Baby sitter charged in toddlers death after coroners inquest
An intesive, 12-hour inquest by the Charleston County coroner’s office concluded that 2-year-old Ginny Rose Hughes died at the hands of her baby sitter.
Alicia Stepp was charged with homicide by child abuse late Friday. She appeared Saturday in bond court, where Coroner Rae Wooten set bail at $100,000.
Stepp wore gray and white jail stripes as she listened to Wooten read the charge against her. She said nothing other than to acknowledge Wooten’s statements about issues such as appointment of a public defender to represent her.
“I’m shocked right now,” said Amanda Montagu, Ginny’s mother, who declined further comment.
Stepp, 17, was a baby sitter for Montagu’s three children at the mother’s North Charleston home. On July 2, the toddler was rushed to a hospital in critical condition. Stepp told investigators she found Ginny unresponsive in bed that morning. Ginny was pronounced dead on July 4.
The coroner’s inquest jury ruled that Stepp caused the death of Ginny. The three-man, three-woman panel found that Ginny died as a result of “extreme indifference to human life.”
After the hearing, Wooten issued an arrest warrant for Stepp, who was taken to the Cannon Detention Center by sheriff’s deputies.
“The statute provides for that,” Wooten said after the bond hearing.
A tremendous amount of energy went into the investigation, and she was immediately concerned about what caused Ginny’s death, Wooten said.
“I was more and more concerned as we went forward in our investigation,” she said.
Wooten said she felt it was her responsibility to do everything possible to learn more about the unusual death of the small child.
“The more we learned, the more I recognized that this (situation) was a tremendous problem,” she said. “They brought back a verdict that was justice for Ginny.”
A loving child
During the inquest, witnesses described Ginny as a lively, intelligent girl with a big smile.
“She was just a very loving, bright little girl,” said Kimberly Reagin, who served as foster mother for Ginny from mid-May to early June.
Ginny was born with a condition that caused her legs to be amputated below the knee. Montagu said Ginny fell a lot trying to walk on the bottoms of her legs.
North Charleston Police Detective Jill Farman described evasive behavior on the part of Stepp during questioning about Ginny’s death. Stepp, who dropped out of high school in the 10th grade, was interviewed for more than two hours by Farman.
In the interview, Stepp said she looked after Montagu’s children, including Tory, 4, and 6-week-old Wyatt, in exchange for free room and board.
They lived in a mobile home that is owned by a man who said in court that he thinks he is Ginny’s father.
During the investigation, Stepp initially agreed to a polygraph test, but then told the examiner she was bi-polar. The examiner then said that meant he was not able to proceed with the polygraph under the circumstances, Farman said.
When questioned, Stepp could not tell investigators the name of her doctor or give an office location. She finally said her mother had diagnosed her as manic-depressive, Farman said.
Stepp did not show up for a polygraph scheduled for Thursday, Farman said.
Sgt. Tammy Driggers said in court that she questioned Stepp about whether she smothered Ginny. “If I did, I don’t remember,” Stepp said, according to Driggers.
Doctors said Ginny died of “anoxic brain injury,” meaning she was deprived of oxygen to the brain.
Dr. Ann Able of the Medical University of South Carolina, a pediatrican who specializes in child-abuse cases, testified that she was troubled by bruises on Ginny’s back and head. She suggested to the jury and Wooten that a possible cause of death was suffocation with a soft, pillow-like object.
Doctors exhaustively investigated the situation, performing many tests, but could not identify a medical condition that led to Ginny’s death. That raised their suspicion that inflicted trauma had killed her, Able said.
More than 20 witnesses testified at the inquest, including police, doctors, social workers and family. It was nearly 10 p.m. when the jury reached its verdict.
Stepp testified that she came home at 5:30 a.m. on July 2 after being out all night with friends. She said she was operating on about 30 minutes of sleep when she took over responsibility for the three young children as Montagu left for her job at a Waffle House.
During her testimony, Stepp said she had given two weeks’ notice to Montagu, saying she did not want to baby-sit for the children any more because it was too time-consuming.
After breakfast and playing with toys, Ginny, who was sleepy, went to bed to take a nap. Stepp told the jury she went to check on Ginny a short time later, ran her fingers through Ginny’s hair and called her name, but the toddler just lay there. Stepp called 911.
In April, Ginny was taken to an emergency room when her mother became concerned about her condition. The toddler was hospitalized for three weeks at MUSC, where doctors found that a stroke had affected the right side of her brain.
Though some signs pointed toward child abuse, doctors found no evidence of broken bones or internal injuries. A specialist who examined her eye hemorrhages said they didn’t look like those normally seen in abuse cases, according to testimony.