Grandmothers takes stand in baby death case
SUNBURY - Bertha M. Dreese wept on the witness stand Friday, claiming others who testified, including her own daughter, lied.
Dreese testified in her own defense during day two of her bench trial involving the death of her granddaughter from hyperthermia almost three years ago, at one point saying, "I'd give my life for her. God tells me to tell the truth and that's what I'm doing."
In addition to Dreese's testimony, closing arguments were presented Friday by defense attorney James Best and First Assistant District Attorney Ann Targonski.
Northumberland County President Judge Robert B. Sacavage will render a verdict in the case at 1 p.m. Tuesday.
Dreese faces a maximum prison sentence of 20 years if convicted on the felony offense of involuntary manslaughter (10 years incarceration) and misdemeanors of recklessly endangering the welfare of children (5 years) and recklessly endangering another person (5 years) in connection with the death of Anela Naloni Loner, whom she was babysitting at the time.
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. The infant resided with her two older sisters and parents, 29-year-old Lopaka Loner, and Heidi Yocum, 30, who is Dreese's daughter.
Loner and Yocum were previously sentenced to serve county and state prison terms, respectively, for their roles in the child's death.
Father 'lazy, lousy'
Dreese, who now resides in Shamokin Dam after living in Sunbury, is accused of never checking on the condition of her granddaughter as she laid in her crib from 1 p.m. Oct. 15, 2010, until being found dead by the defendant at about 8 a.m. the next day.
During a 60-minute video of her interview with Sunbury Cpl. Jamie
Quinn that was played in court and another hour on the witness stand, Dreese portrayed Loner, who was also in the home most of time the baby was reportedly sleeping, as a lazy, lousy and unemployed father who spent much of his time playing on the computer instead of taking care of his three young children.
The defendant said she babysat for her daughter about three times a week because Yocum worked many hours and didn't consider Loner a good caretaker.
Dreese, who has six children and 11 grandchildren, said she arrived at her daughter's home about 1:30 p.m. Oct. 15, 2010, to pick up one of Anela's sisters, but ended up staying the night when Loner asked her to babysit because he had to travel to Quakertown. She claimed her daughter, who stopped at the house briefly for her work check before going back out, didn't return until about 8:30 p.m. Oct. 15, 2010.
The defendant said she never checked on the baby because Loner told her he fed and changed the infant before she fell asleep. Dreese said she believed her daughter also checked on the baby when she went upstairs to bed the night before the infant was discovered dead.
Dreese said she hollered to her granddaughter at one point in an upstairs hallway, but assumed she was sleeping because she heard no response.
Dreese, who contradicted herself several times under questioning by Targonski and during her interview with Quinn, claimed Loner, Yocum and other witnesses lied about certain times and circumstances surrounding the case.
After initially telling police she was in the home the entire time the baby was sleeping, Dreese testified that she left briefly to pick up one of Anela's sisters at a bus stop. The witness said she ran back to the house because Anela was unattended, but discovered that she locked the doors, forcing her to crawl through a window to open the residence.
But Dreese's sister, Gail Mensch of Sunbury, who said she randomly encountered Dreese near the bus stop and went back to the house with her and Anela's two sisters, testified that nobody crawled through a window because the doors were open.
Dreese said she told Loner that it was his responsibility to feed and change the baby, but also claimed there was no food in the house.
"It was his home and I was afraid of him because he threw me out of the house once," she said. "He is 6 foot-4."
'Your daughter needs you'
On Oct. 16, 2010, Dreese said she awoke at about 7:30 a.m. After her daughter left the home a short time later to travel to a methadone clinic in Harrisburg, Dreese said she had a feeling something was wrong with the baby.
Upon going to the child's second-floor bedroom, Dreese said she noticed the door was shut tight. After entering the room, Dreese said she told the child, "Why didn't you holler? Grandma would have got you."
But after placing her hand under the infant's arms, Dreese said the baby, who had her eyes wide open, was stiff. At that point, Dreese said she realized her granddaughter was dead.
She testified that the bedroom was hot, but didn't recall if the space heater was operating.
Dreese said she then awoke Loner and told him, "Your daughter needs you."
The defendant said she prevented Anela's two siblings from coming into the room to see what was wrong.
She said Loner called 911 to report the death.
Although she agreed with Targonski that it wasn't normal for an infant to sleep for nine straight hours, Dreese said her granddaughter was a normal, healthy baby.
During her testimony, Dreese became irritated at Targonski and asked the prosecutor, "Why are you trying to put me in jail? I was in shock. That was my granddaughter in the crib. I wasn't up in that bedroom all day. But I wish I would have been, for God's sake."
Negligent or not?
In his closing argument, Best said the commonwealth failed to prove his client was guilty of any of the charges.
"This is a terrible tragedy. No one comes out looking good in a moral sense. Bertha Dreese is a loving grandmother who played an active role in her grandchildren's lives. She wasn't planning on watching them when she went over to her daughter's house that day and she wasn't grossly negligent. The parents were primarily responsible for the children."
Best described Yocum as a drug addict, while calling Loner a convicted forger and thief who didn't work and hung around the house playing on the computer most of the time.
"My client had a moral responsibility, but not a legal responsibility," he said. "She had no reason to harm the child."
Targonski disagreed, and talked about how failing to act in some cases can be worse than acting. She said Dreese's conduct was reckless and grossly negligent.
"Three adults failed to act here," she said. "Common sense tells you the baby needed to be checked on."
Targonski claimed Dreese lied about several things and then attempted to accuse other witnesses of lying.
She concluded, "The commonwealth has met its burden of proof on all the charges."