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Authorities await testing in death of Iowa girl, 3

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013 11:05 a.m. CDT

IOWA CITY (AP) — A prosecutor on Monday defended his decision to wait for additional testing before deciding whether to bring murder charges against a northwest Iowa day care provider who allegedly admitted to causing injuries that killed a 3-year-old girl in her care.

Sioux County Attorney Coleman McAllister said he is waiting for the state medical examiner to rule on the manner and cause of death of Autumn Elgersma before deciding whether to charge Rochelle Sapp, 33, with murder or any other charges. The medical examiner’s office has requested additional testing on Autumn’s brain by pathologists at the University of Iowa, a process that could take two weeks or longer, investigators said.

Investigators say that Sapp was watching Autumn on Oct. 29 at her home day care in Orange City when the girl was taken to the emergency room with serious head injuries. Doctors later discovered that she had a fractured skull and serious brain trauma and asked for an investigation into possible child abuse.

Autumn’s mother initially told authorities that the injuries happened when the child fell down a flight of stairs while being watched at Sapp’s home. But investigators say the injuries did not appear to be consistent with such a fall, and that Sapp admitted during questioning that she caused the injuries by throwing her to the floor after becoming angry with her.

Sapp was arrested on a warrant charging her with willful injury and child endangerment resulting in serious injury on Oct. 31, the day the girl died. McAllister dismissed those charges last week, saying they were no longer appropriate after the death. He said the initial charges were based on a medical opinion given by emergency room doctors, and he wants to review the medical examiner’s conclusions before deciding how to proceed.

“What we want to do is try to make sure that we have the evidence that we need to make a good charging decision and ultimately make sure that we get justice for Autumn,” he said. “If that is going to be filing additional charges, reinitiating old charges, whatever that is, we need the evidence before we can move forward.”

Orange City Police Chief Jim Pottebaum said the testing could rule out other potential causes of death in a case that has saddened the community.

“We’re just doing everything we can here to make sure everything is done correctly,” he said.

Mitch Mortvedt, special agent in charge with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, said that charges could have been filed based on Sapp’s alleged confession, but that McAllister and the Iowa Attorney General’s Office agreed they needed more corroborating evidence before doing so.

He noted that Sapp had been released on bail last week without restrictions on her movement.

He said he did not believe that Sapp was a flight risk or a danger to the public, and he credited Autumn’s family for being “very understanding and very patient with us and the investigation.”

“We’re as anxious to get the results back as anybody, obviously,” he said.

Efforts to reach Sapp on Monday via phone calls to her home and through relatives were not successful. In addition, several local defense attorneys said they did not know whether anyone was representing Sapp.

The tragedy has caused “grief, sadness, confusion” in Orange City, a town of 6,000 about 140 miles north of Omaha, said Pastor John Klompien of Calvary Christian Reformed Church, who officiated a service to remember the girl’s life last week. He said he urged parishioners to have confidence that Jesus Christ would “redeem what we can’t in these types of situations.”

In an obituary, family members said that Autumn was a joyful girl who enjoyed church, watching “Dora the Explorer” and playing dress-up with her best friend. Her parents, Phil and Jen Elgersma, said in a statement they were deeply saddened and relying on prayers for “strength to get through this very difficult time.”

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