LA Times

Cypress day-care operator cleared in baby's death
A more thorough brain analysis shows that the boy did not die from being shaken.
By Christine Hanley, Times Staff Writer
January 31, 2007

After being accused of shaking a baby boy to death last October, neighborhood day-care operator Lorrie Mae Stoddard lost her livelihood, her standing in the community and many nights of sleep.

On Tuesday, immediately after prosecutors told a judge there was no evidence to back up the charges and the case was dismissed, the Cypress woman was too choked up to talk.

"I need to get out of here," she told reporters, weeping uncontrollably while being comforted by her attorney.

She hugged him and walked away, still sobbing, held by her husband. Hours later, after regaining her composure, she thanked her family and friends for supporting her during her "nightmare."

"My husband and I and our family have not slept in all these months. I lost my business, and my family and friends had to put up $1-million bail," she said in a phone call. "I'm still in shock."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Sonia Balleste said a recent, more in-depth brain analysis showed that 4-month-old Noah Samuel Gusto of Cypress did not die from being shaken and that he suffered two of three brain hemorrhages before Stoddard ever came in contact with him at the day-care center in her Cypress home.

She said there was no evidence that a crime occurred, but the investigation is still considered open.

The parents of the infant could not be reached for comment. Cypress Police Sgt. Jim Olson said the Gustos were not suspects and no one else was under investigation.

Attorney Paul S. Meyer, who represented Stoddard, said the case against his client raised serious questions about the process that led to her arrest and said the toll on her had been immeasurable. He would not comment on whether she planned to pursue legal action.

Police and prosecutors denied there was a rush to judgment, saying that the charges followed an exhaustive investigation and that the evidence included an initial examination by a pathologist at the Orange County sheriff-coroner's lab that showed Noah had symptoms consistent with shaken-baby syndrome.

"Based on the evidence presented at the time, the department feels like it moved forward with the appropriate action," Olson said. "Obviously, when a small child dies, we pour a lot into that investigation. Our investigation is at a standstill until further evidence is brought forth."

Stoddard, 54, was arrested in October, two days after she called 911 to report that Noah had stopped breathing. Stoddard was licensed by the state to provide for as many as eight children at a time.

The baby was taken to Los Alamitos Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.

An autopsy revealed that the child suffered hemorrhaging of the brain and ruptured optic nerves.

The cause of death was listed as "pending" in that report, according to Meyer.

Balleste said she received a new report a few days ago prepared by a brain pathologist in Los Angeles County showing that Noah had suffered three brain injuries. One occurred three to four weeks before Stoddard cared for the boy, the second one to two weeks before, and the third nine days into her care. Tests could not determine whether the injuries were intentional or accidental, she said. Meyer said the time frame was determined by examining blood characteristics, including color and clotting.

The new cause of death is listed as "acute, subacute and chronic subdural and subarachnoid hemorrhage due to closed blunt force trauma to head."

Meyer said the death was not a shaken-baby case and the injury was more consistent with a slow-bleeding hemorrhage.

"There's no evidence of trauma to the head by bruising at the time of death, which means that serious injury to the child took place at much earlier dates," Meyer said.

Stoddard has operated day-care centers for more than 10 years in Cypress, Lakewood and Temecula, according to the California Department of Social Services. In 2003, the agency substantiated a complaint that she caused injury by dropping a baby into a crib filled with toys, and the facility was ordered to clear out its cribs.

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