Monday, October 22, 2012

Would you leave your child?

True story in my small town:

In March 2011, a man and his stepson went hunting in the nearby swamp on a 70 degree morning, got lost, got way too cold when the temperature plunged into the 30s, and couldn't find their way out in the dark. It started raining. The man tried to carry his son when the son couldn't go on, but it wasn't working. For better or worse, the man made the decision to leave the boy and go for help.

A long time later, the dad made it out, got help, but it was too late. The boy drowned in the swamp. People were abuzz all over town about whether or not the guy was guilty. He did leave the 15-year-old behind and allegedly the death happened in his absence.

The man's wife divorced him and remarried, and the new couple attended the trial, intent on seeing justice for her boy. I've talked to several people since the trial, and the opinion is split. One person said she'd been in that swamp before during the heat of summer and stepped in a boghole and her waders unexpectedly filled up with water. She said it was days before she warmed up again. She said it's very easy to make bad decisions during hypothermia.

Other people like myself say that they wouldn't have left the boy, no matter what. If we'd have both froze to death, so be it. A child is a child.

The dad was charged with two counts of malice murder, second degree cruelty to children, felony murder, contributing to the deprivation of a minor and involuntary manslaughter.

The trial took 4 days. During that time, testimony corroborated the boy drowned. The dad's own words in his testimony: "Everything looked the same. I do know the swamp like the back of my hand, but if you go there at night it all looks the same in the water. I said, 'son, you got to put everything into this or we're both gonna die back here. We're both gonna die. We're not gonna make it out.'"

The dad gave the boy his wool socks. He strapped his rifle across his back for the boy to hold onto. He carried the kid for hours. The GPS couldn't get a signal. He set the kid down and went out like spokes on a wheel from the kid's location, but couldn't get his bearings. This went on for hours, and it kept getting colder. Finally he made the decision to leave the boy.

It took another few hours for him to find his way out of the swamp and to send a search team for the boy. But it was too late. Way too late.

The jury deliberated only a few hours and returned their verdict. Not guilty on either malice murder charge, not guilty on second degree cruelty to children, not guilty on felony murder. He was found guilty of contributing to the deprivation of a minor and involuntary manslaughter.

Sentencing came next. The range of time served was 5 to 10 years for each charge. The judge said 10 years for each guilty charge to run concurrently, with 5 years in the state penitentiary and 5 on probation plus a monetary fine.

I did not sit through the trial and only know what I read in the paper and what others said who did attend. A child died. That's what the judge kept coming back to in his sentencing remarks. Everyone agreed that it was a tragedy. The jury said it wasn't murder. But for this bad decision made under duress, this dad lost his son, lost 5 years of his life, and even lost his wife.

It's easy to armchair quarterback and say what you'd have done. The thing I can't get past is I wouldn't have left a child. I just wouldn't.

What about you?

thanks to The Darien News story of Oct. 11, 2012 for the quoted material

Maggie Toussaint
www.maggietoussaint.com
On the Nickel, now on Kindle

20 comments:

  1. Maggie, I read about this, too, and all I could think is unless there was some sort of animosity between the father and son, or even the father and mother, this is just a horrible tragedy.

    I've done a lot of hiking, backpacking, etc., and the cold can kill you faster than anything else. The dad figured that if he went for help, there was a chance they would both live. If he didn't they would both die. Given the age of the kid, I would err on the side of survival, too. At 15, assuming he was healthy, he had a better chance of recovery than the father.

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    1. People alleged an uneasy relationship between parent and child but I don't know that that had any play in the trial. It is clearly a tragedy. I keep coming back to the fact that he left the kid. As far as I know the kid was healthy prior to this. I mean, you wouldn't take a sickly kid hicking over sand dunes and through bog holes in hopes of finding dinner.

      Thanks for weighing in.

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  2. Well...I've not raised children, but I can't imagine an easy parent/child relationship when the kid is 15. That's a tough age. Frustrating for everyone. No longer a child, but not yet an adult by our standards.

    I think jail time is unjust, and I can't imagine why charges were even filed. Which makes me wonder if there's something else going on.


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    1. I have no answers for you, Keena. All I know is that I can't stop thinking about this case. It really makes you think, doesn't it?

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  3. Maggie--this is why I'm glad I was not on that jury. But like Keena, I see no malice from the obvious facts, especially since the father carried him on his back as long as he could. That alone could have depleted the father's energy more, and he certainly couldn't help himself or his son then. At least, he tried.
    I don't blame him. I'm seeing the 15 yr old boy--which is the age (in 3 wks) of my oldest grandson. No one could carry that boy on his back, unless he was Hercules. I'm wondering why the boy was colder and in worse shape than the father.
    The father's first mistake was going into the swamp in the first place. Yes, to hunt...but if he knew the dangers.... Also, wouldn't he know if a GPS would work or not? Those were errors he made that set up and contributed to the tragedy.
    I would have left the son, I think. But who can say what any of us would have done in the same circumstances? We really cannot place ourselves in the father's shoes.
    I read about this and vaguely remember the story.

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    1. I believe the boy was more skinny and the dad more of a muscular build, so we're talking some natural insulation here.

      Like you, I'm glad I didn't get called for that jury. I know someone who was on the jury and she's thinking of writing a book about it.

      I appreciate your insight and honesty. This is a tough case with no easy answers.

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  4. Maggie, my husband and I went hunting this weekend. We were using a GPS. After finding a great spot, we returned to our truck to get some things. When we tried to return to the same spot, we got so turned around, we had to walk out a different way, and gave up on finding our special spot again. It is terribly easy to get turned around in the woods. Even using a GPS, we had to admit we were lost. Fortunately it was daylight, warm weather, and we knew where the dirt road was. My heart goes out to this family. Would I have left a 15 year old to find help? I couldn't say. I do know the fear of being lost in the woods, and that alone can impair your reasoning skills.
    Catherine Dilts

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    1. Catherine,

      Thank you for sharing your knowledge of using a GPS in the woods. I'm unfamiliar with the devices, and in fact, am so directionally challenged that I can't go any direction except north or east on a map, and sometimes I get that wrong.

      As I remember, this child had some deep seated fears, about drowning, I believe. You don't often think you will drown in the woods, but a swamp is a different story.

      I think if you're going to do the outdoor thing, you must need to be very prepared, like with a backpack of survival gear or something. You know, a tarp, matches, flint, knife, energy bars, water, flares, and whatever lightweight safety gear you can think of. Would that be practical? Any hunters want to chime in on that?

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  5. Not "wouldn't"--couldn't. Just could not do it. But that doesn't mean I blame the dad. I imagine his thinking was that he could manage to get help and his stepson would be okay. I know of at least one story that turned out the other way, and help go there in time. It sounds like he did everything he could. But in the end, I don't think I could have left. But do we really know what we would do in extreme circumstances, trying to think of our best course of action?

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    1. Hi Terry,

      I hear what you are saying. Even in the best of circumstances a well-intentioned parent can make a poor decision. I have made plenty in my lifetime, stuff I said or did that I wish I could take back.

      Like you I don't blame the dad. We all make the best decisions we can at the time. And then we have to live with the consequences. I feel for this entire family.

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  6. Leaving him clearly turned out to be a mistake, but was neither malicious nor criminal. I used to go hunting with my dad at that age. We did not always stay together - I would be in a stand in one part of the woods, he would go off to another. Despite being a woodsman all his life, he was notorious for getting lost. It is easy to do. I had to make my way back to camp more than once. Yes, they should have been better equipped, but it is not unusual for hunters, hikers, or whatever to be not prepared for every eventuality.

    As for the "would I leave a child" question, it depends. A 15-year-old is usually capable of being left by himself, even going hunting by himself (laws on that may vary, of course). It depends on how mature the particular kid is and what his mental state is. I beleive the best strategy, once it got dark, would be to stop moving, huddle together, find something to cover up with (even leaves) if possible, and wait until morning. Neither of them died of hypothermia in the end. A swamp is dangerous in the daytime, treacherous at night. The irresponsible part of the father's actions was not so much leaving the child as stumbling around in a swamp in the dark. He could easily have died, making his son's chances of being found very poor.

    Tim Bentler-Jungr

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    1. Hey Tim,

      I'm delighted you decided to weigh in. Going by your account, it sounds quite easy to get lost in the woods, even for experienced woodsmen. I know I would have been lost during the day as soon as the thick canopy overhead obliterated the sunlight.

      I had a similar thought to yours. Granted, I wasn't there, but it seems to me that huddling together, covering up under vegetation and waiting for dawn might have been prudent.

      I hadn't thought about the dad being irresponsible in regards to his own life. More thoughts to ponder.

      Thanks for the visit, my friend.

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  7. I'll never say what I would do in a circumstance I've never experienced, because I have no idea. The father has suffered quite enough, losing his whole family. If he'd stayed with the son, they might have both died. If he left and found his way out more quickly, they would both have lived. I can see that he could no longer carry a 15 year old. I believe the father acted in good faith and did the best he could. Not everyone is really, really smart. We don't know his mental condition at that point either. Probably pretty muddled and desperate.

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    1. Good points, Kaye. I know I would not have been clear thinking after being lost, cold, and exhausted

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  8. I didn't know this story so I'm basing my response only on what you've written here. If this man was convinced he had a real chance to save his son if he left him and went for help but they had no chance if he stayed, then he did the only thing he could do. Was his judgement flawed? Perhaps. But I don't fault his motives.

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    1. Hi LD,

      I like how you took out the emotional part of it. The father was well-intentioned. That came out in the trial. But being charged guilty on the lesser sentences incurred two sentencing penalties, and the judge gave the highest penalty because a child died. Again, I wasn't there, and I didn't hear all the evidence or see all the people's expressions, etc.

      But you know what? No matter what the legal penalty, I'll bet you anything that dad will never be the same.

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  9. No, I wouldn't have left a small child, but then since the boy was 15, maybe the father thought he'd be okay until he brought back help. I don't think it was a deliberate act of negligence, but then I wasn't at the trial, and I don't know what kind of relationship the father had with his stepson.

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  10. That's why this case has so many layers. My confusion is my own fault for not sitting through the trial and hearing all the evidence. One thing you can count on in my small town, everyone has an opinion.

    Glad you stopped in to share yours, Gloria. I appreciate the comment.

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  11. Maggie, I was sitting here thinking about this and all I can say is I'm so glad I've never been forced to make this decision. I think in the moment we might all behave differently than expected. what a tragedy for everyone. so sad.

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    1. Hi Louise,

      I had the same reaction. The circumstances are tragic, and no matter what decision the jury made half of the family would be devastated. The challenge now is to move on and live with the feelings the case engenders.

      Thanks for stopping in.

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