LISBON - Two lead investigators into the death of Derek Dennison took the stand Wednesday in the murder trial of Miranda Todd in Columbiana County Common Pleas Court.
County prosecutor's investigator Bettina Dillworth and Salem police detective David Talbert were given the opportunity to explain the steps taken to eliminate other suspects in the case and determine Todd should be charged in the July 23, 2010 death of her infant son.
Dillworth testified she was first called to Salem Community Hospital at 1:10 a.m. where she, along with sheriff's detective Steve Walker and representatives from Children Services, began asking questions of Todd, the primary caregiver of the child. After determining the child was actually living in Salem and not at other addresses Todd had given outside of Salem, Talbert was called. He joined investigators in all but the first interview of Todd.
Dillworth was asked by Assistant Prosecutor Tim McNicol if, at some point, questioning became more accusatory in tone in the first interview.
"Yes, she appeared to be an articulate adult, but she could offer us no plausible explanation," Dillworth said. She later listed that as one of two reasons investigators were concerned after talking to all three people living in the home that first night at the hospital. The second reason she gave was why the baby was injured for two weeks before being taken to the hospital.
During their interviews with investigators, Dillworth said Kayli Stiffler appeared "flat, somewhat confused and overwhelmed." Dillworth described Steven Van Pelt as "confused, conflicted and somewhat detached from the situation," adding "he did not know what was going on."
At that point, Dillworth said all three remained suspects in Derek's death.
After learning preliminary results from the autopsy, Dillworth and Talbert determined they needed to re-interview all three adults living in the home. Both agreed at that point it was being investigated as a homicide.
They found Stiffler and Van Pelt at their apartment later that day, but had a harder time locating Todd. They called Todd's grandmother Rita Heim and learned Heim had dropped her off with Greg Dennison, who said he dropped her off near her apartment in Salem, where she was unable to be located. Todd eventually called Dillworth that day.
When investigators told Stiffler and Van Pelt about the seriousness of Derek's injuries, Dillworth testified they both became tearful.
Both Talbert and Dillworth noted surprise at the way Todd appeared when she came to the Salem Police Department later in the evening.
"I was expecting a young lady who lost her child, who had been up all night, to be a physical wreck," Talbert said. "She showed up, her clothes had been changed, her hair and nails were done."
Todd changed her story several times during subsequent interviews, according to the testimony of both Dillworth and Talbert. Todd at first indicated she spent the whole day with Derek, then later said she may have taken a nap that day before eventually giving specific times between noon and 3 p.m. when she took a nap. Talbert testified phone records from the house show a five-minute call was made to the home of Greg Dennison at 1:23 p.m. that day.
Todd initially said nothing about domestic violence issues with Dennison, but later told investigators that he beat her.
Dillworth said that in early interviews, Todd was adamant that she had not harmed Derek. By Aug. 3, she was answering similar questions with "I believe I did not do this," at least six times in the statement. Dillworth said when she pointed out the change in Todd's answer to her, Todd responded "I don't remember doing it."
During cross examination, Dillworth added to that statement, saying Todd said investigators did not believe she did not hurt her child, but she believed it.
"I don't remember doing this," Dillworth said Todd told them. "I don't remember feeling so frustrated that I would inflict harm upon a child."
Dillworth testified during questioning of Todd on July 30 they asked questions involved the incident with a handgun on the bathroom floor before Derek's death. When asked about it, Todd reportedly responded she had the gun to her own head, claimed she was depressed and had nothing left to live for. She had listed problems with family, friends and her roommates, including Stiffler's jealousy and Van Pelt's "control issues."
Todd also at some point told investigators Van Pelt was selling drugs out of the house and she did not approve of it, according to Dillworth. Then she said he sold them in Sebring and usually she had to go with him.
Todd on Sept. 28 reportedly approached investigators about wanting to wear a wire to talk to Van Pelt. However, investigators refused the request.
"At this point in time we had ruled out Steven Van Pelt and Kayli Stiffler as suspects," Dillworth said. "She was the sole suspect."
McNicol also asked Dillworth, with her 27 years of experience investigating child deaths, if Derek had been brought to medical professionals and they had reported his injuries what would have happened. Dillworth said she felt he would have been taken from his caregiver.
Dillworth also testified Todd tried to say Derek was afraid of Van Pelt and would not leave her son alone with him, but early in statements made no indications about issues with him. She reportedly asked to speak to investigators again at the hospital because her minister told her Van Pelt looked nervous.
Dillworth testified no one gave investigators any motive to harm the baby except Todd.
"Did you ask (Todd) why someone would hurt Derek," McNicol asked Dillworth at one point during her testimony.
"She said she didn't know," Dillworth said.
McNicol followed by asking if Todd ever gave her a reason anyone would hurt Derek, to which Dillworth said Todd did not.
At one point, McNicol asked Dillworth about several things being possible "red flags" as the caretaker being a suspect. He listed detachment, drug use, no plausible explanation and changes to the stories, all of which Dillworth confirmed as "red flags."
"Who could have benefited from such a terrible thing," McNicol asked. "Was there anyone else in the home who had anything to gain?"
"No," Dillworth responded. When asked what Todd had to gain, Dillworth responded, "freedom."
Defense attorneys Jennifer Gorby and Charlie Kidder asked both Dillworth and Talbert about their objectivity and if they had become too focused on Todd, missing other possibilities. At one point, Kidder asked about Dillworth's tone becoming accusatory only 50 minutes or so into the first interview and then asked Talbert if by the time Talbert was involved, "there was already an accusatory direction toward Miss Todd."
Investigators admitted all three people living in the home initially left information out of their statements.
Talbert said he was able to collaborate the changes to the stories of Van Pelt and Stiffler, with Salem police investigators talking to people they claimed they saw in Sebring. Chris Tooksbury, the third person they visited, came to the office with counsel and was not cooperative. That led him to ask further questions of Van Pelt, who admitted at that point there were drug transactions involved in the trip to Sebring.
Kidder questioned Talbert whether any drug-related charges had been filed against Van Pelt, Stiffler or others involved. Talbert said he only forwarded information to drug investigators, but he was focused on the murder case.
"Was (Van Pelt) ever promised he will not be charged by the city of Salem," Kidder asked Talbert, who responded he was not. Kidder rephrased the question asking if he had been promised he would not be charged with drug use and again Talbert said he was not.
Kidder challenged the timing that it took nearly eight hours following Derek's death for the home on North Ellsworth Avenue to be secured by police. Talbert said it was about 3 a.m. before he was notified the death actually happened in Salem. He then was involved in questioning Heim, Todd, Stiffler and Van Pelt at the hospital. At that point, Van Pelt and Stiffler agreed to meet him at their home where he took photos and evidence.
Besides going over those photos showing the rooms in the apartment, Talbert talked about photos of Derek on Facebook, which were found to have been taken by Stiffler in late June. In some Derek has one visible red mark on his forehead between his eyes, but no other signs of injuries. In one photo, Derek was smiling and pushing himself up on his hands.
Talbert testified that David Augustine also offered to wear a wire. Todd was staying with the Augustines, John Ingledue and his then-fiance, Ashley Jezek - the Augustine's daughter. David Augustine instead was given a small digital recording device, which Talbert said Augustine used to record two conversations with Todd between Aug. 5 and Aug. 9, 2010.
Talbert testified Todd in those taped conversations was asked why she did not take the baby to the hospital and reportedly responded "that's where her guilt lies, because she should have taken him." She also said she did not remember seeing anyone around the baby, not even Steve, that night.
He said when asked why she did not take the baby with her on her walk the night of his death, she responded she wanted to get out and do something on her own.
During the second statement she reportedly said it had looked normal around his ear and claimed "she believed her brain was fried" from smoking marijuana. She claimed Heim had "jerked him up" which made him cry on the day Heim had come to her apartment.
Kidder attempted to discredit the taped testimony, asking if Talbert was certain there had been no other statements, which had been erased, or if Talbert could tell for certain who else was in the room. Talbert was unable in both cases. Later, Assistant County Prosecutor Tammie Riley Jones asked if Talbert could clearly recognize the voices, which he could. She also asked if there was anything which led him to believe the tape was altered, which he said he did not.
Also testifying was Van Pelt's friend Justin Guy, who seemed to remember seeing Van Pelt around the time Derek died, but did not remember any dates. Due to discrepancies in Guy's two statements, Gorby questioned whether Van Pelt told Guy that Van Pelt and Stiffler had been there selling him weed and caused him to tell investigators.
"So you lied to police when you told them Mr. Van Pelt told you about the activities of that day," Gorby asked.
"No... I don't ... no," Guy responded.
At one point during testimony, Guy admitted sitting Derek in the corner of his bed when he was crying the day he and Van Pelt were left alone in the apartment with the baby by Stiffler and Todd. However, there were not comments made to him about any injuries from that time. He said it was the day Todd and Stiffler went to the Hot Dog Shoppe because Todd had an interview, not the day the girls went to Speedway for cigarettes and reportedly found the baby slumped in the corner of the crib.