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More on Murdered Foster Child
July 12, 2005 permalink
Earlier we copied an article on the murder of foster child Braxton Wooden in Missouri. Since that time, the police have investigated by interviewing the 14-year-old son of the foster family. Police interviewed him while he changed his story, eventually finding that the killing was an accident. The teenager will remain confined as punishment until age 17. In this kind of case, the question remains, did the police use their interrogation skills to bring the truth from a reluctant witness? Or did they browbeat the boy until he told them the story they wanted to hear? Several facts have now come out that contradict the story constructed by the police. Press coverage in Missouri has been essential in uncovering the truth in this case. When an incident of this kind occurs in Canada, there is no press willing to investigate. Even in Missouri, there is no chance the social worker who had legal authority over Braxton will be held accountable for negligence contributing to the death of her ward. Here is the latest from the Joplin Globe.
Rush to judgment?
Coroner, court, prosecutor learn of statements after their decisions were made
Jeff Lehr, Globe Staff Writer, 7/10/05
Braxton Wooden's mother says she believes he was murdered.
She believes the 14-year-old son of foster parents Mark and Treva Gordon intentionally shot her 8-year-old son in the head with a .38-caliber handgun he knew full well was loaded during a game of cops and robbers June 2 in the Alba couple's foster home.
Brandie McLean, Braxton's mother, wrote in a letter provided recently to the Globe: "I am very disappointed that the police didn't know the whole story about what happened to Braxton when the Gordons' son went to court."
She believes the findings of two investigators with the Missouri Department of Social Services indicate the Gordons' son should have been adjudicated in Jasper County Juvenile Court on a murder allegation instead of involuntary manslaughter.
McLean wrote: "It's a shame that the state did a better job of finding out what really happened than the Alba policemen. I wish the court would have had the state report instead of the city report."
Actually, the juvenile court adjudicated the Gordon boy and committed him to the custody of the Division of Youth Services until he is 17 based on a juvenile officer's report to the court, not the JasCo Metropolitan Police Department's reports on the shooting as McLean's letter mistakenly notes.
The juvenile officer's report cited the "end story" the Gordon boy told investigators the night of June 4 after changing his story about what had happened several times.
The "truth" he'd finally told them was that he'd found the gun and some ammunition for it in a boot in the family's garage back about May 2004, shortly after the Gordons had moved to their home at 104 S. Smith St. in Alba. He told them that he had loaded it with a single bullet at that time and put it back in the boot, and forgot about it, and that he didn't remember the gun was loaded when he had put it to Braxton's head and pulled the trigger on June 2.
What calls that "end story" into question are the reports of an investigator with the State Technical Assistance Team of the DSS and a state child-abuse hot-line investigator. Those reports - not made public until June 28 - revealed that other foster children in the Gordons' home told DSS investigators that the Gordon boy had chased them around the house with one or more of three handguns in the Gordons' home on prior occasions. They said they'd seen him in possession of bullets, and that one of them had seen him load and unload the gun repeatedly on a prior occasion.
But, by the time that information surfaced, the Jasper County coroner had already ruled the death an accidental shooting, the juvenile court had adjudicated and committed the Gordon boy for involuntary manslaughter and the Jasper County prosecutor had decided not to charge the foster parents for keeping unsecured guns in their home.
The Globe's review of all public records related to the shooting has found that neither the JasCo police's nor the Jasper County Sheriff's Department's reports on the shooting reflect any awareness of what the other foster children told the state's investigators. There is no indication that police or sheriff's detectives ever interviewed the other foster children.
The coroner made his ruling on June 6. The juvenile court adjudicated the case June 14. And Jasper County Prosecutor Dean Dankelson made the decision not to charge the Gordons and declared the criminal side of the investigation closed on June 17.
The coroner, juvenile court and prosecutor acknowledged to the Globe this past week that they were not aware of what the other foster children told investigators when they made those decisions.
Coroner Jerry Neil said he based his ruling on preliminary autopsy findings and a discussion he'd had with Detective Ron Thomas of the Sheriff's Department, which assisted JasCo police in the investigation. Thomas had told him the morning of June 6 that he and juvenile officer Ritchie Torrez were "comfortable" with calling it an accidental shooting based on the "end story" of the Gordon boy obtained on June 4, Neil said.
"Why not make the ruling based on the information I had?" Neil said this past week.
He said he did not know if the information about the other foster children's accounts had even come out when he made the ruling. In fact, the state investigators' interviews of the other foster children did not take place until the afternoon of June 6, hours after Thomas had talked to Neil.
Neil acknowledged that he "might have held off a few more days if anyone held any additional information" about the incident. But, he said, to date, no one from DSS, the prosecutor's office or either criminal investigative agency involved has expressed any concern to him regarding his ruling.
He said he first learned of the other foster children's accounts in the June 29 edition of the Globe. But he said he does not know that the information would have made a difference in his ruling.
"Foster children have gone through so much, they don't have a lot of credibility with me," Neil said. "They can get confused and fabricate a good story."
He acknowledged that the foster children's accounts do seem to suggest that the Gordon boy "may have known the gun was loaded." But knowing the gun was loaded and having an intent to kill are two different things, he said. He said proving that intent without a confession could be difficult.
The Gordon boy had told investigators during his "end story" that he had played with the gun three times previously since loading it more than a year ago and the gun had not gone off.
Neil said the Gordon boy "seemed remorseful" to investigators and "without strong motive."
"There's certain things in life we're never going to know," Neil said, "such as where's Jimmy Hoffa?"
Joe Hensley, attorney for the Jasper County Juvenile Office, also acknowledged that the juvenile court was not aware of the other foster children's accounts when the court adjudicated the Gordon boy. Hensley said no petition was ever presented to the juvenile court alleging murder, contrary to some information to that effect in the STAT investigator's report.
Hensley said it probably would have made little difference if the court had known about the other foster children's accounts.
Hensley said child witnesses' accounts are "always problematic" and he would take any siblings' statements "with a grain of salt."
Three of the six foster children placed with the Gordons at the time of the shooting were McLean's three oldest children. Her two youngest children were placed in another foster home when all five were removed from her care last September after her 2-year-old son, Chandler, got out on a roof of their Webb City home while she was sleeping.
The two children who told state investigators about prior occasions when the Gordon boy had the gun or guns out were not Braxton's siblings.
Hensley said that, without a motive, it is difficult to establish intent on the part of the Gordon boy.
"I can prove negligence," he said. "That's not difficult. When it comes to intent, that's more difficult because we don't have a motive in this case."
He said from all reports the juvenile office received, the Gordon boy and Braxton Wooden got along. In fact, all the foster children in the home got along with the Gordon boy, he said.
Hensley said the case also posed some evidentiary problems. Gunshot residue tests showed trace amounts of gunpowder residue on the Gordon boy's hands and a larger amount on Braxton's hands, a finding that in some ways supported the Gordon boy's initial story that Braxton had shot himself.
"That kind of threw us a bit," Hensley said.
But, he said, even if investigators could have proved murder, the allegation in juvenile court would have produced the exact same result, committal to DYS until the boy is 17, unless the court would have certified the boy for trial as an adult.
Capt. Jerry Gilbert of the Jasper County Sheriff's Department said on Friday that Detective Thomas was not present during the portions of the state investigators' interviews of the other foster children when they spoke of prior occasions when the Gordon boy had a gun or guns out.
That is why no mention of other children's accounts is part of the Sheriff's Department reports, Gilbert said.
Included in the sheriff's reports obtained by the Globe are the results of a computerized voice-stress analysis test conducted on the Gordon boy with his and his parents' permission on the day of the shooting.
A cold reading of the test determined that the boy had shown clear stress on just one of four relevant questions asked him. The four relevant questions were: "Did you take the gun out of your father's closet?" "Did you put ammunition in the gun?" "Did Braxton shoot himself with the gun?" and "Did you shoot Braxton with the gun?"
The Gordon boy had answered "no" to three of the questions. He answered "yes" to "Did Braxton shoot himself with the gun?"
The one he had shown clear stress on was: "Did you put ammunition in the gun?"
The reliability of CVSAs is an issue in law-enforcement investigations. The fact that the boy later changed his story with respect to his responses to all four questions reflects on the results of this particular test.
Dankelson acknowledged this week that he'd made the decision not to charge the foster parents based on the reports of the JasCo police. He had met with then-police Chief Clifton Boyer prior to making that decision on June 17.
Dankelson made that acknowledgment in response to the first question of a set of three written questions presented to him by the Globe in light of the state investigators' findings.
Dankelson's response to questions asking if he was aware of the foster children's accounts at the time of his decision and if there was any other evidence he'd been presented that outweighed the foster children's accounts in making that decision by stating that he'd scheduled a meeting of the Child Fatality Review Panel for Wednesday of this coming week.
He wrote that he would be in a better position after that meeting "to determine if there exists more information to be able to answer" the Globe's other two questions.
Boyer retired the day he met with Dankelson to discuss possibly charging the Gordons. According to Dankelson, Boyer did not feel they should be charged.
The Globe has been unable to reach Boyer since that time. He has not returned repeated calls to his cellular telephone number.
Gilbert told the Globe on Friday that there are problems with charging the Gordons.
"I don't think there's a state law the parents violated as to the keeping of weapons in their home," Gilbert said.
He said if they were to be charged with child endangerment for not having guns and ammunition secured, local law enforcement would be put in the position of having to charge parents every time they go into a home and find both children and unsecured guns present.
"You have thousands and thousands of homes across the state of Missouri that have children and weapons in them," Gilbert said.
He said law enforcement "really can't take a stance on that."
McLean told the Globe this past week that she has been prohibited by the Children's Division of DSS from asking her other two children who were placed in the Gordons' home about the presence of guns there during her weekly visits with them at the Children's Division offices in Joplin.
DSS records show that the juvenile court had not been apprised of Braxton Wooden's placement with the Gordons at the time of the shooting.
Braxton and two of her other children had been placed with the Gordons following the toddler-on-the-roof incident last September. In January, they went to live with McLean's mother, Linda McLean, in Kansas with the court's approval.
Because the children proved too much for their grandmother to handle, she'd gradually returned each of them to the Gordons' foster care. Braxton was the last one she returned. The plan with Braxton's family support team at the Children's Division had been for Braxton to remain with the grandmother through the end of school and then be returned to the Gordons.
School ended for the boy on May 25. The grandmother then dropped him off at the Gordons on May 27 before the court had been apprised of the change in placement. Records indicate that the grandmother and foster parents had apprised Braxton's caseworker, Mickie Morgan, of the boy's return to the Gordons' care. The records further indicate Morgan was waiting until a family-support meeting on June 2, the day of the shooting, to inform the court of the grandmother's return of the child to foster care.
DSS records on Braxton also indicate that a decision had been made to switch McLean's children from a reunification track to an adoption track. The Gordons' licensing of their home was to be changed from foster home to an adoptive home.
Brandie McLean told the Globe she was not aware of that plan change. She still wants her children back. She recently acquired a home to live in and is attempting to comply with other DSS requirements for reunification with her children, she said. She said the publicity about her case has made her search for steady employment difficult. She said employers are reluctant to hire her.
Her letter to the Globe concludes: "I know I've made many mistakes as a parent, but it breaks my heart to know that my kids were taken from me because the state said that I neglected them, but were put in a house where they were neglected and Braxton was killed."
Repeated attempts by the Globe to afford the Gordons an opportunity to comment have been unsuccessful. A listed phone number for the couple is no longer a working number.
Source: Joplin Globe