Mark Wilson: Excuses, but no answers in Baby Riley case

November 10, 2012

Excuses, but no answers in Baby Riley case

Granbury High School student Magon Rutledge not only was the one who took action that led to saving the life of a severely starved child last December, she also was the first to use the word Holocaust in describing his condition.

One of the doctors who treated Baby Riley Alston at Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth also used that word while testifying in the trial of his parents, Brittany and Justin Alston. They were charged with a first-degree felony count of injury to a child, serious bodily injury.

As the jury found out last week during their trial, use of the word Holocaust was the most accurate way to convey Riley’s condition.

If you’ve seen photos of Nazi Germany’s Holocaust victims, then you can imagine how pitiful Baby Riley looked. He was 8 months old at the time, but weighed just 9 pounds.

His ribs were protruding and his eyes and other facial features were sunken. His skin was drooping – not from baby fat, but from a lack of it. The pictures showed bed sores on his backside. District Attorney Rob Christian suggested to the jury that perhaps no one had been picking him up to provide some basic, tender-loving care.

Testimony indicated that he was so dehydrated that he was unable to cry. But he must have shed plenty of dry tears.

The pictures were haunting, and remain with me.

One photo jumped off the screen and savagely attacked the senses – Baby Riley staring directly at the camera with blank eyes, his hands to his mouth, peering at you as if to ask, “Why is this happening to me?”

It was a shocking image to absorb. It hurt just to see it. Imagine what Baby Riley felt being starved?

One jury member said after the trial they took on the job of becoming the voice of Baby Riley. They spoke loudly.

The Alstons were sentenced to 60 years in prison on Nov. 1. The offense could have drawn a sentence of up to 99 years or life, or as little as five years of probation.

In recorded interviews with investigator Robert Young before they were arrested, the Alstons claimed that Baby Riley was spitting up his formula day after day. They said a pediatrician told them to use a different formula. Brittany claimed she did and thought it might be working.

But they failed to make a couple of appointments with the pediatrician, then didn’t respond to a letter from the office about future visits. They indicated to Young that they were afraid Riley would be taken away from them if his condition was revealed.

Testimony seemed to indicate that at least two months went by with Baby Riley in his severely emaciated state.

Relatives testified that they saw the infant last Thanksgiving. They said he was wrapped up and they only saw his face, but only noted he was a little “skinny.”

A teenager could have seen that something had to be done immediately. And that’s exactly what happened.

At that time, Magon was living in the Alston’s neighborhood in Sandy Beach. She went with a 15-year-old boy – sort of an “adopted” cousin – to meet other friends at the Alston home.

According to testimony, alcohol was being consumed at the residence, and Magon and her friends should have turned around gone home. Thank God they didn’t.

Magon said she heard crying and asked to see Baby Riley. She testified that what she saw “enraged” her. She said she found Riley in the playpen where he slept in a “slimy mix” of urine, feces and vomit. In the middle of the filthy playpen, photos showed, was an outline of where Baby Riley’s body had been.

Magon took Riley to the living room and insisted on changing his diaper. She told me she zoned out everything else. She was taking control of a child in the home of parents she barely knew, screaming at her friend to call his dad, who is a paramedic.

“As soon as I saw the condition Riley was in, I did not care what happened to me,” said Magon, now 18, who plans to attend Tarleton State University next fall and pursue a degree in psychology. “All I cared about was getting Riley help. All I knew for sure was I was not leaving without him. And I did not care what Brittany or Justin had to say about it.”

The 15-year-old boy who arrived with Magon called his father, Paul Fuller, the local paramedic. He saw Riley and told Justin the child had to have immediate medical attention – and might only have 48 hours to live. Paul ended up taking Riley to Lake Granbury Medical Center, where he was first evaluated.

During his questioning of Justin and his wife, Young asked if they had wanted Riley to die. They both offered a series of weak denials.

There were plenty of excuses, but never any real reasons why they didn’t reach out to get help for Riley before that night.

Testimony and newer photos showed that a simple switch in formula did indeed help Riley to stop throwing it up while in foster care. Now he is growing and thriving along with his older sister, Katelynn. A bright smile on Riley’s now-plump face in one of the pictures said it all.

We don’t know exactly what was going on in the home of Brittany and her husband Justin, or exactly why they didn’t do more. There may not be an answer, or at least not one that makes sense.

But we do know that Magon Rutledge was brave enough to step up, and deserved the title, Baby Riley’s hero.

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