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Felony charge dropped against Pa. baby sitter in infant's death

May 31, 2011|By JENNIFER FITCH | waynesboro@herald-mail.com

SCOTLAND, Pa. — A Franklin County, Pa., magisterial district judge Tuesday dismissed an involuntary manslaughter charge against a Shippensburg, Pa., baby sitter after an infant in her care died last summer.

Judge Todd R. Williams told 10-month-old Heath Ryder's family members they have his sympathy before dismissing the felony charge.

He decided Dottie Mae Bowers, 56, should be arraigned on the remaining charge against her, which is one count of endangering the welfare of a child.

"The evidence is insufficient ... on the specifics of that charge," Williams said of involuntary manslaughter, which the law defines as acting in a reckless or negligent manner that results in someone's death.

After Williams' announcement, Heath's father, Mark Ryder, exploded in frustration, reminding the judge of an April coroner's inquest.

Hershey (Pa.) Medical Center pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Mark Dias testified during the inquest and during Tuesday's preliminary hearing.

"Based on his testimony, that's what my decision is," Williams told the Ryders. "I take no pleasure in doing that."

Harrisburg, Pa., defense attorney Joseph D. Caraciolo argued Heath's injury from shaking caused his death, not any alleged delays in his access to medical care.

A 10-year-old girl also under Bowers' care was originally charged as an adult with third-degree homicide in causing Heath's fatal head trauma. Her case has since been referred to juvenile court.

"There's nothing here to show Dottie Bowers caused any death," Caraciolo said in arguments before the judge.

Franklin County District Attorney Matt Fogal asked Dias to testify to the effect of delayed treatment. He set up a timeline suggesting Bowers found Heath in distress at 2:50 p.m. July 29, 2010, but did not call his mother until 3:26 p.m. Heath's mother, Shelly Ryder, missed 10 calls and didn't talk to Bowers until 3:37 p.m.

In her tearful testimony, Shelly Ryder said Bowers repeatedly refused to call 911 when asked and blocked her from reaching a landline phone.

"She said, 'We don't need 911,'" Shelly Ryder testified.

Shelly Ryder wept when the prosecution played a recording of the 911 call placed from her cellphone. She is incomprehensible in much of the recording after telling the 911 dispatcher, "Oh my God, please hurry."

Shelly Ryder recalled on the stand what happened when she arrived at Bowers' Bennelton Drive house about 15 minutes after receiving the phone call.

"I just took him out of her arms. His lips were blue. I laid him on the floor. I said, 'Heathy, it's mommy, wake up.' I did a little chest rub on him and nothing. I looked in his eyes. They were fixed and dilated," said Shelly Ryder, who is employed as a nurse.

Dias said Heath was "deeply comatose" with little evidence of brain activity when he arrived at Hershey Medical Center. In surgery, doctors removed a large blood clot from his head as well as a piece of skull to allow his brain to swell.

The child was diagnosed with subdural hematoma, multilayered retinal hematoma and traumatic tearing of the retina. He was pronounced brain dead Aug. 2, 2010.

The diagnosis is "very consistent with a violent injury, which is most commonly abusive or inflicted," Dias said at the hearing.

The seriousness of the injury would be immediately apparent because the child was likely comatose, limp and either not breathing or breathing irregularly, Dias said.

Fogal asked Dias about the possibility that 57 minutes passed between when Bowers discovered Heath unconscious and someone called 911.

"It could make a huge difference in whether that child is going to die," Dias said.

In police interviews, two girls gave varying versions of events in which the infant was shaken, tossed or thrown into a playpen, according to published reports.

Fogal said he was not prepared to comment when asked if he plans to refile the manslaughter charge against Bowers.

Caraciolo said after the hearing his client is pleased, and they feel the judge made the appropriate choice.

"We said all along Dottie didn't do anything like they say" she did, Caraciolo said.

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