Eight testify on first day of trial in Sunbury infant's hyperthermia death
SUNBURY - The arresting officer in the hyperthermia death of a 1-year-old girl testified Thursday that the odor of decomposition was "sickening" and that temperatures in the room where she was found reached more than 90 degrees.
Sunbury Cpl. Jamie Quinn was among eight different witnesses called by First Assistant District Attorney Ann Targonski during the first day of Bertha M. Dreese's bench trial before President Judge Robert B. Sacavage. The 65-year-old Sunbury woman, who was babysitting her granddaughter, Anela Naloni Loner, when she was found dead Oct. 16, 2010, is charged with involuntary manslaughter.
Police allege the girl was left in her second-floor bedroom crib at 43 S. Seventh St. for 19 hours with a space heater operating on high.
Also taking the witness stand were the child's parents, Lopaka Loner, 29, and Heidi Yocum, 30, who were previously sentenced to county and state prison terms, respectively, for their roles in the child's death.
Dreese, who is Yocum's mother, is expected to testify today when the trial resumes. She is represented by attorney James Best.
Quinn, who was the first officer to arrive at the scene, said authorities determined heat was a major factor in the child's death. She said the baby suffered from severe dehydration and accelerated decomposition after being left in the room from 1 p.m. Oct. 15 to 8 a.m. Oct. 16, 2010.
She said portable heaters were the only heat source at the home where the child lived with her parents and two older siblings. The corporal said an expensive calibrated thermometer purchased by Northumberland County Coroner James F. Kelley was used to take temperature readings every half-hour on three different days to simulate the temperatures inside the room where the child was found.
Based on the thermometer readings, she said the average temperature inside the room was in the mid 80s, with a high of 96.7 degrees.
Dr. Samuel Land, a forensic pathologist, said the results of an autopsy he conducted on the child Oct. 18, 2010, at Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown determined the cause of death as hyperthermia.
Land, who was asked to identify multiple photographs of the child's body, said, "I noticed that the body was breaking down at a much faster rate than usual due to extensive decomposition. The body was discolored and almost in a mummified state."
Land said the infant, whose eyes were sunken and fingertips blackened, died while lying on her back.
He said the extreme heat inside the room prevented the child's body temperature from regulating. Land said the girl, whose hair was matted, had a woolen blanket in the crib and was wearing sweat pants, a long-sleeve shirt and a urine-saturated diaper.
The forensic pathologist said it was impossible to determine the time of death.
On Oct. 15, 2010, Loner said he was home with Anela and his two other children when he called Dreese to babysit. He testified that he was playing on the computer most of the time before leaving at 1 p.m. to go to Quakertown with Yocum's brother. When he returned home around 6 or 6:30 p.m., Loner said Dreese told him Anela was sleeping so he didn't check on the child for fear of waking her.
Loner said Yocum didn't come home until 9 or 10 p.m. after going grocery shopping and running other errands.
Loner said Dreese woke him up around 8 a.m. the next day after discovering the baby was dead.
According to Loner, Dreese babysat on a regular basis. The witness, who was unemployed at the time of his daughter's death, said he didn't get along with Dreese because she claimed he wasn't a good father and needed to get a job.
'Good set of lungs'
Yocum testified she was working about 70 hours per week as a medical assistant at the time of her daughter's death. On Oct. 15, 2010, Yocum recalled being off and traveling to a methadone clinic in Harrisburg for her daily medication.
After returning from the clinic, Yocum said she stopped for about five minutes at her home to pick up her mailed check. Yocum said she then went to the bank and did some grocery shopping before traveling to Lewisburg to visit her brother and his girlfriend, Chavonne Truitt, who testified briefly.
Yocum said she returned home about 9:30 p.m. She said the three children were supposed to be in Loner's care, but that he didn't do very well watching them, prompting her to rely on her mother three or four times a week to babysit.
Yocum said she didn't check on Anela the night before she died because the baby was sleeping and didn't want to disturb her.
She described the infant as a "happy, healthy baby with a good set of lungs."
Yocum said her daughter, whose bedroom was located near her room, usually went to bed around 8 p.m. and slept soundly until the next morning.
She said a baby monitor was kept in the child's room.
The witness, who cried at times while testifying, said she awoke early Oct. 16, 2010, and left home around 6:30 a.m. to travel to the methadone clinic in Harrisburg again. She recalled her brother and Truitt calling her in Harrisburg to inform her about her daughter's death.
Also testifying were Northumberland County Deputy Coroner Barry Leisenring, Amanda Stancavage, a paramedic with Americus Ambulance in Sunbury at the time of the baby's death, and Linda Cooper, a licensed practical nurse at Family Planning Plus in Selinsgrove.
Leisenring, who investigated the death, said an odor of decomposition was very prevalent when he arrived at the Sunbury home at 8:16 a.m. Oct. 16, 2010. He told the court the infant had been dead for a while.
The deputy coroner, who interviewed Loner and Dreese at the home, pronounced Anela dead at 8:30 a.m.
Stancavage, who was the first medical personnel on scene, described the poor condition of the child's body, which included "blood pulls" and curled black fingers.
Cooper said she recalled Dreese, who was a patient at her clinic, telling her in November 2010 that she was going through a stressful time in her life due to her granddaughter's death. She said Dreese told her she "lied to police" about never leaving the house while babysitting the infant. Cooper said Dreese told her she went outside to a bus stop at one point before returning home.
Cooper said she didn't tell anyone about her conversation with Dreese until the following September when she saw on television the defendant had been arrested in connection with the baby's death. The witness said she was "torn" between patient confidentiality and reporting what Dreese had told her.
Cooper said she provided police with a statement after conferring with Snyder County District Attorney Michael Piecuch, a relative who is a retired state trooper, and her work supervisor.
Cooper said it was appropriate to tell authorities about her conversation with Dreese because she didn't reveal any medical information about the defendant.