When suspicious bruises appeared on the face of 23-month-old Khalil Gilbert, family members wanted answers.
Within hours of seeing the marks, relatives from the maternal and paternal sides gathered for an emergency meeting to discuss the injuries with Khalil’s mother, Kashae Lacy.
“They decided to have a meeting that night when [Lacy] got off work — kind of like an intervention, surprise meeting,” recalled Raymond Gilbert, the boy’s father.
Gilbert attended the meeting that spring 2014 evening with much interest, desperately wanting to know the source of those bruises. He and Lacy had separated before Khalil was born on April 18, 2012, but he had not been concerned about his son’s safety until he saw those bruises.
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“She was a pretty good mother when she was around. Nurturing. Caring,” Gilbert said.
But his instincts told him the bruises were not accidental.
Lacy stood her ground at the family meeting, insisting that neither she nor her new boyfriend had intentionally hurt Khalil. She said the boy had been injured while throwing a tantrum, which Lacy called a “fallout.”
Not satisfied with the meeting’s outcome, but unsure of what to do next, Gilbert took Kahlil home with him, where the little boy lived and spent most of his time.
He was a happy little fellow who loved Mickey Mouse, tooled around in his Big Wheel car and, as cute boys are apt to do, flirted with the ladies.
But within a month of that meeting, and just 10 days after his second birthday, Khalil was dead, a victim of a vicious blow — or blows — to the stomach.
His death was ruled a homicide.
Though Child Protective Services would conclude that the mother and her boyfriend were responsible for the injuries that led to Khalil’s death, no one has been criminally charged.
“I’m to the point where I feel like they didn’t even get upset with anybody,” Gilbert said. “They went through the usual, routine stuff they have to do and after that, it was, let’s not put too much energy in this. We’re not going to figure it out. Never mind.”
Khalil’s death provides insight into the difficulty and complexity of investigating child abuses cases, especially the ones that result in death. Witnesses to child abuse are rare and when the abuser is family, which is 90 percent of the time, often no one is pushing for justice for the victim. The injuries are often blamed on accidents with little evidence to help point to what really happened. And when the victims are fortunate enough to survive, they rarely convey what happened, because of their age or fear — or both.
“With different crimes, you’re tasked with trying to prove who did it,” said Grant Gildon, a detective with Arlington police’s Crimes Against Children Unit. “It’s a lot different when your first task is to prove that something happened at all.”
Even when abuse can be confirmed, it’s not always possible to identify the abuser and gather enough evidence to seek criminal charges.
A Star-Telegram review of Tarrant County abuse- and neglect-related fatalities from 2009 through 2016 uncovered four cases that were ruled homicides in which no arrests were made.
One of the cases, the Fort Worth death of 9-month-old Charles Collins, had been sitting idle after the previous investigator left the Crimes Against Children Unit. After the Star-Telegram inquired about the case’s status in March, however, Fort Worth police reassigned the case, and in April, the child’s mother was arrested on a capital murder warrant.
In each of the three remaining cases, CPS reports indicate that police had narrowed down the list of suspects to family members: the father and mother in two of the cases and the mother and aunt in the third.
But when no one confesses and police are unable to prove which of the two suspects inflicted the injuries, seeking charges in a child homicide is nearly impossible, said R. Dale Smith, chief of the Tarrant County district attorney’s office Special Victims Unit.
“It is incredibly frustrating and it’s heartbreaking,” Smith said. “... There is significant outrage, but at the same time we have to work within the bounds of the law.”
This is not ‘CSI stuff’
If the case is a homicide, determining who is responsible for fatally injuring the child is often an exercise in patience and persistence.
“With a child, you have this whole window of death so that anyone that has had access to that child during that window of time when the injury was sustained, medically speaking, is a potential suspect,” said Christy Jack, a former child abuse prosecutor who now works as a defense attorney.
Science alone cannot determine when a child was fatally injured.
“That CSI stuff that people see on television? ... There’s no way you can walk up to child and say this child has been dead for four hours,” Smith said. “You can’t say when these fractures that are healing happened and you can’t date bruises anymore. There used to be a bruise color chart that they used, but that got thrown out the window, too.”
Instead, through interviews with everyone who came in contact with the child, investigators must create a detailed timeline — sometimes going back days, sometimes a week — of the child’s behavior and actions.
In a head injury case, that means detailing when the child last went to the bathroom, cried, ate, reached out or even made eye contact.
“Those are all intentional, voluntarily movements that many times, depending on the severity of a head injury, the child can’t do,” Gildon said. “...What you’re looking for is times when these symptoms would start to appear. You’re trying to find out when was the child normal and when was the child not.”
If investigators are fortunate, the timeline will point to one person having access to the child during the period of time when an injury would have been inflicted.
If more than one person is left in the timeline, and no one is confessing, moving the case forward can be impossible.
Sometimes, experts say, the abuser is simply being protected.
“A lot of times the surviving partner will cover for the person, and they do that for a lot of different reasons,” said Dr. J.C. Upshaw Downs, a forensic pathologist and consultant. “They do it because they’ve already lost their child and this is the only person they’ve got left. And they don’t want to believe their person is a baby killer, because they emotionally invested in them.”
Bonnie Armstrong, founder of the Shaken Baby Alliance, said that other times the partner simply wants to believe the abuser’s denial because they can’t grasp the alternative.
“For the non-offending caregiver, which is usually the mom, it’s the most difficult position in the world to be in,” Armstrong said. “She picks her boyfriend. She picks her husband. She picks the baby sitter. So, no matter what, she picked the person who did this to her kid, so she had that to deal with.”
“And if she admits that they did it, then she’s got to deal with her guilt because she picked this person.”
‘I was going to protect him’
In Khalil’s case, investigators faced numerous challenges.
Khalil lived mostly with his father in Grand Prairie, but he also spent time with his mother and their respective families.
Gilbert said he believed that while Lacy would fight with him, she would never hurt their son; he was her precious baby.
“Even though we were fighting, I saw the good part of this — no matter what, he’s going to win. He’s going to get the best of her,” Gilbert said.
After the family intervention meeting, Gilbert — though his suspicions had not waned — eventually allowed Kahlil to spend time again with his mother.
On the Friday before Khalil’s death, the child had gone to the doctor and, with the exception of a cold, received a clean bill of health.
That Saturday, April 26, 2014, Gilbert took his son to the zoo, and he remembers Kahlil being unusually clingy.
“He wouldn’t let me put him down,” Gilbert recalled. “...It was kind of like a sign that I was missing. He couldn’t explain it, but he knew I was going to protect him.”
Gilbert went to work Sunday afternoon and had his sister drop off Khalil at Lacy’s workplace.
Monday afternoon, Gilbert received a call that his son was at Arlington Memorial Hospital. When he arrived, doctors and several police officers escorted him to a private room, where he would learn that his son had died.
Gilbert was confused and in disbelief, shattered by the news that no parent should ever have to hear.
“We tried to revive him but we couldn’t,” the doctor told Gilbert.
“Revive him from what?” Gilbert asked. “He was perfect. Nothing was wrong with him.”
He begged to see little Kahlil.
But he wasn’t allowed to see his son’s body because police informed him it was “evidence.”
“I was his protector,” Gilbert said. “I couldn’t protect him. That hurt me a lot. For me to be this person in his life and not be there for him when somebody was hurting him.”
‘I was dumbfounded’
Khalil’s death quickly divided the two families, with accusations of who was to blame flying from both sides.
Gilbert said Lacy told him that Khalil had been lethargic all day, not wanting to eat or play. She and her boyfriend had taken the boy to the grocery store and he stopped breathing shortly after they arrived back home.
“She told me they went home, her boyfriend took him outside. Khalil came back inside the house, sat down and just died,” Gilbert said. “That was her story. He just sat down and died, and they took him to the hospital.”
Lacy would tell homicide investigators that she had no idea what had caused her son’s death and that she hadn’t observed any of the numerous bruises that would be described in the autopsy.
Her boyfriend also told investigators he had not noticed any recent bruises or injuries on Khalil, but added that the child bruised easily.
By June 2014, Gilbert said, the families were called to a meeting by homicide detective Caleb Blank at the Arlington Police Department.
There, the detective updated those gathered, including Lacy and her boyfriend, that the medical examiner’s office had ruled Khalil’s death a homicide, caused by blunt force trauma to the abdomen.
Gilbert said Blank also shared during the meeting that the fatal injury would have occurred about an hour prior to the boy becoming unresponsive — a time when Khalil was in the care of his mother and her boyfriend.
“It was kind of a relief to me,” recalled Gilbert, who felt certain they wouldn’t be leaving the police station without somebody getting arrested. “I’m thinking, ‘OK, now my son is going to get some just justice.’”
But that arrest didn’t come. Instead, Gilbert said, the detective informed him that they needed more time to investigate Kahlil’s death.
“I was dumbfounded,” Gilbert said. “Are you serious? You just named off the facts. You just named the suspects. You just named what happened. And nothing?”
‘Tough luck, man’
A month later, Arlington police did make an arrest, but not in Khalil’s death.
Lacy was charged in July 2015 with injury to a child causing bodily injury, in reference to the bruises seen on Khalil’s head about a month before his death.
According to the arrest warrant affidavit, Lacy told police the injuries had been accidental, occurring during one of Khalil’s “fallouts.”
She said the first time it happened was when she caught the boy awkwardly — causing her fingernails to scratch him — as he suddenly lunged forward from his car seat. The second time, she told the detective, was when her boyfriend caught Khalil as the boy lunged backward as the boyfriend held him.
The boyfriend told police that Khalil would “fall out” when things didn’t go his way, either going limp or forcefully thrusting his head backward while “flinging his arms out.”
He told the detective that on one occasion several weeks prior to his death, Khalil “fell out” as his mother escorted him down the stairs. He said Lacy quickly caught the boy, but, as a result, left bruises on Khalil’s head near both his ears.
A registered nurse with Cook’s CARE Team reviewed the four photographs of the bruises that had been shared with Gilbert by Lacy’s mother.
“These injuries are inconsistent with the history provided of ‘falling out’ and being caught awkwardly,” Donna Wright wrote in an affidavit, quoted in the arrest warrant. “The bruises are on different planes of the body and some have a linear pattern configuration and therefore highly suspicious for non-accidental trauma.”
In January 2016, 22 months after Khalil’s death, a Tarrant County grand jury declined to indict Lacy on the injury-to-a-child charge.
Grand Prairie attorney Cameron Gray, who represented Lacy in the injury to a child case, said there was no evidence against Lacy, and called the case “an alarming set of facts about a tragic death that was blown all out of proportion.”
“I can say that case against her was worthless, nothing, and the grand jury did the right thing,” Gray said. “That case was an abuse of power. That’s why we have a grand jury, and thank God for them.”
Lacy did not return messages from the Star-Telegram. Her former boyfriend, who was previously being held in Dallas County Jail on unrelated charges before being transferred to a state prison, turned down an interview request.
Gilbert said he didn’t learn of the no-bill until five months later, when he was finally able to track down the latest prosecutor assigned to the case. While the Arlington homicide detective kept assuring him that his son’s murder was still under investigation, it was the prosecutor who informed him that no murder charge could be sought in the case.
“The district attorney tells me ...we know the suspects. We can’t figure out if it was him or her. Tough luck, man. We’re sorry,” Gilbert said.
The news, Gilbert said, was as painful to hear as the day he learned his son was dead.
“It was the same gut-wrenching hurt,” he said. “Like he had just died all over again. And they just didn’t care.”
‘The mother or the paramour’
Arlington police have declined to discuss the details of Khalil’s case, citing legal reasons.
In an email to the Star-Telegram on April 10, Arlington police said the case was closed, “cleared by arrest” and had been submitted to the district attorney’s office, which presented it to a grand jury.
When pressed by the Star-Telegram that the arrest made was for previous bruises on Khalil — not the boy’s death — the department responded that the murder case is not closed and is “still ongoing.”
The district attorney’s office also declined to discuss the case, citing the ongoing investigation.
Medical staff confirmed that the time at which the child became symptomatic would indicate that the perpetrator would have had to be either the mother or the paramour.
Child Protective Services report
CPS, which operates under a lower standard of evidence, concluded that the mother and her boyfriend physically abused the boy, leading to his death.
“Medical staff confirmed that the time at which the child became symptomatic would indicate that the perpetrator would have had to be either the mother or the paramour,” a CPS report states.
The report states a “preponderance of the evidence” indicates that one of the two committed the act while the other failed to make a reasonable effort to prevent it.
They also concluded that the mother committed neglectful supervision of Khalil, because she was aware of the prior injuries discussed with her by family members but failed to remove the boy from a situation where he would be abused again.
Smith, with the DA’s office, also declined to speak about specific cases.
In general, however, Smith said cases in which multiple people cannot be eliminated from the timeline are problematic for prosecution.
“If a child is beaten horribly and we know that it’s a homicide and everybody says somebody killed this child but there are two people in the timeline, there’s really not much you can do,” Smith said.
Trying both individuals at the same time is not an option in Texas, and charging both, and letting a jury sort it out, could ultimately help the suspect.
“In Texas, each defendant is tried separately, so each will have the opportunity to use as their defense that the other person in the timeline did it,” said Samantha Jordan, a spokeswoman with the district attorney’s office.
“Without the definitive proof of which person committed the crime and not being able to try them simultaneously, it can create reasonable doubt in each case as they point to the other,” she said.
Smith said cases in which charges cannot be sought are incredibly hard on all the agencies involved, including prosecutors.
“There’s so many terrible things and you want to try and get justice for every one of these people,” Smith said. “I don’t think anyone in this office would throw away a prosecutable case because it’s hard or because you might lose. It’s just whether or not it’s prosecutable in the first place.”
‘I didn’t protect him’
Raymond Gilbert said his son’s death has shaken his belief in the justice system.
“This can’t be real,” he said. “I ain’t never done anything to deserve this. This kind of hurt is not going to go away.”
Gilbert and his girlfriend, Shantisha Smith, now have a 1-year-old daughter together, named Kahlia after the older half-brother she will never meet.
“She’s helped me a lot,” Gilbert said. “She not exactly him but she’s still mine. That’s a big joy that God would give me another child after the first was taken from me.”
But the loss of his first-born — and the lack of justice — still weighs heavily on Gilbert.
“I now live with and love a broken man that has been trying to put himself back together ever since,” Shantisha Smith said.
Gilbert said he mourns for the plans he had for Kahlil. Coaching his son’s Little League team. Taking their first fishing trip together. Watching him grow into a man.
“I remember thinking, I can’t wait till we can barbecue or him growing up and coming of age and being able to drink a beer together on the back patio,” Gilbert said. “... Now it’s what could have been. I didn’t protect him.”
Other unsolved child abuse
homicides in Tarrant County
Abdul Oseni, 23 months
Died Aug. 30, 2013
Found unconscious by his mother at his Arlington home, Oseni was taken to a hospital, where he died a short time later. His death came two days before his second birthday. The autopsy revealed a massive skull fracture among injuries and his death was ruled a homicide.
Investigation: The CPS report states the child’s mother and aunt were both present at the home when the injury is believed to have occurred, but that neither could provide a reasonable explanation for the injuries. The pair had varying and inconsistent stories regarding who was alone with Abdul, the report states.
CPS determinations: CPS confirmed the mother and aunt committed physical abuse of Oseni because he became symptomatic while in their care and neither has provided an explanation, “indicating that both of them are aware of who caused the injury, making them both culpable.”
Criminal case status: Arlington police say homicide detectives consulted with the district attorney’s office and the case was presented to a grand jury, but no indictments were issued.
Romeo Wright, 3 months
Died Jan. 18, 2011
Hospitalized Jan. 13, 2011, after his father called 911 and reported finding the baby limp and not breathing at the family’s Bedford apartment.
At Cook Children’s Medical Center, hospital staff would determine that almost all of Romeo’s ribs were broken and in various stages of healing and the boy had a skull fracture, severe brain injury, and bruises to his left eye, forehead and an arm.
He died five days later, his death ultimately ruled a homicide caused by blunt force trauma to the head.
Investigation: According to a CPS affidavit, the parents told hospital staff that the bruise above Romeo’s eye occurred when his 1-year-old brother accidentally dropped a baby bottle on him. They offered no other explanation for the baby’s injuries.
CPS determinations: The child’s mother and father were “reason to believe” for the physical abuse and neglectful supervision of Romeo, as well as the neglectful supervision of his brother.
CPS placed Romeo’s brother in foster care. Custody has since been granted to relatives, a spokeswoman said.
Criminal case status: Bedford police officials say the case has not been presented to a grand jury because there is insufficient evidence to indicate who may be responsible for the baby’s death. The investigation remains open.
Deondra Garner, 15 months
Died Aug. 3, 2012
When Deondra Garner was born in April 2011, her two siblings were already in foster care for the second time over their mother’s drug use. Immediately after her birth, Deondra would become destined for foster care after the newborn tested positive for marijuana and cocaine in her system.
But after completing court-ordered services, the mother received her three children back.
On Aug. 3, 2012, Deondra had old and new injuries when she was brought unresponsive into the hospital and pronounced dead. Her death was ruled a homicide, caused by blunt trauma to the head.
Investigation: Explanations provided to investigators by the mother and the father were not consistent with the head injury. Neither could be eliminated by police as suspects and neither would implicate the other.
CPS determinations: CPS concluded the mother was “reason to believe” for the physical abuse that led to Deondra’s death and the father, “undetermined.” CPS also found both parents were “reason to believe” for medical neglect of Deondra in regards to an older burn on the girl’s foot for which they never sought medical treatment.
Deondra’s siblings were placed permanently with relatives, with another adopted by a non-relative, according to a CPS spokeswoman.
Criminal case status: Though no murder charges were sought in the case, prosecutors did file charges against the mother, Erica Johnson, and the father, Deandre Garner, for injury to a child by omission for failing to seek medical care for an older burn on the child’s foot.
The father pleaded guilty in exchange for 5 years’ deferred adjudication probation.
The mother, too, pleaded guilty and was sentenced by a judge to 10 years’ deferred adjudication probation. However, Johnson’s probation was ultimately revoked, and in June 2015, she was sentenced to two years in prison.