BY CHERYL SLAVIN
On June 17 former Chestnut Ridge resident Lacey Spears was arraigned in State Supreme Court in White Plains on charges of causing the death of her five year old son, Garnett. She is accused of administering high doses of sodium through his feeding tube, ultimately resulting in his death. Through her attorney Spears has entered a plea of not guilty.
The high profile case was first investigated as a possible homicide shortly after Garnett’s death at Maria Ferari Children’s Hospital in Westchester on January 23. He had been airlifted to that facility from Nyack Hospital, to which he had been admitted on January 17 after suffering a series of seizures. Doctors there discovered that his sodium levels were abnormally high; they spiked again on January 19, prompting the transfer to Westchester. Reports indicate that upon his arrival at least one doctor told Spears that it was “metabolically impossible” for the child’s body to produce the salt levels indicated in his chart.
The Westchester District Attorney’s office reports that it has evidence showing that Lacey Spears actually administered the high doses of sodium. A surveillance videotape from Nyack Hospital, originally intended to watch the child for further seizures, allegedly shows the mother taking her son, over and over again, to the hospital room’s private bathroom; on each return trip, Garnett appears sicker and sicker until eventually he is writhing in pain. The tape also allegedly shows Spears acting indifferently to her son’s pain until another person enters the room.
Garnett eventually succumbed to the extreme sodium poisoning on January 23, just six weeks after his fifth birthday. The Westchester Medical Examiner’s Office ruled his death a homicide in April. In June, after an intensive investigation that included hundreds of interviews covering the three states where Spears and her son lived, as well as thousands of pages of medical records, the DA made a two week presentation to a Grand Jury that resulted in the indictment charging depraved indifference murder and manslaughter.
The murder charges are based on the alleged abuse in January resulting in Garnett’s death. However, investigations have revealed a possible pattern of abuse stretching back to the child’s very first days of life. Spears herself had posted on Facebook that her son had made 23 visits to the hospital before his first birthday. In succeeding years she continued to document through social media her struggles as a single parent with a “sickly” child.
Her blog and Facebook page garnered thousands of followers, most of whom continued to offer her sympathy and support as she portrayed Garnett’s alleged illnesses and struggles. In hindsight, however, it appears that she may have been sickening her child herself in order to engender sympathy and attention, possibly as a result of a rare mental disorder called Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy.
In the course of the investigation, other alleged lies and inconsistencies have come to light that appear to support that view. For instance, for most of Garnett’s life, Spears insisted that his father was a deceased police officer named “Blake,” the love of her life. It turns out that Garnett’s father is in fact very much alive, a garage door installer named Chris Hill.
Additionally, even before her pregnancy with Garnett, Spears represented in pubic, to authorities, and on social media that she was the mother of a child named “JonJon;” in fact, she was JonJon’s babysitter. Such a pattern of complex lies might indicate the presence of an unbalanced mind, but did not come to light until after Garnett’s death.
Spears moved to the Fellowship Community in Chestnut Ridge in 2012, allegedly seeking the holistic and mutually supportive communal atmosphere that Fellowship had to offer. Her neighbors there, as did her neighbors in Clearwater, Florida and Decatur, Alabama, mostly recall a devoted mother whom no one could imagine as a murderer.
They remember Garnett as an active, playful little boy who did not really seem as sick as his mother said he was. For instance, he appeared able to eat solid food despite the presence of the feeding tube his mother had insisted he needed. However, there did not really seem to be enough red flags to warn that Garnett was in danger, until he ended up brain dead from sodium poisoning, allegedly at the hands of his mother.
The question remains as to whether a diagnosis of Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy will play a direct part in the prosecution’s case. At least one expert, Dr. Michael Welner, has reportedly stated that raising the issue could be a “powerful tool” for the prosecution, as it would help explain to a jury how a parent could commit such appalling acts. However, since it is a psychiatric condition, evidence of it would require psychiatric evaluations, available only upon court order.
If the defense does not raise the disorder as a strategy, the prosecution might not be able to obtain permission for the expert examination it needs. Nonetheless, it is possible that the district attorney may try to present evidence of a pattern of abuse and confabulation, without actually stating that Spears suffers from the disorder.
The next court date is scheduled for July 2.