Family still looking for answers in death of toddler
REGIONAL—The family of Caroline Shenze Marie Medicine-Chavez say they are still looking for answers and justice more than a year and a half after the two year-old was fatally injured in a Virginia apartment.
Family members allege that Caroline was the victim of apparent abuse at the hands of Russell Johnson who, at the time, was the boyfriend of Caroline’s mother Jennifer Medicine. Jennifer, Caroline, and Johnson were sharing a Pine Mill Court apartment at the time of Caroline’s death.
An autopsy by a medical examiner lists the cause of death as “closed head trauma,” but does not specify how the child might have suffered such an injury. Following a roughly six-month investigation, Virginia police officials met with the family and informed them that their investigation was no longer active and that no charges would be filed without new evidence.
That decision has upset the family and Bois Forte tribal officials, who have expressed concern that the case got short shrift because both the victim and the suspect are American Indian. Jennifer Medicine is an enrolled member of the Bois Forte Band, as is Caroline’s father, Cody Chavez.
It was shortly before 9 a.m. on Monday, March 21, 2012, when Virginia police and emergency medical personnel received a 911 call from a Pine Mill Court apartment, reporting that a young girl was non-responsive. The first officer on the scene, Mike Gornick, reportedly found Caroline lying on an air mattress, gasping for air. Gornick picked up the child and carried her to the ambulance, which was just then pulling up to the apartment.
At the time of his arrival, Gornick also found two young men in the apartment, Russell Johnson and his twin brother Reed, aged 25 at the time. Jennifer was not in the apartment, having left earlier that morning for a 9 a.m. appointment with a St. Louis County welfare case worker.
Upon arrival at the Virginia Regional Medical Center, doctors quickly realized that Caroline’s injury was potentially fatal. They managed to stabilize her, but reported finding limited brain activity. By the time police officers returned to the VRMC later that morning, doctors informed them that Caroline was “brain dead” and breathing only with the help of a ventilator.
Two physicians who examined Caroline reported that the child had extensive bleeding on the left side of her brain, as well as some hemorrhaging into her left eye. Both physicians indicated that the bleeding into the eye was a type of injury that could be attributable to the violent shaking of a child, which can lead to severe brain damage or death.
Caroline was transported to Essentia Medical Center in Duluth later in the day, where doctors confirmed her status and consulted with the family before removing her breathing tube. Caroline was pronounced dead in the early morning hours of March 22.
Law enforcement officials acknowledge that Caroline’s death occurred under suspicious circumstances, and that’s a view that is shared by Caroline’s family. From the beginning, Caroline’s family members pointed to Russell Johnson, who was alone with Caroline at the apparent time of her injuries, as the cause of Caroline’s death. Indeed, the police report states that Jennifer’s uncle Robert Moyer had to be calmed by police officers in order to keep him from assaulting Johnson when he appeared later at the hospital.
Virginia police investigators questioned Johnson within hours of the 911 call. Johnson told detectives that Caroline had woken up about 8:45 that morning and that he had gone downstairs to the refrigerator to get her a juice box. After returning to the upstairs bedroom he stated that he watched television for a short time before asking Caroline to get a pull-up diaper from a nearby closet. He said as she was walking back across the room to bring it to him, she started “slithering” along the wall and then seemed to fall asleep and slid down against the wall, bumping her head as she did so.
Johnson told police that he placed Caroline on an air mattress, which was the only furniture in the room, and tried to revive Caroline by rubbing her belly. Moments later, his brother Reed entered the apartment and found his brother and Caroline, who was non-responsive, and he went back to his apartment to get his girlfriend’s mother, who was a nurse. On his arrival, however, the mother told him to call 911, which he did.
While both Russell and his brother Reed have told consistent stories from the beginning, the police report notes that evidence found at the scene did not support their version of events. Later that day, police investigators obtained a search warrant and Officer Gornick and Russell Johnson entered the apartment at about 3 p.m. While Gornick took photographs of the scene, Johnson, unsolicited by police, offered a re-enactment of the events that he said led to Caroline’s injuries.
Gornick looked for the pull-up diaper and fresh juice box that figured prominently in Johnson’s explanation, and found neither. He stated that the only diapers in the room were still in the closet area and the only juice boxes he could find were located underneath the air mattress and appeared to be old. When asked about the discrepancies, Johnson told police he could not account for them.
Johnson, who is not Caroline’s father, had begun a relationship with Jennifer about five months earlier, and had been living in the apartment for about four months at the time of Caroline’s death.
Jennifer, who works at Fortune Bay four days a week, frequently left Caroline in Johnson’s care while at work, since Johnson was unemployed.
Johnson has been convicted of a series of minor incidents, including possession of less than $250 in stolen property, DWI, and possession of marijuana over the past several years. He is currently on probation for one year following his conviction in September 2013 on a charge of possession of synthetic marijuana.
Caroline’s March 21 trip to the hospital with a head injury wasn’t her first. Less than three weeks earlier, on March 3, 2012, Jennifer had called 911 after Caroline became unresponsive in the couple’s previous apartment on Chestnut Street, in downtown Virginia.
Jennifer and Russell were making breakfast in a communal kitchen area at the time, while Caroline was upstairs crying. “She was being crabby so I asked Russell to go get her,” said Jennifer during an interview with the Timberjay. “He came back down and said she tripped and fell. She wasn’t moving and her eyes were wide open and she was staring at the ceiling.”
An ambulance transported Caroline to VRMC, where she seemed to recover. Doctors diagnosed a concussion and sent her home. “They wanted to do a CT scan,” recalls Jennifer, “but because we didn’t have insurance, they let us go.”
While Caroline seemed to have recovered, Jennifer reported that she soon began exhibiting what appeared to her to be unrelated symptoms. “Every time she ate, she would get sick,” recalls Jennifer. “She was throwing up a lot. She couldn’t hold anything down, water or food.” Johnson, when interviewed by police, mentioned similar symptoms.
Jennifer said she wanted to take Caroline back to the hospital, but Johnson discouraged her, and dismissed her frequent vomiting and irritability as the flu.
“He said the doctors wouldn’t do anything but send us home,” she recalls.
Despite Caroline’s injury, Jennifer said she was never contacted by St. Louis County Social Services, which suggests that doctors at VRMC did not report Caroline’s March 3 injuries. County social service officials declined to answer questions from the Timberjay, noting that domestic abuse data is considered confidential in Minnesota.
Symptoms of abuse
While Caroline’s frequent vomiting and irritability may have seemed unrelated to her March 3 injury, those symptoms are, in fact, consistent with what is known in the medical profession as “shaken baby syndrome.” According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, evidence of shaken baby syndrome includes extreme irritability, difficulty staying awake, poor eating, breathing problems, and vomiting. More severe symptoms include paralysis or coma. “Other injuries that may not be noticeable include bleeding in the brain and eye,” states the website. “Evidence of prior child abuse also is common.”
Such symptoms are related to brain damage caused when a small child is violently shaken, which causes the brain to impact the sides of the skull.
In the case of Caroline, it appears that she had suffered various types of head trauma on numerous occasions. A CT scan completed by the medical examiner indicated fresh bleeding in Caroline’s brain and eye. It also revealed “bruises of varying age within the deep tissue of her head,” wrote the medical examiner.
When asked by police investigators of other incidents of possible abuse, Jennifer said she had returned home from work a few months earlier, and found Caroline with a bump on her head. She said Johnson told her at the time that Caroline had fallen off a table.
Caroline’s grandmother, Bessie Medicine, who sometimes watched Caroline when Jennifer was at work, also reported evidence of possible abuse. She told police that on one occasion, in January, when Jennifer dropped Caroline off, she noticed that some of her hair had been pulled out. When she questioned Johnson about it, she said he told her that Caroline had snarls in her hair and that the hair had come out while he was trying to comb it. She said she reported the incident to Indian Child Welfare at Nett Lake, but was told that there was little the agency could do other than write it down.
Investigation goes nowhere
Based on evidence uncovered by the autopsy, and the lack of evidence at the apartment supporting Johnson’s version of events, police asked to re-interview Johnson on March 22. Investigators inquired about the March 3 incident as well as Caroline’s injuries from the day before. When investigators challenged Johnson’s explanation, he reportedly became agitated. He said he never hit Caroline, although investigators had never suggested that he had. He then refused to answer any more questions and asked for an attorney. Investigators concluded the interview at that time and gave Johnson a ride back to his apartment.
The investigative report lists no more interviews with witnesses until May 29, when investigators had more questions for Jennifer. They asked about the March 3 incident, and about some of the symptoms that Caroline had been exhibiting since then.
Two weeks earlier, investigators learned that Caroline was also suffering from pneumonia at the time of her death.
Investigators interviewed two other witnesses in August, neither of whom provided any new information. By October, the investigators and county prosecutors met with Caroline’s family. “At this meeting we explained to them that we were not going to be going forward with any charges at this time against anyone,” stated the report, written by Detective Dennis Benz, who has since been promoted to chief of the Virginia police.
Looking for answers
Jennifer Medicine obtained a copy of the investigation report from the Virginia Police Department last month, and family members say it’s only strengthened their conviction that Russell Johnson is responsible for the injuries that led to Caroline’s death. “The fact that they didn’t find a juice box or a pull-up,” was convincing evidence to Caroline’s grandmother Bessie. “They [investigators and prosecutors] never told us these things when they said they couldn’t charge Russell,” said Bessie.
Family members say they are frustrated by what they see as a lack of a serious investigation, and the premature decision to close a case that involved the death of a young child. In an Oct. 17 letter to St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin, Jessie Medicine was blunt about what many Bois Forte band members see as the reason behind that decision. “We feel strongly that because she was an American Indian and the suspect is an American Indian that we have not had a serious effort by law enforcement to solve this crime,” she wrote. Jennifer noted that Caroline had obvious bruises to her head the family received her body from the hospital. “Our baby Caroline, American Indian or not, deserves justice for the life and future she had stolen from her,” wrote Jennifer.
Investigation open or closed?
Law enforcement officials and county prosecutors have given differing responses when asked about the status of this case. Virginia police have maintained to the Timberjay that the case is either closed or inactive. County Attorney Mark Rubin states that the investigation is ongoing. (See details in related sidebar)
Editor’s note: The Timberjay was unable to contact Russell Johnson for this story.