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.

At the time, the quads' father was working as a $200-a-week security guard, a job he lost in late February.

However, publicity about the couple's money woes also snared thousands of dollars of donations.

Born January 9, the quads were named--in order of birth--Megan, Anthony, Robert and Damian. They were born about a month prematurely, and each weighed little more than three pounds. But Dr. David Hall noted at a January 14 press conference that "the babies are doing extraordinarily well."

Said Whittle at that press conference, "These babies were given to me by God. There's nothing you can say negative about that."

The quads were not in the news again until early April.
"Quads in hospital, abuse suspected," a front-page headline in the April 10 edition of the Arizona Republic said. "Skull fractures, broken bones raise queries in Avondale case."

That day, Whittle told a TV reporter she'd done nothing wrong.
"I would never hurt my babies," she said, whimpering. "God gave me these babies, and not for me to hurt them."

Whittle paused, then added more calmly, "We really can't answer any questions until we get a lawyer."

The couple's co-counsel, Norman Katz, tells New Times, "Our clients have maintained from the start that they didn't abuse their children, and that's a fact. But this isn't the right time to talk. When the time is right, they [Whittle and Perez] or we will probably make a statement."

The Avondale report doesn't say if authorities are convinced which parent--or perhaps both parents--abused the quads. But under Arizona law, if one of them stood by without rendering aid to a battered child, that parent also may be held criminally accountable.

Child abuse can be difficult to prove beyond a "reasonable doubt." Prosecutors must prove a perpetrator had access to a child during the time in which injuries allegedly were inflicted.

That's often a large hurdle, because child abuse usually occurs in isolation, without eyewitnesses. The young victims are unable to testify. If several people had access to a child, chances for a a successful prosecution--or even arrests, for that matter--are slim.

Further, doctors often are unable to determine precisely when a child was injured. That inevitably leads defense attorneys to deflect blame from their client toward anyone who had even scant contact with the victim.

Sometimes, that strategy works.
"The proof of every one of these cases is in the details, details which are often overlooked, misunderstood or ignored by those who have insufficient training in this complex area," says Rob Parrish, chief child abuse counsel for the Utah Attorney General's Office.

Parrish might as well have been talking about the actions of Avondale police in the critical first days after Anthony's April 5 hospital admission.

Probably most important, detectives--in their first and only chance to question Whittle and Perez--failed to pin down the couple on inconsistencies in their accounts of Anthony's health before his emergency admission.

Only after the County Attorney's Office involved itself in the case April 9 did the investigation get on track. But even then, according to its own report, the Avondale department made serious investigative mistakes.

On April 10, for example, Elizabeth Whittle called the police station and left a message for detective Kelly Shore to call her. This afforded Shore a rare opportunity to reinterview a chief suspect--knowing this time that all four babies and not just Anthony had been injured.

But no one apparently told the detective that Whittle had called. Shore didn't get wind of it until three days later, when he read an e-mail message after returning to work after a long weekend.

(Why Shore's supervisors allowed him to take time off during a crucial juncture of one of the highest-profile cases in the city's history is unclear. Shore did not return a call from New Times. Avondale Lieutenant Gordon French declined to comment on any aspect of the case.)

By the time Shore got Whittle's message, the couple had hired an attorney who told them to clam up.

The Avondale police report itself poses another problem in the quads case. It is inexact, incomplete and, at times, incomprehensible--in other words, a defense attorney's dream. An excerpt: "Dr. Vetto stated that the reason why Anthony was brought to the hospital for illness the past few days with a fever and derriere on that day."

If the case weren't so serious, the report would be laughable. Yet the report does manage to describe dangerously stressful conditions at the Whittle/Perez household--conditions that authorities strongly suspect made for a textbook case of child abuse.

Contributing factors cited in the report: a cramped, one-bedroom apartment, financial troubles, ever-demanding babies, Whittle's preexisting mental problems.

If Whittle and/or Perez are charged with crimes, prosecutors will have powerful circumstantial evidence in that the quads all were brutalized in a similar fashion. Doctors say the four repeatedly were shaken and subjected to blunt-force injuries.

The police report says adults with sole access to the quads were Whittle, Perez, Whittle's mother, and Whittle's teenage brother.

About 300 infant deaths were attributed to shaking last year, according to statistics provided by the United States Council on Child Abuse and Neglect. Many other babies--it's impossible to say how many because no central reporting mechanism exists--face permanent intellectual, motor and visual problems from being shaken.

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