Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Trial begins in baby death

by on June 25, 2014 11:00 AM

Testimony began on Tuesday in the trial of a mother who is being held at fault for her son’s accidental bathtub drowning last year.

Prosecutors set about to show that the death of 13-month-old Ryden Thomas Jr. wasn’t the result of a one-time lapse in judgment on behalf of his mother, Tonya Thomas, 27, but rather was the outcome of habitually inattentive parenting.

Jurors heard from social workers from The CARE Center of Indiana County and Indiana County Children & Youth Services, who testified that general parenting skills and lax supervision were an ongoing cause of concern in the Thomas household.

According to Kristina Taylor-Porter, The CARE Center’s former executive director, there was one incident in which one of the Thomas’ children had managed to fill up the tub and put another sibling in it. And Heather Davis, a former CARE Center caseworker who had been assigned to the family, testified that on another occasion, she noticed that one of the children had unexplained bite marks — caused by a child — and that one of their sons was seen crawling on top of the kitchen table and countertops.

Additionally, the jury heard from neighbor Misti Sadler, who said on several occasions she had seen one of the children outside, in a diaper, unattended. When she took the child home, she found the parents asleep, she testified.

Thomas is charged with a general count of criminal homicide, but prosecutors are arguing for a conviction on third-degree murder, saying that Thomas was reckless and negligent in leaving the children unattended in the tub.

State police Trooper Josiah Murdock, the criminal investigator assigned to the case, told the jury that, based on interviews with Thomas, she had put the children in the tub with the intent to bathe them and that she filled the tub up so that the water was just over their laps.

When she stepped away, she yelled for her husband, Wesley, to “keep an ear out” while she went downstairs to prepare a breathing treatment for one of the children, put some clothes into a dryer and make some snacks.

He said that at one point, Thomas told investigators that before going downstairs she had looked into the bathroom and saw only two heads above the tub, but continued on downstairs. Her defense team countered that perhaps she simply could not have seen all three from her vantage point.

Once downstairs, she was overcome by a feeling and went back up to check, Murdock said, which is when she found Ryden face down in the tub and began CPR.

Murdock also said Thomas told investigators that she had left the children in the tub thinking that her daughter would alert her to anything amiss.

Through cross-examination, public defenders Brad Ophaug and AnnMarie Everett tried to hammer home that despite whatever faults Thomas may have had, she was working with social workers on becoming a better parent and that, overall, there were no signs that she was abusive or neglectful.

Under cross-examination, Murdock said the children, when he saw them, were clean, and that he found nothing to suggest that drugs or alcohol were being used in the home. Lori Fennell, a caseworker for Children and Youth Services, testified that Thomas was being responsive to the children’s health needs and that the children were being adequately fed.

Everett asked Fennell if she believed that Thomas was working to the best of her ability as a parent.

“Yes,” Fennell said.

Testimony is to resume today before Indiana County President Judge William Martin. Martin told the jury that testimony might conclude today and that the jury could begin its deliberations.

Sam Kusic is a staff writer for The Indiana Gazette.
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