Phantom Murder: At the 11th Hour, Prosecutors Dropped a Murder Charge Against a Beloved Daycare Operator -- Leaving the Death of Baby Dillon a Medical Mystery

On Monday, July 19, a top aide to Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley told New Times that prosecutors will file a motion to dismiss murder and child-abuse charges against Lisa Kathleen Randall, whose case is the subject of this story.

Cindi Nanetti, division chief over major crimes, said senior prosecutors reviewed the case in an Incident Review Board meeting earlier Monday and unanimously concluded that "we cannot say with any certainty that a murder was committed."

Nanetti said the turning point for her office came after the internal review board analyzed a report authored recently by the prosecution's own expert, Dr. Cliff Nelson of the state medical examiner's office in Oregon. Nelson's conclusions were similar to those of other experts — prosecution and defense — that the official cause of death listed by Maricopa County pathologist Dr. Kevin Horn in late 2007 — "blunt-force trauma of the head and neck" — was totally wrong.

"These are highly emotional cases that are tragic all around," Nanetti said, "but we have to rely on the experts, who are telling us that this very, very possibly wasn't a murder after all. Even the doctors who once were sure about the blunt-force trauma, including Dr. Horn, tell us they can't disagree with Dr. Nelson's conclusions. We are obliged not to move forward with this. It's our duty."

Randall's trial was scheduled to start August 2, more than three years after the April 2007 death of 4-month-old Dillon Uutela. Peoria police arrested Randall after a grand jury indicted her on the charges.

Superior Court Judge Michael Kemp is expected to dismiss the case at a hearing on July 22.

Dillon Uutela's last hours of consciousness began on the morning of April 18, 2007, a mere 133 days after his birth.

He was the only child of Tara and Jason Uutela, a young Surprise couple who moved to Arizona from Washington state in 2005.

Dillon had been under the weather for about three weeks, first with an ear infection and then with a nagging fever contracted after a series of vaccination shots.

On April 16, the infant's pediatrician wrote that Dillon was suffering from "viral syndrome," though Dr. Nicholas Pham didn't order blood tests to confirm his diagnosis. Pham's case notes say he told Tara to return in a few days if Dillon wasn't feeling better.

She continued to treat her baby with Tylenol, and on the morning of April 18, the Uutelas decided to resume their previous weekday routine.

Jason Uutela later told a police detective that he arose for work that morning in the predawn hours. Dillon was sleeping in his crib.

Tara Uutela had returned weeks earlier to her job at a bank and was working afternoons. She awoke about 6:45 a.m., fed Dillon a bottle of formula about 7 and then about 9:30, the latter feeding about a half-hour earlier than usual. (The infant ingested just three ounces of the five-ounce bottle during the 9:30 feeding, a detail that later would come into play.)

Tara planned to drop Dillon off later that morning with Lisa Randall, a woman in her late 40s who ran a small daycare business out of her home on West Cherry Hills Drive in Peoria.

The Uutelas first had hooked up with Lisa through Tara's work supervisor, Sarah Randall (Lisa's daughter-in-law). The couple started taking Dillon there on weekdays, for three or four hours at a stretch, in early March, and it was working out fine.

Lisa was calm and patient, and the other children at the home (usually four or five at a time) always seemed happy.

Tara did some shopping with Dillon at Arrowhead Mall (she bought him a little NASCAR shirt), and then drove to Lisa Randall's home.

She carried the infant, still strapped in his car seat, to the front door and said her goodbyes about 11:30.

Both Tara and Lisa later agreed in separate police interviews that Dillon seemed fine — alert and not the least fussy.

Tara asked Lisa to feed Dillon a bit earlier than usual, because his schedule was a little off and he hadn't finished his second bottle that morning.

Eleven children (Dillon was the youngest) were at Lisa's that day, double the usual number. As the only adult on-site, Lisa was busy with endless tasks — changing diapers, fixing lunch, wiping mouths, emptying the dishwasher.

Lisa would tell police that, after Tara left, she eventually took Dillon out of the car seat, played with him, and then placed him on a blanket on the floor in the family room.

Per Tara's instructions, Lisa intentionally put Dillon on his stomach for "tummy time," which provides a break for the back of a baby's head, allowing the infant to strengthen neck muscles and prepare it for crawling.

As time passed, two 5-year-old boys (one of them was Lisa's grandson Blake) moved onto a couch in the family room, waiting for Lisa to turn on a DVD of Charlotte's Web.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin