By Andy Hoag
SAGINAW, MI — When a Birch Run-area foster mother began receiving additional state money last year for her care of two “developmentally delayed” young children, she assumed further obligations and risks, prosecutors say.
And that woman, Wendy S. Leeck, failed to meet those obligations, prosecutors say, when she fed her 2-year-old daughter a peanut butter sandwich the state alleges Leeck knew the child could not eat by herself.
The child subsequently choked to death, authorities said.
Leeck appeared with her defense attorney in a Saginaw County courtroom on Friday, Feb. 28. There, attorney James Gust told a judge that Leeck's commitment to her daughter and other foster children makes it a “disgrace” that prosecutors have charged her with involuntary manslaughter.
But after an argument between and Saginaw County Assistant Prosecutor Jennifer Barnes that at times was hotly contested and emotional, Saginaw County District Judge M. Randall Jurrens concluded Leeck's preliminary hearing Friday by ruling that Barnes showed probable cause to take Leeck to trial in Circuit Court.
Leeck, 44, faces the manslaughter charge in connection with the Aug. 25, 2013, death of 29-month-old Debra Johnson at Leeck's home in Taymouth Township. The charge, which means that “gross negligence” was involved, among other factors, carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.
Court officials have yet to set a trial date for Leeck, who remains free on a $25,000 personal recognizance bond.
'Her mouth was packed'
In an interview with Saginaw County sheriff's Detective Heather Dvorak the day after Johnson's death, Leeck said that at about 6:30 p.m. she gave Johnson, as well the child's fellow “developmentally delayed” 3-year-old brother, a “peanut butter sandwich” as a snack prior to dinner.
In the interview, played in court Friday, Leeck said she put peanut butter on a piece of bread, folded it in half, and gave it to Johnson. The children sat at the kitchen table and ate as Leeck put groceries away, she said.
After about 10 or 15 minutes, Leeck said, Johnson, who typically would continue putting food in her mouth without chewing or swallowing unless told to, began to choke. All of the sandwich that she gave Johnson was gone, she said.
“I saw her mouth was packed,” Leeck told Dvorak.
Leeck said she put her finger in her daughter's mouth and got some of the food out but knew there was more. She yelled for help, and her older son, a young man, eventually came out from his room and called 911, she told the detective.
Leeck said she couldn't see anything else in Johnson's airway and began performing CPR on her daughter along with her husband's friend until then-Saginaw County sheriff's deputy Jennifer Garrison arrived and took over.
Garrison testified that when she arrived, Johnson was laying on a floor of the home “completely lifeless” with chunks of the sandwich on the outside of her mouth and on her shirt. Garrison took the child outside and continued CPR until medical personnel arrived, she said.
Garrison said that while she performed CPR, Leeck mostly stood quietly at her foster daughter's feet. Garrison, now a Fenton police officer, testified she thought Leeck was the child's babysitter because Leeck did not act how Garrison thought a mother would act in the situation.
Garrison said Leeck kept apologizing and saying, “I told her to chew.”
Leeck told Dvorak in the interview that Johnson was “functioning” as if she was between the ages of 9 and 12 months. She knew that Johnson had issues with eating because, as part of an assessment for determination of care completed by Burton-based Alternatives for Children and Families, she wrote a letter stating as much.
Geneva Harvey, a supervisor at the foster and adoption agency, testified that Leeck wrote Johnson “just swallows everything” without chewing. Leeck wrote that Johnson will gag, vomit, and then try to eat the food that she vomited, Harvey testified.
The assessment determines how much additional care the child needs and, thus, how much additional money the foster parent should receive. The assessment was done based on conversations Leeck had with agency personnel, not necessarily because Leeck sought more money, Harvey said.
The assessment states that Johnson “must be closely supervised” when eating and that food must be cut into small pieces, Harvey testified.
On cross-examination from Gust, Harvey testified that most, if not all, of the information in the assessment came from Leeck.
It's the fact that Leeck knew of her child's issues and knew the steps she had to take to feed her child that shows her “gross negligence” in giving her the sandwich, argued Prosecutor Barnes.
“She didn't meet that obligation,” Barnes said.
Gust delivered an argument that, at times, caused his voice to crack and, at one point, appeared to have him near tears.
“I think it's very unfortunate that we're here,” Gust said. “She took kids with special needs into her care.
“There's no evidence of gross negligence,” he added.
Gust and Barnes argued briefly, but Jurrens interrupted and recessed the hearing to go back to his chambers. He met with the attorneys for approximately 10 minutes and then came back into the courtroom and announced his decision.
While the attorneys argued about where the table at which the kids sat was — it was in the kitchen, where Leeck was putting away the groceries — Jurrens noted that the language in Leeck's warrant refers to the fact that she did not cut the food up before giving it to her daughter.
The judge also noted that the hearing only is intended for him to make a probable cause ruling and not whether a jury would convict Leeck beyond a reasonable doubt.
“The question becomes not whether or not I believe the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but whether or not a person of ordinary prudence and caution could conscientiously entertain a reasonable belief of the accused's guilt,” Jurrens said, reading from court rules.
Jurrens said he made his decision to bind the case over to Circuit Court “with some reservation.”
“My impression in listening to the recording was that the defendant is a person of good will, character, conscientious, caring,” the judge said. “We have a victim who, it seemed, had developmental problems that the defendant was aware of. Apparently, she was the source of the information to the state ... but in any event, she was aware of those problems.
“This is a tragic case,” he added later. “Somebody died. I don't sense that there was any intent for someone to die. I believe there was an intent to take care of the child that the state had placed with her.”
Following the judge's decision, Gust railed against the county prosecutor's office's decision to charge Leeck in the first place.
“This is woman who is dedicated to children,” Gust said. “Who in the world would take this on? I think it's a disgrace that someone of her character is charged with a felony that could send her to prison.”
County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Christopher Boyd responded later by pointing out that Leeck had specific “certain duties that she did not perform” on the evening in question.
“Perhaps in other situations she has adhered to her duties,” Boyd said. “But the evidence has shown that there was reason to characterize this as gross negligence. This was not an accident.”
— Andy Hoag covers courts for Mlive