Criminal charges not planned in boy’s overdose death

MONROE — Snohomish County prosecutors don’t expect to file criminal charges against the parents of a Monroe boy who fatally overdosed last year.

Monroe police conducted a competent and thorough investigation into the boy’s Jan. 30, 2012 death, but there isn’t sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime was committed, Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe said Tuesday. There also isn’t enough evidence to prove who, if anyone, provided the boy with the fatal dose of salicylates, a chemical common in aspirin and numerous other over-the-counter drugs.

“There certainly was enough information to cause concern and some level of suspicion, but we can’t and don’t charge people with a crime when our evidence merely rises to the level of concern or suspicion,” Roe said.

The prosecutor said the lack of an autopsy in the case file wasn’t the basis for the declining to pursue charges.

“An autopsy would have helped, but by no means would it have gotten us all the way there,” Roe said.

A post-mortem exam alone wouldn’t have determined if one of the parents gave the medicine to the boy, identified as “A.J.” in court papers, or if he accidentally ingested it on his own, he said.

Prosecutors would need to answer those crucial questions to move forward with criminal charges, Roe said.

The medical examiner declined to do an autopsy on the 7-year-old, who was severely developmentally delayed, despite repeated requests by Monroe police investigators.

The case has prompted changes in Snohomish County on who is notified about a child’s death when no autopsy is planned, Roe said. The medical examiner has agreed to contact Child Protective Services, law enforcement and prosecutors before releasing the body of a child to a funeral home, Roe said.

“The lessons learned in this case will be a help in the future,” Roe said.

Deputy prosecutor Adam Cornell spent weeks reviewing the voluminous investigation, which included two dozen statements from witnesses, numerous police reports and hundreds of photographs.

Monroe detectives had recommended the boy’s mother be charged with second-degree manslaughter. They also said they believed there was evidence to support other, less serious charges, against both parents. By recommending a manslaughter charge investigators indicated that they didn’t believe there was evidence the child’s death was intentional.

In the Aug. 20 memo to prosecutors, detectives pointed out that their investigation was hampered by a lack of an autopsy. It was toxicology tests, which are routinely ordered by the medical examiner, that found the boy overdosed on salicylates. Those results arrived after his body already had been cremated.

“Critical evidence, which may have supported or ruled out more serious charges by autopsy, is not available for this case,” the detective wrote.

Yet, investigators pointed to more than two dozen pieces of evidence to support criminal charges against the boy’s parents.

The “totality of the circumstances surrounding the life and death of (the boy) have led” to the recommended charges, Monroe detective Spencer Robinson wrote.

Monroe police this week received a lengthy memo from Cornell, explaining his decision.

That prompted them to meet with the city’s prosecutor Tuesday to discuss whether he would consider pursuing misdemeanor charges, police spokeswoman Debbie Willis said. He plans to review the case.

“We believe that there may be charges that are lesser that can be charged,” she said.

Willis said county prosecutors thoroughly reviewed the investigation.

“We just want to do the best thing for A.J. and that family,” she said. “Our detectives worked really hard on it. It was difficult the way the investigation started.”

A.J. was brought in just after 4 a.m. Jan. 30, 2012 to the emergency room in Monroe. His father reported that the boy was breathing and alive when they left their home, about two miles from the hospital.

Doctors noted that the boy appeared to be in the early stages of rigor mortis. That led them to believe that A.J. had been dead for a significant amount of time.

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

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.

The medical examiner classified the boy’s death as “low suspicion,” and declined requests by police to do an autopsy. The boy’s body was released to a funeral home just hours after the medical examiner took custody.

By the time police were told about the blood test results, the body had been cremated.

A.J.’s parents initially told Monroe detectives they didn’t give the boy any medications the night before he died. His parents stopped cooperating with the investigation soon after his death.

Detectives later learned that the boy’s mother reportedly told a witness that she gave A.J. aspirin that night to reduce his fever.

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

Roe said investigators uncovered some plausible explanations for some of the what appeared to be troubling evidence. One example, he said, was the emergency room doctor’s conclusion that the boy was in the early stages of rigor mortis. Investigators learned that a person who dies in the throes of a seizure also may appear to be in rigor mortis. A.J. was being treated for a seizure disorder.

Investigators contacted medical professionals who were familiar with the boy and his medical conditions, Roe said.

“There are some who remain suspicious. There are others who don’t believe that neglect or wrongdoing played a role in his death,” Roe said.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

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