State, defense lay out differing stories of baby’s death in Olea trial
Prosecution says Kaiden Olea died of severe head trauma, defense points to possible pre-existing medical condition
Prosecutors and defense attorneys laid out very different versions of how 6-month-old Kaiden Olea died on Jan. 15, 2012.
In the state’s version, the child’s father, 26-year-old Joseph Olea — who is currently on trial on charges of first-degree murder and child endangerment resulting in death — caused Kaiden to suffer high-force brain trauma. The defense’s version suggests the child suffered from a pre-existing medical condition that resulted in his death.
Jasper County Attorney Mike Jacobsen gave the state’s opening argument, laying out the evidence that will eventually be presented over the course of 13 witnesses’ testimony. He said the evidence will clearly point to a brain injury inflicted upon the child by his father.
Public defender Jill Eimermann gave the defense’s opening argument, reminding jurors the state carried the burden of proof. She also tore into what is expected to be the state’s main assertion — that Kaiden suffered from abusive head trauma, formerly called “Shaken Baby Syndrome” — calling it a “controversy” amongst pediatric critical care physicians.
The state’s first witness in the trial was Chelsea Miller, 26, of Monroe, who was Kaiden’s mother. She testified, tearfully at times, the child was a “happy and outgoing baby” who had no previous medical conditions prior to the events leading to his death.
Miller testified she worked Tuesday through Saturday each week at Wells Fargo in West Des Moines, leaving for work each day at 6 a.m. She also got up as needed when Kaiden would wake in the middle of the night for a night-time feeding and diaper change.
She also testified she took him to Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines for his well-baby checkups. At 2 weeks old, he was treated for jaundice for two days, but his 2- and 4-month-old checkups revealed no medical concerns.
Miller had a regular appointment at the WIC Food and Nutrition Service office in Newton on Jan. 9, 2012. During the visit, Kaiden was checked out by a nurse, who Miller said did not indicate any concerns about the child’s condition.
Miller said she and Kaiden were dropped off for the appointment by Olea, with whom they had been living in an apartment in Newton for less than a month. Prior to that, she said, they had been living with Olea’s mother, who they visited on Jan. 9, 2012, both at her place of employment — the Newton Hy-Vee store — and at her home.
Miller testified that during each of those visits, none of the other adults present noticed anything out of the ordinary with Kaiden. She said she put the child to bed at 9 or 10 p.m. and got up for a night-time feeding around 2 or 3 a.m.
She said she awoke between 5 and 5:30 a.m. to get ready for work, leaving for West Des Moines at approximately 6 a.m. She noted she “peeked in on” Kaiden before she departed for work.
Miller said she called each work day from her place of work during her scheduled breaks in the morning, at lunch and in the afternoon. She said when she called during her morning break on Jan. 10, 2012, Olea told her Kaiden acted like he wasn’t feeling well.
When she called during her lunch break, Miller said Olea told her the child had thrown up four times and had a fever. She said he also told her he had given the child a bath and a dose of over-the-counter fever and pain medication.
Miller said she told Olea the phone number to the child’s doctors at Blank Children’s Hospital were stored on her cell phone, which she left at home in order to have contact with Olea during her thrice-daily calls. When she called in the afternoon, she said Olea told her the child was arching his back as though he may have a stomachache or was perhaps constipated.
“I was getting concerned at this point,” she testified. “I was supposed to get off in 15 minutes, but I asked if I should go to my supervisor to come home right away.”
Miller said she arrived at home around 3:30 p.m. and found Olea sleeping on the couch with Kaiden. She immediately picked up the child and noticed his eyes were “dark,” his body was “flimsy” and he was not breathing well.
“I knew something was wrong, and decided we shouldn’t go to the Newton Clinic,” she said. “Instead, we decided to take him to Skiff ... he needed immediate attention.”
Upon their arrival at Skiff Medical Center a few minutes later, Olea went to a treatment room with Kaiden while Miller filled out paperwork required for admission to the hospital. When she went back to see her son a few minutes later, she was told the child’s “soft spot” on the top of his head was bulging.
Kaiden was airlifted to Blank Children’s Hospital a few minutes later. Olea flew with the child on LifeFlight, while Miller drove. She testified this was in part because the pediatric transport team wanted “the calmest parent” and the fact that Olea did not have a license to drive at the time.
Miller testified Olea’s mother rode with her on the trip to Des Moines. She also said she called her own mother, who is scheduled to testify later in trial, to ask her to come to the hospital, as well.
Assistant Jasper County Attorney Scott Nicholson, who was questioning Miller during direct examination, produced photographs taken of Kaiden at the Blank Children’s Hospital Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. They were entered into evidence and put on a projector for the courtroom to see.
Miller was visibly shaken by the images, reluctantly looking at them only when instructed to do so by Nicholson. Olea also began to cry when the pictures were displayed.
Miller also testified Olea’s demeanor changed after arriving at Blank Children’s Hospital. At one point, staff kept both parents out of Kaiden’s room. Miller said it was because Olea had “gotten upset.”
She said Olea wouldn’t allow her to be alone, unless law enforcement required it as they investigated. She said he seemed agitated by the presence of family — particularly her mother — as well as questioning by police and child welfare officials with the Iowa Department of Human Services.
Miller said she and Olea “remained together” for about six months after that, and that she frequently tried to go back over the events leading up to her son’s death with Olea. Although she admitted she and Olea frequently argued over finances and his unemployment status, she considered their relationship to be “good” up to the point of their arrests in July of 2012.
Miller also said that on at least one occasion, Olea “acted jealous” about her relationship with her son. She said the three of them moved into their apartment in Newton in mid-December of 2011.
Up to that point, she testified, Olea always had other adults around while he watched his son while she worked. She agreed that prior to Kaiden’s death, Olea had been singly responsible for the child’s care for between 15 and 18 days.
Under cross-examination by Eimermann, Miller noted she had never observed Olea being abusive toward Kaiden, nor did she ever see him lose his temper with the child. In fact, Miller said, Olea was “always good with him.”
Miller also noted Kaiden had “grown fussier” as he had gotten older, particularly fussier when going to bed at night. Eimermann also alluded to recorded statements she made to law enforcement in the days leading up to and following the child’s death. In particular, Eimermann noted that in her interviews with Newton Police Lt. Breckenridge, she:
• didn’t mention any change in Olea’s demeanor,
• didn’t mention previous arguments with Olea, and
Eimermann also questioned Miller about why she was testifying on behalf of the state, noting that Miller is facing one of the same charges as Olea — child endangerment resulting in death — which carries a mandatory maximum sentence, if she is convicted. Miller admitted she was hoping to avoid a lengthy prison sentence by testifying.
On redirect by Nicholson, however, Miller also said she has been given no offer of immunity or a reduction in the charges against her in exchange for testifying. When asked by Nicholson why she was testifying, she said it was because she had not harmed Kaiden.
Miller also said her relationship with Olea changed after their arrests in July of 2012, and her opinion of the relationship also changed. She also said she had no reason to believe Olea had harmed Kaiden in January of 2012.
When pressed by Nicholson to explain when she began to suspect he was involved, Olea’s attorneys successfully objected, stating the questions asked her to speculate.
The state’s second witness was Sandy Van Zee, who has been a Registered Nurse with Skiff Medical Center for more than 40 years. She was working in the hospital’s emergency room on Jan. 10, 2012, and was the “scriber,” taking down vitals and observations from those treating Kaiden after he arrived.
Van Zee also was asked about her own observations of the child, who she said was in “very critical condition” upon arrival at the hospital. She said he was pale with outstretched arms, not moving much, but whimpering.
“The decision [to send Kaiden to Blank Children’s Hospital] was made immediately, based on his condition,” she said.
Van Zee also noted Olea was “very talkative,” which she found to be unusual under the circumstances. Under cross examination by public defender Steve Addington, she acknowledged Olea was relaying to the emergency room staff what had happened and what symptoms he had observed in the child, and that Olea had been “attentive” to the child.
She also noted she did not observe any external injuries on Kaiden, nor did she recall any that were told to her as she recorded the trauma team’s observations.
The third and final witness of the day for the state was Dr. Tracy Eckhardt, a critical care pediatrician at Blank Children’s Hospital, who was on duty Jan. 10, 2012, when Kaiden was airlifted to the hospital. She said that because the child had a breathing tube inserted into his throat to aid with breathing, he was immediately brought to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.
Under direct examination by Jacobsen, she said her initial observations of the child were that he was in “critical condition” and on a ventilator to facilitate breathing. She said she then conducted a physical examination, which indicated pressure was being applied to the brain as the result of swelling.
Eckhardt said an initial X-ray and blood tests were inconclusive, but did rule out a few causes for his condition. A blood gas test, however, was “moderately low,” she said, which was an indicator Kaiden’s body had been stressed within the few hours previous to the test.
“We did quite a bit of bloodwork and also ordered a CT scan,” she said. “The results of the CT were quite concerning. Usually, in a normal scan, there are areas of gray and white matter with distinct patterns ... those were not present in Kaiden’s scan.”
Eckhardt went on to say the swelling was affecting the entire brain, which was indicative of a high-force injury, whether accidental or inflicted. She said it was standard procedure in such cases to call in Dr. Kenneth McCann of Blank’s Child Abuse and Neglect Services and Dr. Jean Spencer, a pediatric opthamologist with Children’s Eye Clinic in West Des Moines.
“Dr. McCann is called in anytime there is a severe injury such as this, because there may be abuse involved,” she said. “Dr. Spencer consults with us often ... she is called in to look at the eyes anytime abuse may have occurred.”
Eckhardt said it is very difficult to treat patients with brain injuries as severe as Kaiden’s. She also said it is not uncommon for infants to have that kind of brain injury while not exhibiting any exterior signs of injury.
She said the severity of the child’s brain injury, combined with the eye damage Spencer reported to her, led to the conclusion the injuries were inflicted, not accidental. She said the child’s condition continued to deteriorate throughout his stay at the hospital.
Eckhardt said two brain-death clinical exams were conducted Jan. 13 and 14, 2012. She said she conducted the second herself, after which Kaiden was declared brain dead.
She also said the child’s injuries would indicate the high-force trauma occurred in the “hours, not days” before his arrival at Blank Children’s Hospital. Noting she has seen more than 100 similar cases in her 14-year career, she said symptoms would appear “right away” and that the symptoms reported earlier in the day were consistent with a brain injury.
“With this type of high-force injury, the child would begin showing symptoms within minutes, if not immediately,” she said. “Those symptoms would include difficulty breathing ... vomiting ... altered mental status, starting with irritability and then a lack of response ... intercranial pressure ... and arching of the back can be a sign of general neurologic injury.”
Eckhardt testified she spoke with Olea and Miller after the CT scan, but Olea’s “angry” reaction concerned her. She said she worried he might become violent, and asked one of the “larger nurses” to come with her when she spoke with Olea.
During cross-examination by Eimermann, Eckhardt noted there is “no correct way to act” as a parent under the circumstances Olea and Miller faced Jan. 10, 2012. She also said the CT scan showed no signs of bleeding, but that any “bleed” could be difficult to see because of the extensive swelling of Kaiden’s brain.
Pressed by Eimermann to weigh in on the abusive head trauma controversy she had alluded to in her opening arguments, Eckhardt said she would not be the appropriate person to answer those questions. She said McCann, who is slated to testify Thursday, would be better suited to answer them.
The day started Wednesday with the conclusion of jury selection, which resulted in a panel of seven men and seven women. At the conclusion of the trial, two will be selected at random as alternates and will not participate in deliberations.
The morning started out with 36 prospective jurors and 10 “standby alternates.” During the conclusion of Addington’s voir dire questioning, however, three more prospective jurors were excused.
One potential juror questioned whether he could be fair in weighing the evidence if Olea chose not to testify on his own behalf, and another said she struggled with Olea’s constitutional right to a presumption of innocence.
A third prospective juror — who had been an alternate for the panel — was excused because she had knowledge of the case as the result of previous media coverage. She was interviewed independently away from the rest of the potential jury panel before she was excused.