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$8-million civil suit filed against Shenandoah County Social Services Department

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On Monday, February 11, the attorney for a Shenandoah County couple announced the filing of an $8 million civil suit against seven employees of the county’s Department of Social Services related to their 2009 adoption of a child through the agency.

The suit alleges that named personnel of the Shenandoah County Department of Social Services withheld vital information about the then eight-year-old boy’s psychological and behavioral history prior to the adoption being finalized. And the suit names a third party witness to substantiate that claim.

A press release from the office of attorney Nancie Williams of the Front Royal law firm of Williams & Bell states of the basis of the civil claim that the cited employees failed “to disclose any information about a child to the adoptive parent and, in particular, concealed a report that was made to the Department about the child sexually molesting another child prior to the adoption being finalized.”

The plaintiffs are Gregory Gene Long & Anna Marie Long; the seven defendants are John T. Ayers, Mary Westcott, Judy Bell, Bridget Diehl, Michelle Cantner, Carla Taylor & Beth Dellulo/Oliff – all listed “In his/her personal capacity” with the Shenandoah County Department of Social Services.

The civil filing states, “This action arises from the illegal and fraudulent actions of the Defendants in their failure to properly disclose the background, psychological and medical records of Mason Long (formerly Mason James Steward) prior to his adoption and in their false representations, under oath, of the Circuit Court of Shenandoah County that they had made such disclosures,” adding that, “This action also arises from the Defendants actions in materially misrepresenting Mason Long’s needs during the adoption process thereby inducing the Plaintiffs into a contractual obligation with the Defendants. The action further arises from the intentional and continued actions of the Defendants which caused extreme emotional distress, loss of wages and other losses to the Plaintiffs.”

The complaint states that in the fall of 2009 the couple began providing short-term custodial care (respite care) to Mason, who was 8 years old at the time, while at the same time providing respite care to another child – “JS” – another minor in custody of county social services.

The suit alleges that after being approached in December 2009 by defendant Beth Oliff about a permanent adoption of Mason, that the couple asked Oliff and Mary Westcott about “relevant family and mental health” histories of the child”. The Longs were told that information was “confidential” and could not be disclosed, the suit states.

After another inquiry by the Long’s for “relevant information” about the child, including medical, psychological and family histories, the civil case states the couple was told “there was no information known to the foster parents, nor any information that had been provided by Shenandoah County DSS.”

Mason was then placed with the Longs on February 13, 2010 with the “goal of adoption”. The Longs soon noted “disturbing behaviors including but not limited to angry outbursts, temper tantrums and habitual lying” the suit continues.

Continued inquiries by the couple were met with the “confidentiality” response, or that “there as no relevant family history,” or that it was normal “trauma” behavior that would eventually subside.

Through February to October as the adoption process continued the Longs continued to provide respite care to the second child, J.S. And by November 2010 while seeing some positive behaviors, the couple was also noticing abusive, physically violent behavior by Mason toward family pets. During this period they also had the boy examined for Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorders.

On June 23, 2011, an adoption order for Mason was entered by the court making the Longs his legal parents. Included in the adoption order is a statement noting that a court-ordered investigation into the adoption “shall include a statement by the child-placing agency or local director that all reasonably ascertainable background, medical, and psychological records of the child have been provided to the prospective adoptive parents.”

The complaint states to the date of the civil suit filing in 2019, SC DSS or its employees had provided no information regarding Mason’s background, medical or psychological records. Withholding of such information from adoptive parents in writing or under oath is classified as a Class 6 Felony, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit alleges ongoing denial of funding for alternative treatment methods for the boy and a somewhat cavalier response to Mason’s parents concerns about the boy’s increasingly deteriorating and abusive behaviors. By 2015-16 when Mason was 14-15, that behavior included incidents of animal abuse, sexual contact with a neighbor’s horse, viewing of animal pornography in county public schools, and finally an admission of “inappropriate sexual contact” with another adopted child of the Longs identified as “GLJ”.

In June 2016 the Longs met with social services personnel at which they expressed “grave concerns” about the boy’s continued sexual contact with the neighbor’s horse and expressed a belief he could benefit from placement in a residential facility that specialized in sexual abuse behaviors.

The contend defendants Judy Bell and Michelle Cantner responded that “if Mason did not want to go into treatment” they had “to respect his wishes.”

However after Mason’s admission to his parents and to a therapist Kelly Sharpes in Harrisonburg, the boy was admitted as a patient in September 2016 to the North Springs Behavioral Treatment Center (North Springs).

The suit cites the parents eventually asking for a “psychosexual polygraph” for Mason at the North Springs. Given in January 2017, the civil suit states, “Mason revealed numerous incidents of inappropriate sexual contact with siblings and foster children while in the custody of the Longs and prior to his adoption.”

The Longs then forwarded the result of the psychosexual polygraph to the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office. On July 5, 2017, at age 17, Mason was charged in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court with four counts of Aggravated Sexual Battery of a child less than 13 years of age.

Then the civil suit drops its first alleged bombshell. The mother of one of the boy’s admitted past victims (J.S.) then reported in an interview with the sheriff’s office that “she had previously reported J.S.’s claims of sexual battery by Mason to Beth Oliff and Judy Bell with Shenandoah County DSS in early May 2011 … In said meeting she recounted in graphic detail her son’s claim that Mason had sexually molested him.” In May 2011 that meeting would have occurred about a month-and-a-half prior to the Longs’ adoption of Mason being finalized.

Bombshell allegation number two, the suit alleges victim J.S.’s mother told the sheriff’s investigator the two county social services personnel told her, “You are aware he is being adopted in a month” and “this meeting never happened.”

The civil suit notes that Mason pled guilty to all four counts of Aggravated Sexual Battery and was given “an indefinite term of confinement with the Department of Juvenile Justice where he now serves his time.”

It then references a newspaper article appearing at the time of the charges that listed the family’s street address. The publicity led to the Plaintiffs suffering “additional ridicule in their community and severe mental and emotional anguish.”

That anguish is the tip of the iceberg on the claimed damages, which include Anna Long having to quit her 25 to 30-hour a week job at the Valley Baptist Christian School and Greg Long having to utilize an average of a 144 missed work days per year classified as “sick leave” to deal with Mason’s issues. Consequently he had lost the ability to claim the unused sick leave hours in his retirement package.

The final of 123 specific items listed in the lawsuit prior to the counts alleged against the social services personnel in concealing known information about Mason states, “If the Longs had been told of the allegations of sexual misconduct by Mason prior to the adoption, they would not have completed the adoption due to their desire to have additional children.”

The civil action then alleges Fraud in DSS staff claims of no relevant background information, Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, Negligence, Fraud in inducement toward the adoption, and Breach of Contract in “refusing to provide necessary treatment and care for Mason” as his condition deteriorated as a part of the Long family.

Crime/Court

As press releases fly, plot thickens in Tharpe sex solicitation case

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Hollis Tharpe, center, chairs March 25th town council meeting as Vice-Mayor William Sealock, left, and Councilwoman Letasha Thompson listen. Sealock will assume the mayor’s duties and chair meetings pending resolution of the misdemeanor case against Tharpe. Royal Examiner File Photo/Roger Bianchini

Front Royal Mayor Hollis Tharpe was present with wife Debbie to hear a misdemeanor warrant issued for solicitation of prostitution by a Warren County Grand Jury Monday afternoon, April 15. Due to the involvement of a special prosecutor from outside the county Tharpe’s case was called first on a crowded grand jury docket convened at 2:17 p.m.

Winchester attorney David Hensley told Judge Clifford L. Athey Jr. he was making a special appearance on Tharpe’s behalf. Hensley said he would seek discovery of prosecution evidence against Tharpe and Athey gave Special Prosecutor Heather Hoevermale 30 days, to May 15, to respond to the defense discovery motion.

The matter was set to be revisited on the court docket of June 17, at 2 p.m. Athey instructed Hoevermale to send the prosecution discovery to Hensley pending Tharpe’s retention of another attorney to handle the case in the long run.

As previously reported by Royal Examiner, the 67-year-old Tharpe called the misdemeanor charge against him “embarrassing” and “baseless”. He indicated that when he visits massage parlors it is for legitimate massage therapy on his aging and aching body. The date of the offense is listed as May 31, 2018 and is believed to involve a massage parlor  on the town’s south side.

Nearly two-and-a-half-hours before the indictment was returned by the grand jury, in a press release issued from the Front Royal Town Council Clerk’s Office at 11:58 a.m. Tharpe announced that he would voluntarily place himself on temporary administrative leave without pay pending resolution of the charge against him. So, Vice-Mayor William Sealock will chair coming council meetings, beginning with a work session Monday evening at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.

The list of press releases related to the misdemeanor “solicitation of sexual conduct” allegation against the Front Royal mayor expanded at 3:37 p.m. Monday afternoon when a Virginia State Police notice of Tharpe’s grand jury indictment and court appearance went out.

That VSP release states, “The charge stems from an investigation initiated in October 2018 by the Virginia State Police at the direction of the Office of the Attorney General.”

That there was an investigation into Tharpe went public on August 30, 2018, when Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney Brian Madden filed notice he would recuse himself from any possible prosecution relating to an “Investigation Concerning Hollis Tharpe”. The Winchester Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office of Marc Abrams was appointed by the court to replace Madden’s office in the matter.

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Crime/Court

Front Royal mayor poised for indictment on sexual solicitation charge

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Hollis Tharpe, right, chairs June 2018 town council work session as Vice-Mayor William Sealock, center, and Councilman Gary Gillespie listen. Royal Examiner File Photo/Roger Bianchini

What might the mayor of Front Royal and the owner of the New England Patriots have in common? If you said criminal scrutiny involving massage parlors, you would be correct.

Court documents filed online Friday, April 12, 2019 indicate that Front Royal Mayor Hollis Tharpe is poised to be indicted for “solicitation of prostitution” by a Warren County grand jury on Monday, April 15.

The date of the alleged offense – case number CR19-000-290-00 – is May 31, 2018, and involves a visit to a local massage parlor.

Asked about the charge Saturday evening, April 13, Tharpe said, “It’s embarrassing – but it’s a baseless charge.”

Tharpe declined further comment pending conversations with an attorney. However, he said he did not foresee the charge impacting his service as mayor of Front Royal in the immediate future – “I am an elected official,” he pointed out.

When queried about a criminal investigation aimed his way revealed when Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney Brian Madden recused himself on August 30, 2018, from involvement in any potential prosecution of the Front Royal mayor, Tharpe expressed confusion.

“I can’t find anything out – no one has called; no one has threatened to take me to court. If someone would pick up the phone and call me, I could say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – but I guess the system doesn’t work that way,” Tharpe lamented of the informational vacuum he was operating in.

“It’s just baffling – I’m absolutely clueless. I don’t do murder; I don’t write bad checks; I haven’t had any dealing with the EDA and Jennifer McDonald – I don’t have any loans with the EDA; I don’t shoplift; and I don’t do, I don’t mess with drugs – we know people who have lost kids to addiction,” Tharpe continued as he tried to fathom the nature of any potential criminal investigation into his behavior.

As of Friday, April 12, Tharpe now knows the nature of the charge against him – a charge he asserts is “baseless”. Winchester Commonwealth’s Attorney Marc Abrams was appointed by the court to replace Madden on the prosecutorial side were charges filed from the investigation into Front Royal’s mayor.

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Crime/Court

Front Royal man arrested for felony violation of protective order, abduction and other charges

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Antonio Murray. Photo courtesy of Front Royal Police Department.

On April 10, 2019, at approximately 5:45am, the Front Royal Police responded to the Handy Mart located at 202 S. Commerce Avenue for a reported domestic dispute. The ensuing investigation revealed the victim, Darci Hall, was assaulted by her estranged boyfriend, Antonio Murray, who fled the scene prior to police arrival. An Emergency Protective Order had previously been issued against Murray, forbidding him to have any contact with Hall until April 11, 2019. Police obtained a warrant for assault and battery against a family member and violation of an emergency protective order stemming from this incident and had not yet been served.

On the same day, at approximately 12:44pm, the Front Royal Police Department responded to the residence of Darci Hall for a reported domestic dispute. Officers quickly located Antonio Murray in the basement of the residence where he was taken into custody without incident and served the aforementioned warrants. Front Royal Detectives conducted interviews with both the victim and suspect, and based on those interviews, additional warrants were obtained against Murray. Murray was also charged with felony violation of a protective order, abduction, strangulation X 2 and object sexual penetration. The preliminary hearing for these matters is set for May 9, 2019 in Warren County Juvenile & Domestic Relations Court. Murray is being held at R.S.W. Regional Jail until the preliminary hearing.

Anyone with further information is asked to please contact Detective L.J. Waller with the Front Royal Police Department at 540-636-2208 or via email at lwaller@frontroyalva.com.

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Crime/Court

UPDATED: Mother guilty in toddler twins abuse case – jury recommends no time served

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Tabitha Zimmerman in a 2018 mug shot - Courtesy Photo RSW Jail

FRONT ROYAL – If it was a boxing match it would have been ruled a split decision – on Wednesday evening, April 10, just over an hour after returning a guilty verdict on two counts of negligent child endangerment against 29-year-old Tabitha Zimmerman in the November 2017 death of her 22-month-old son Malakai and injuries sustained by twin brother Micah at the hands of her then fiancé Chad Ritchie, a six-man, six-woman jury recommended no time served and no fine on either conviction.

Zimmerman faced up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $2500 on each conviction. Actually a question submitted by the jury prior to its sentencing recommendation indicated a desire to credit Zimmerman for the eight months she served in RSW Regional Jail following her November 9, 2017 arrest prior to being released on bond. The jury also asked if a parenting class could be recommended for the defendant.

Judge Clifford L. Athey Jr. replied that neither of those were part of the sentencing options. One minute after returning to deliberations, a 10:30 p.m. knock on the jury room door indicated the jury was ready with its authorized sentencing recommendation.

As reported in Royal Examiner’s coverage of the first two days of the trial, the prosecution case against Zimmerman revolved around the contention there had been a long-term pattern of abuse by Ritchie that Zimmerman was aware of and allowed to continue. SEE RELATED STORY:

Zimmerman trial for failing to prevent child death, injuries inflicted by boyfriend begins

Ritchie was called as a prosecution witness against Zimmerman. Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Layton simply asked Ritchie, who entered an Alford guilty plea on the second day of his December trial, to verify his written account of the events of November 8, 2017, including his striking of the twins in the body and head while watching the children while their mother was on a 12-hour night shift at Rubbermaid where the couple had met.

However on cross examination by defense attorney John Bell, Ritchie was asked if he had ever previously struck the boys. “No,” Ritchie replied. Layton countered the impact of that answer by his witness by telling the jury during closing arguments that Ritchie had a tendency to minimize his wrongdoing toward the children, including the evening of Malakai’s death. SEE RELATED STORY:

Toddler death defense – ‘a horrific accident’ – prosecution ‘Really?’

Chad Ritchie mug shot from 2018, closer to the time of his December 2018 trial. Courtesy Photo RSW Jail

In both his closing argument against conviction, as well as an earlier motion to strike the commonwealth’s case against his client for a lack of evidence presented, Bell cited, not only the testimony of the prosecution witness who admitted to causing the injuries to the twins culminating in the death of one, but also the testimony of the commonwealth’s three expert witnesses.

Those witnesses were State Forensic Pathologist Meghan Kessler who did Malakai Zimmerman’s autopsy; Winchester Medical Center Forensic Nurse Betty Fisher who examined surviving brother Micah the evening of the incident; and Pediatrician Ashley Blanzit who treated the boys on a regular basis.

Bell told the jury Wednesday that all of the commonwealth’s expert witnesses had testified under cross examination that none of the older bruises, scabs or marks on the boys were of a nature to raise abuse alarm bells without the presence of the newer marks admittedly inflicted by Ritchie and determined to be the cause of Malakai’s death and Micah’s injuries of November 8, 2017.

Of one health concern for Malakai expressed by Pediatrician Blanzit, weight loss from 25 pounds at 18 months to 17 pounds at 21 months, the month before his death, Bell noted Kessler’s autopsy report indicating Malakai “was well-nourished” and weighed 33 pounds at the time of his death.

“Nobody saw it coming,” Bell told the jury. Those “nobodies” included the twins’ pediatrician who is bound by law to report signs of abuse; Tabitha Zimmerman’s parents in whose basement she and Ritchie had been living for two months prior to November 8, 2017; or the two prosecution expert medical witnesses who saw the children in the wake of Ritchie’s admitted violence of that November evening.

In arguing for a lower end jury sentencing recommendation Bell described his client as a twice broken woman: first at her own doing as an opioid addict; then as a mother whose twins had been the catalyst for her to kick her addiction and become a devoted, hard-working mother, again broken by the death of one child and injury and consequent legal separation from her surviving son due to the mistake “of trusting the wrong man”.

Bell added that once released from jail after her arrest for contributing to the death and injuries to her twins, rather than return through despair to addiction, she had reentered the workforce to again become “a productive member of society” who continued to pass drug screenings.

The remaining question, Bell asked the jury that had just convicted his client on a paucity of evidence “is how badly do you want to break her again?”

Twice placed on suicide watch at RSW Jail following her Nov. 9, 2017 arrest for negligent complicity in the death of one and abuse of both her twin boys, Zimmerman is wearing a strap-on protective vest indicative of prisoner’s who may try to harm themselves. Courtesy Photo RSW Jail

The fortunate answer for Bell and his client was not much at all.

Bell noted during sentencing arguments that his client remains on probation in Fauquier County for an earlier offense. With the potential of her probation being jeopardized by this conviction, we asked Bell if he might move to overturn the conviction or failing that, appeal the verdict.

Defense counsel said he would discuss those options with his client.

Judge Athey gave the defense 21 days to submit a motion to set aside the verdict; and the prosecution 21 days to respond if that defense motion is filed. If arguments are forthcoming on a defense motion, Athey set them for the June 21 circuit court docket.

Judge Athey must approve the jury sentencing recommendation. A final sentencing hearing date will be set following decisions on coming motions. SEE RELATED STORY:

Ritchie will serve 20 years in death and injuries inflicted to toddler twins

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Crime/Court

Emotional Zimmerman denies seeing previous signs of abuse of her twins

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Tabitha Zimmerman in a 2018 mug shot – Courtesy Photo RSW Jail

Shortly after 6 p.m., Tuesday, April 9, Tabitha Zimmerman took the stand in her own defense against charges she was willfully negligent of signs of a pattern of abuse of her twins at the hands of her then-fiancé Chad Ritchie leading to the death of her son Malachi.

Asked by her attorney John Bell, “Did you ever see Mr. Ritchie lose his temper with the kids?” Zimmerman replied, “No.”

“Did you ever see him hit the kids?”

“No,” the 29-year-old Zimmerman again replied.

“Did you notice more bruises on the boys when they were with Chad Ritchie than with the babysitter?”

“No.”

“Did it ever occur to you that Chad Ritchie would beat your children?”

“No, that’s not what I thought.”

“He was never abusive to you?”

“No.”

“Did you ever see him abusive with his daughter?”

“No,” Zimmerman asserted.

The idea that Ritchie’s abuse of November 8, 2017, was an aberration, rather than a pattern matched Ritchie’s defense team’s arguments at both trial and his sentencing hearing last month.

Tabitha Zimmerman’s testimony will resume when the trial continues at 9 a.m. Wednesday morning.

Earlier in the day as a sheriff’s deputy’s body camera videotape was played by the prosecution showing Zimmerman and her parents and son Micah at Warren Memorial Hospital awaiting news on Malachi’s condition; being informed he was dead; and reacting emotionally to that news and not being allowed to see his body, Zimmerman dropped her head onto the defense table and sobbed throughout.

Twenty-two-month-old Malachi Zimmerman died on November 8, 2017, and his brother Micah sustained injuries from physical abuse Ritchie, 29, admitted to inflicting on the boys while in his care as their mother worked a night shift at Rubbermaid where the couple had met.

The prosecution rested at 5 p.m. Tuesday after presenting 17 witnesses in the trial that began at 2:30 p.m. Monday after several hours of jury selection. Following Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Layton’s closing of the prosecution case, defense attorney John Bell moved to have the case dismissed due to a lack of evidence in support of the commonwealth’s admittedly circumstantial case against his client.

“The commonwealth has proved that Mr. Ritchie did harm to the children – the only question is, was this an event Tabitha Zimmerman could reasonably have foreseen and prevented,” Bell told the court.

Chad Ritchie mug shot from 2018, closer to the time of his December 2018 trial. Courtesy Photo RSW Jail

Defense counsel pointed to the commonwealth’s own expert witnesses to argue a failure to present evidence in support of the prosecution contention that the abuse of November 8, 2017, was the culmination of pattern of abuse by Ritchie.

Ritchie entered an Alford guilty plea on the second day of his December trial, admitting the prosecution had evidence to convict without admitting guilt. Ritchie’s attorneys argued that while Ritchie had struck the twins to the head and body out of anger and frustration while babysitting them, the cause of Malachi’s death was aggressively and wrongly administered CPR (Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation) performed by a panicking Ritchie as he tried to revive the boy who was not breathing.

The cause of Malachi’s death was cardiac arrest caused by internal bleeding from a ruptured intestine that bled into the child’s stomach cavity.

Pointing to the commonwealth’s own expert witnesses, State Forensic Pathologist Meghan Kessler who did Malachi Zimmerman’s autopsy; Winchester Medical Center Forensic Nurse Betty Fisher who examined surviving brother Micah the evening of the incident; and Pediatrician Ashley Blanzit who treated the boys on a regular basis, Bell told Judge Clifford L. Athey Jr. the prosecution had failed to provide any testimony corroborating previous injuries of the nature of those the boys received the day of Malachi’s death.

Bell noted that all of the commonwealth’s expert witnesses had testified under cross examination that none of the older bruises, scabs or marks on the boys were of a nature to raise abuse alarm bells without the presence of the newer marks admittedly inflicted by Ritchie and determined to be the cause of Malachi’s death and Micah’s injuries of November 8, 2017.

Arguing against dismissal, Layton countered that in a circumstantial case like this one it should be up to the jury to decide if sufficient evidentiary circumstances have been provided to achieve conviction. He cited case histories in which criminal liability from inaction had been upheld on a variety of fronts. He also noted that the prosecution experts had indicated that the signs of past blunt force trauma injuries of an abusive nature can vary from person to person.

“It should be up to the jury to decide,” Layton told the court.

After 10 minutes of deliberation in chambers and five minutes of prefacing his decision to the attorneys, Athey agreed that the trial should proceed to the defense case with the jury as ultimate arbitrators of guilt or innocence. In denying the defense motion to dismiss, Judge Athey noted that at this point in a trial a motion to dismiss must be viewed in the light most favorable to the commonwealth.

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Zimmerman trial for failing to prevent child death, injuries inflicted by boyfriend begins

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Tabitha Zimmerman at the time of her 2017 arrest in the wake of her son Malachi’s death at the hands of her boyfriend while she was at work. Courtesy Photo RSW Jail

The trial of Tabitha Zimmerman for negligent complicity in the death of one of her 22-month-old twins and physical abuse of the other on November 8, 2017, by her then-boyfriend Chad Ritchie began Monday afternoon, April 8, following several hours of jury selection. Zimmerman faces one count of Cruelty or Injury to a Child for each of her children beaten by Ritchie while she was at work at Rubbermaid that November evening almost a year and a half ago.

In just under an hour ending at 3:30 p.m. jurors heard opening arguments outlying the commonwealth and defense cases and testimony of the first two prosecution witnesses.
The prosecution case is built on the theory that the boys’ mother ignored a pattern of physical abuse by Chad Ritchie that culminated with the death of Malachi and injuries to Micah on November 8, 2017, while she was at work and Ritchie was pressed into baby-sitting duty. Defense attorney John Bell told the jury that due to the unavailability of the twins’ regular babysitter, Ritchie had gotten the assignment.

In December Ritchie entered an Alford guilty plea on the second day of his trial for the Second Degree murder of Malachi and injuries sustained by Micah that same evening. In an Alford plea a defendant does not admit guilt, but accepts that the prosecution has enough evidence to convict.

Last month Ritchie was sentenced to serve 20 years of a 55-year sentence imposed by Judge Clifford L. Athey Jr. in the death of Malachi Zimmerman and injuring of his brother Micah. Judge Athey is also presiding at the Zimmerman trial.

That actual 20 years of time-to-serve was at the higher end of sentencing guidelines in the Alford plea agreement. Ritchie attorney Jason Ransom argued that his client had an uncharacteristic outburst of frustration and violence toward the children that night that not only killed Malachi Zimmerman, but crushed his client’s spirit.

Chad Ritchie mug shot from 2018, closer to the time of his December 2018 trial. Courtesy Photo RSW Jail

Defense counsel Bell is likely to echo that contention in countering the prosecution theory of a longer-term pattern of physical abuse of the children. In Ritchie’s sentencing hearing a string of relatives and friends said they had never seen Ritchie act mean or violent toward the Zimmerman twins, and that social media posts indicated the positive relationship they perceived and Ritchie claimed with the boys.

In his opening statement Bell urged the jury to listen to the testimony of his client. Bell said that testimony will indicate that Tabitha Zimmerman had no reason to suspect what was to occur the evening of November 8, 2017, when she left her children in the care of Ritchie, “a man she loved and trusted”.

Bell told jurors that Zimmerman had turned her life around upon discovery she was pregnant with twins while in jail as a consequence of an opioid addiction.

“She went to AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and NA (Narcotics Anonymous); she got jobs; she got better jobs and was working 50, 60 hours a week. She was a single mother and at some point met Chad Ritchie; someone with no criminal record” … and unlike a previous relationship “he never laid a finger on her … she thought she had found something with him,” Bell told the jury.

Defense counsel also described an investigation into Malachi Zimmerman’s death that “jumped to conclusions” about a mother’s involvement leading to a distraught Tabitha Zimmerman being held in isolation by law enforcement for 13 to 14 hours while in emotional crisis. Noting her call to 911 after being texted by Ritchie at work that there was a problem with her son, he said, “You will hear a mother’s fear and panic in her voice.”

Bell questioned his client’s interrogation method and an alleged admission of complicity.

“She was isolated, interrogated, arrested and incarcerated – but never listened to … No one ever listened to Tabitha Zimmerman; no one was ever interested in her voice,” Bell told the jury of law enforcement’s interrogation of his client in the immediate aftermath of her son being taken from her. “I hope you will listen and not slip a razor blade under her door.”

The razor blade was a reference to an incident Bell described while Zimmerman was being kept in solitary confinement in jail when someone slipped a newspaper article about her son’s death under her door with a razor blade for her to cut her wrists with.

The prosecution’s opening witnesses were Malachi and Micah Zimmerman’s primary care pediatrician Dr. Ashley Blanzit and Warren County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Michael Robinson, who responded to the scene.

In cross examination Bell asked Robinson about Zimmerman’s condition when he encountered her arriving from work as her son Malachi was being transported from the scene at her parents home by ambulance.

“She was upset, crying – pretty hysterical actually,” the sheriff’s office deputy replied.

Dr. Blanzit testified that she saw both twins till they were 15 months old and Malachi again at 17 to 18 months old for diaper rash. However, other physicians in her practice saw the boys beyond her direct contact.

Asked about any concerns for the boys’ health under direct examination by Layton, Dr. Blanzit cited one when Malachi was 21 months old. That concern was weight loss from 25 pounds at 18 months, to 17 pounds at 21 months. That much weight loss for a child that size was a matter for concern the doctor said.

At 22 months of age Malachi Zimmerman was dead, not from weight loss, but from cardiac arrest brought on by internal bleeding into the stomach cavity after being struck in the body by the Ritchie.

Chad Ritchie’s RSW mug shot at the time of his November 2017 arrest. Courtesy Photo RSW Regional Jail

Ritchie’s defense counsel contended that Malachi Zimmerman’s death was caused, not by the blows admitted to by Ritchie to the child’s body and head during three outbursts of anger the evening of November 8, 2017, but rather by faulty administering of CPR (Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation) by the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Ritchie. After evidence was presented that Ritchie was certified in CPR and should have been aware of the differing techniques for adults and small children it was a contention the court did not appear to buy into during the sentencing hearing, as apparently Ritchie and his attorneys may have feared a jury would not at his December trial.

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