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Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley stood at a podium Monday afternoon and assumed his most determined prosecutor's face. The television cameras caught the moment for the 5 p.m. newscast, as Romley announced the arrest of Elizabeth "Shannon" Whittle, 24-year-old mother of the battered Avondale quadruplets.
On a hot local news day--the missing Tempe mom case, the announcement of a criminal investigation into Scott Norberg's June 1996 death at the Madison Street Jail, mudslinging in the gubernatorial race--the quads case topped them all.
Such press conferences usually aren't complete without some congratulation. That's when honchos from law enforcement agencies involved in a case praise the other for professionalism and cooperation.
Romley patted his own agency on the back for getting the quads case to this momentous point. Conspicuous, however, by their absence at Monday's gathering were officials from the Avondale Police Department.
In fact, Romley didn't even mention that Avondale P.D. had been part of the investigation or the Whittle arrest team until someone asked him where the police representatives were. (A New Times story on the case ["Nursery Crimes," September 24] described how Avondale detectives made serious errors in the first days after the quads' life-threatening injuries became known, then compounded the mistakes by composing an often-incomprehensible police report. The story was based on the then-sealed police report, a copy of which New Times had obtained.)
"As you know," Romley responded, "we worked with the Avondale police at the very beginning of this investigation. At a certain point in time--our office has a significant amount of expertise, both from an investigator's standpoint and an attorney's standpoint--we took a primary lead in the investigation. Avondale did help us with the arrest, and they will continue to be a partner in this case through the trial itself."
Translation: Avondale didn't have the stuff it takes to piece together a complex case such as this.
Analysis: There will have to be some major smoothing of ruffled feathers in this one.
Romley and deputy county attorney Dyanne Greer spoke about the high incidence of child abuse in the Valley, and how convictions in such cases often are difficult to secure.
Greer, a veteran prosecutor who also lectures about child abuse around the nation, knows this as well as anyone. She's turned down prosecution of many child-abuse cases because of the difficulty proving who committed the crimes--and which caretaker had endangered the child victim by failing to protect and/or get medical treatment.
The unsolved cases illustrate the struggles authorities face in prosecuting violent crimes against children. The proof of successfully prosecuting those cases, according to experts on the subject, is in the details. That's because child abuse usually occurs in isolation, without eyewitnesses, and without a young victim who can competently testify.
Such realities make the police work in child-abuse investigations all the more crucial.
Asked to comment about the police report, an Avondale police spokesman says the document speaks for itself. If so, according to sources who've seen the report, it's not speaking too clearly. Although muddled, the report does reveal troubling components about the quads case that weren't raised during Romley's press conference.
For example, doctors at two hospitals misread or failed to examine x-rays of Baby Anthony that would have alerted them to the level of abuse two weeks before his parents returned him to the hospital in a near-comatose state, last April 5.
By March 22, Anthony--the second-born of the quads--had sustained a broken collarbone, head trauma and other injuries. Inexplicably, doctors didn't correctly diagnose those injuries until April 5.
The grand-jury indictment against Elizabeth Whittle alleges she battered or failed to render aid to her babies between March 9 and April 5. One count alleges that, on April 4 or 5, "under circumstances likely to produce death or serious physical injury," Whittle assaulted Anthony, causing "significant global bruising to the brain . . . bleeding on the brain, and retinal hemorrhage."
That timing suggests that, had medical personnel detected Baby Anthony's injuries when he was hospitalized in March, law enforcement authorities surely would have intervened and prevented other injuries the quads suffered from March 22 to April 5.
Left hanging at the end of Romley's press conference was the fate of Tony Perez, the 22-year-old father of the quads. Romley tried to dance around the questions about when and if Perez may face similar charges as his companion, Whittle.
Romley responded by noting that the investigation into Perez's possible role in the abuse is ongoing. Those comments imply that Perez may soon join his wife behind bars.
Why police didn't arrest Perez on Monday is a matter of speculation. Perhaps authorities hope Perez will tell them--or anyone--what happened at the apartment where he and Whittle lived.
Such confessions are rare.
Arresting someone is easy. And, as prosecutor Greer and her co-counsel in the case, Karen O'Connor, well know, convicting that person or persons usually is far more difficult.
Both Whittle and Perez have proclaimed their innocence in the past, and surely will do so in court unless one or both swing a deal with prosecutors.
The quads will turn nine months old October 9, and are living in foster-care homes. Three of the four are said to be healing remarkably well, though prosecutor Greer warned reporters that the extent of their brain damage won't be known for years.
Baby Anthony, however, is deaf and blind, and in a vegetative state. All of his injuries, prosecutors will argue in court, came at the hands of Elizabeth Whittle. She is charged with 10 counts of inflicting child abuse, and three counts of failing to protect her babies from harm and also failing to get medical treatment for them.
Romley, by the way, said his greatest concern after publication of the New Times story was that Whittle might leave town after she read it.
"If anything," he said, "when I heard this reporter was doing the story, I did everything in my power to go before the grand jury before the story [was published]."
Jesting, Romley continued, "When that did not work, I tried to threaten them, but that did not work either."
Contact Paul Rubin at his online address: email@example.com