TBI investigating 17-month-old child’s suspicious death in Morgan County

WARTBURG (WATE) – The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is investigating a 17-month-old Morgan County child’s death.

District Attorney General Russell Johnson says in a TBI predication letter that his office was notified on June 2 that the medical examiner for Roane and Morgan counties had ordered an autopsy on a 17-month-old child that had died the previous day.

Web extra: Read the full TBI Predication Letter [PDF] 

Though medical examiner Dr. William Bennett and Johnson said they hadn’t been notified of a suspicious death, Bennett did notice there was a dead child at Roane Medical Center who had an extremely low blood count, as if the child had bled to death.

The Morgan County Sheriff’s Office had said the child choked to death on a cookie.

Bennett and Johnson also learned that while emergency officials and a deputy responded to the home, the scene was not preserved, no evidence was collected, and no further investigation was performed.

It was later determined the child had been the subject of an ongoing Department of Children’s Services case going back to November 2013 when the child was found to have extremely serious injuries, including a splintered spine.

At that time, the child was removed from the home of his mother. The child’s father lives in Cleveland, has not been in the picture for some time, and is not a suspect.

The mother’s boyfriend, Roger Dale Prince, was a suspect in the November alleged abuse, as was his daughter.

Officials say both were present when the child died, despite a court order keeping them away from the child.

The child was given back to the mother on May 7 after she passed a polygraph test indicated she was not responsible for the child’s injuries.

Johnson says Sheriff Freytag was unable to conduct a prompt investigation, so he notified the TBI.

The autopsy revealed the child died of multiple blunt force injuries, including a fractured spine and a transected aorta. There were also many other injuries, both new and healing.

Prince and the mother declined to talk on camera Monday night, but tell 6 News they did nothing wrong. The mother says her son was constantly sick, but she didn’t elaborate on what his condition was.

Several people, including Prince’s aunt who lives across the street from where the child died, say they don’t believe his death was accidental.

Pastor Dustin Bonham was ending his Sunday night service at Lighthouse Baptist Church in Wartburg on June 1 when a frantic scene unfolded right next door.

“When I walked out there was a young lady, came from the apartments down there, screaming that he can’t breathe he can’t breathe,” Bonham said.

A certified EMT, Bonham was one of the first on scene to try to save the toddler’s life.

“He was critical by the time I got there. He was turning blue. He was in bad shape by the time that I got there,” Bonham said.

He drove the toddler by ambulance to Methodist Medical Center in Oak Ridge, but it was too late. Bonham says he isn’t surprised the death is being investigated.

“There were things on the scene that I just thought the story wasn’t adding up the way that it should have.”

Things like the family saying the baby choked on a cookie.

“They said they got it all out but I never saw any traces of a cookie or anything like that. A baby that has cookies you would expect crumbs to be around his mouth.”

No charges have been filed and the investigation is ongoing.

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