Manslaughter charges possible in boy’s death

  • Thu Aug 23rd, 2012 5:55pm
  • News

By Rikki King and Diana Hefley Herald Writers

MONROE — Detectives believe a 7-year-old Monroe boy’s parents should face second-degree manslaughter charges in connection with his January overdose death.

Monroe police this week wrapped up their probe into the boy’s Jan. 30 death and forwarded the case to prosecutors to decide if his parents should face criminal charges.

Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Lisa Paul likely will begin reviewing the case in the coming days. She doesn’t expect to make a charging decision in the near future, however.

“It’s quite an extensive investigation, and I want to review it thoroughly before I make any decision,” she said.

The boy, identified as “A.J.” in court papers, ingested a lethal amount of salicylates, a chemical common in aspirin and other over-the-counter drugs. The medical examiner declined to conduct an autopsy on the boy, making it difficult to determine how the drug ended up in the boy’s system.

A.J.’s parents initially told Monroe detectives they didn’t give the boy, who was severely developmentally disabled, any medications the night before he died, police spokeswoman Debbie Willis said Thursday. His parents stopped cooperating with the investigation soon after his death.

Detectives since have learned that the boy’s mother reportedly told a witness that she gave A.J. aspirin that night to reduce his fever, Willis said.

Health officials discourage giving aspirin to children who have fevers. The combination in young people can lead to Reye’s syndrome, a serious condition that causes swelling in the liver and brain, according to the Mayo Clinic.

A.J.’s death doesn’t appear to be related to Reye’s syndrome. Detectives were told that level of salicylates found in the boy’s blood was the highest seen in anyone in the state in two years, according to records obtained by The Herald.

Salicylate poisoning generally causes noticeable symptoms that last hours before death. Those include breathing problems, nausea and vomiting.

The boy’s doctor told police that his lack of motor skills likely would have prevented him from opening a child-lock bottle by himself. A toxicologist noted that it would unlikely for a child on his own to take enough aspirin to fatally overdose.

Under the law, prosecutors would have to prove that the parents’ negligence caused the boy’s death to win a second-degree manslaughter conviction. Recommending a manslaughter charge indicates investigators don’t believe there is evidence the child’s death was intentional.

Without an autopsy it could be hard to prove how A.J. came to have lethal amounts of salicylates in his blood.

An autopsy is one piece of evidence, and the investigation contains volumes of information, including witness statements and other evidence, Paul said.

“There’s much more to a case than the autopsy,” she said.

She also noted that prosecutors do have the toxicology report showing that A.J. died of an overdose. Additionally, the boy was examined by doctors in the emergency room at Valley General Hospital in Monroe.

“It’s not that we don’t know anything about the body of the child,” Paul said.

The police investigation filled seven three-ring binders, Willis said. Detectives wanted to include all of the family’s history with police and Child Protective Services.

“We wanted to capture a complete picture,” she said.

A.J. and his older brother were taken from their parents’ care for three months in 2010 after they were found living in squalor. Their father later pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment. Since A.J.’s death, the couple’s older son has been in foster care.

Over the years, CPS also investigated reports of the parents giving their children improper or inconsistent amounts of prescribed medication and not following up on medical appointments and doctors’ recommendations.

Based on the family’s history and circumstances surrounding the boy’s death, Monroe detectives and social workers repeatedly asked the medical examiner to conduct an autopsy.

The child was brought in just after 4 a.m. to the emergency room in Monroe. The father allegedly reported that the boy was breathing and alive when they left their home, about two miles from the hospital. He said he buckled the boy into his car seat.

Doctors noted that the boy appeared to be in the early stages of rigor mortis and pronounced him dead a short time later.

The Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office released his body to a funeral home just hours after it came in. By the time police learned of the blood test results, the body had been cremated.

This would not be the first time prosecutors filed manslaughter charges in an overdose involving a child.

In 2009, a Lynnwood woman pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter after her 17-month-old granddaughter overdosed on the woman’s methadone. The girl crawled out of her playpen and found the methadone in the woman’s purse and swallowed a fatal dose of the drug used to treat opiate addictions.

At sentencing, the judge called the girl’s death preventable. He said that the grandmother had failed to take even minimal actions to prevent the toddler from getting her hands on the drug.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449;