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Richter guilty of endangering child’s welfare

Babysitter accused of shaking 7 month-old in her care in 2010

Shelley Richter is guilty of endangering the welfare of a child — but is not guilty of felony child abuse, a Cole County jury ruled late Wednesday afternoon.

Both charges were filed against Richter in 2010, after Lane Schaefer, then 7 months old, suffered a severe head injury on Aug. 19, 2010, while at Richter’s in-home day care in Taos.

The six-man, six-woman jury deliberated just over 51⁄2 hours before reaching their verdict.

All testimony during the three-day trial showed Lane was a healthy baby when he arrived at Richter’s home about 9 a.m. that Thursday.

Richter always maintained — from her first interview with Cole County sheriff’s detective Colin Burdick, on the day Lane was hurt, through her trial testimony Wednesday — that the boy’s injuries were the result of an accident shortly after noon.

“I got Lane’s bottle (and) picked him up from the walker,” she told the jury Wednesday morning. “One of the twins got behind me and I tripped.

“I fell backward (and) caught myself before I landed on the twin. I had (Lane) pressed to my hip.”

But she lost her grip as she was falling, she said, and the baby fell about three or four feet to the linoleum-covered concrete basement floor.

Richter didn’t see how Lane landed, but testified he was lying on the floor, crying, after the fall.

“I went to see what was wrong, picked him up — and he went unconscious and limp,” she said.

Richter testified she panicked and, instead of calling 911 and asking for an ambulance, she called a neighbor who lived just five houses away.

That neighbor, former Highway Patrol trooper Dawn Wilde, told the jury Richter also babysat her children.

When Richter called that mid-day and said there had been an accident, Wilde jumped into her car and drove to the home day care in “no more than a minute or minute and a half.”

As soon as she arrived, Wilde testified, “I knew we needed to call 911.”

Richter placed the call but “was distraught” and had trouble talking with the operator, Wilde said.

So Richter handed Wilde the phone and the former trooper gave the vital information, then also called Lane’s mother to notify her of the accident.

During closing arguments, Assistant Cole County Prosecutor Cheryl Nield reminded the jury that Richter “didn’t call 911. She called her neighbor, then sat there and waited — and she waited — to give herself time to sort out the story she was going to tell.”

In his opening statement, Shane Farrow, Richter’s attorney, told jurors Richter had been providing an in-home babysitting service for seven years at the time of the accident, and she “will regret forever” what happened to Lane Schaefer and his family that day.

In his closing argument, Farrow said: “This is a tragic case — but that doesn’t mean Shelley Richter knowingly shook Lane Schaefer or knowingly hit his head (on something).”

Based on testimony from several doctors connected with the University of Missouri’s Women’s and Children’s Hospital or the Mason Eye Institute, Nield painted a picture of a woman who shook Lane so violently that mid-day that she caused massive bleeding inside the baby’s head, resulting in permanent damage to his motor skills, and permanent blindness.

“At the end of the day, there’s somewhat complicated medical testimony,” Nield reminded the jury in her final, closing argument Wednesday morning. “(But the doctors’) conclusion was consistent, that Lane Schaefer was injured by shaking — a non-accidental event.”

But that’s not true, Farrow said.

“There are inconsistencies amongst these experts who are saying, ‘You can rely on us,’” he reminded the jury. “All said dropping (a child) wouldn’t cause these injuries — (but our expert), Dr. (John) Plunkett, said these injuries are consistent with being dropped from a short distance.”

Plunkett lives in rural Minnesota, about 40 miles southeast of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

Until he retired in 2005, Plunkett testified, he was a medical examiner and coroner for almost 30 years — and now works as a consultant on cases like Richter’s.

He generally rejects the concept of “shaken baby syndrome” — what most doctors now are calling “abusive head trauma” or “non-accidental trauma.”

Plunkett told the jury: “You cannot create the force or acceleration needed to cause those injuries. ... It is much more likely that the fall caused the injuries.”

Now 3, Lane’s parents testified Monday he needs therapy almost daily, and his mother — a registered nurse who had worked in Capital Region Medical Center’s surgery department — had to quit her job in 2010 to focus on caring for her son and getting him to the many medical and therapy appointments he has.

After the jury announced its verdicts, Farrow declined to comment Wednesday evening.

Nield told reporters: “These cases are tough cases, but we’re gratified that the jury considered the state’s experts’ medical testimony and, ultimately ... reached the conclusion that (Richter’s) acts were perpetrated knowingly, in creating substantial risk to Lane Schaefer, and that they were not accidental.”

Cole County Presiding Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce gave Farrow 25 days to file a motion for a new trial.

Initial coverage of verdict, posted at 6:11 p.m. Wednesday:

Shelley Richter is guilty of endangering the welfare of a child, a Cole County jury ruled late this afternoon.

But that jury said she was not guilty of the more serious charge, felony child abuse.

Both charges were filed in 2010, after Lane Schaefer, then 7 months-old, was injured while attending Richter’s in-home day care in Taos.

All testimony showed he was a healthy baby before Richter said she dropped the boy while falling, after tripping over a toddler who had walked behind her.

Now 3, Lane’s parents testified he needs therapy almost daily, has life-long brain damage and will be blind for the rest of his life.

The six-man, six-woman jury deliberated just over 5 1/2-hours before reaching their verdict.

Cole County Presiding Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce gave lawyers 25 days to file a motion for a new trial.

Earlier coverage of the case going to the jury:

Shelly Richter’s future now is in the hands of a Cole County jury.

“At the end of the day there’s somewhat complicated medical testimony,” Assistant Prosecutor Cheryl Nield reminded the jury in her final, closing argument. “(But the doctors’) conclusion was consistent that Lane Schaefer was injured by shaking — a non-accidental event.”

But that’s not true, said Shane Farrow, Richter’s attorney.

“There are inconsistencies amongst these experts who are saying, ‘You can rely on us,’” Farrow reminded the jury. “All said dropping (a child) wouldn’t cause these injuries (but our expert) Dr. Plunkett said these injuries are consistent with being dropped from a short distance.”

Farrow agreed Lane Schaefer, now 3, suffered serious, disabling injuries on Aug. 19, 2010, while he was in Richter’s care at her in-home day care in Taos.

“This is a tragic case,” he acknowledged, “but that doesn’t mean Shelly Richter knowingly shook Lane Schaefer or knowingly hit his head (on something).”

Farrow presented only three witnesses during this morning’s testimony: Richter; Dawn Wilde, a neighbor and former Highway Patrol trooper whom Richter called first, when she realized the boy — then 7 months old — was seriously hurt after she dropped him while falling; and Dr. John Plunkett, a retired Minnesota medical examiner.

Plunkett reviewed all of Schaefer’s medical records and the sheriff’s department’s probable cause statement filed with the initial charges, and told the jury this morning that the Missouri doctors were wrong when they concluded Lane’s serious brain injuries were caused by his being shaken.

“If you fall and you hit your head, the likelihood of serious injury is pretty high,” Plunkett testified.

A Cole County grand jury indicted Richter, now 42, in September 2010 for child abuse, a Class B felony, and endangering the welfare of a child, a Class C felony.

Conviction of the abuse charge could result in a prison sentence of five-15 years. Conviction of the “endangering” charge could result in a prison sentence of up to seven years.

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