contraception when she already had a child, was unemployed, broke and on welfare.

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