Nearly 20 years after Fort Worth 8-year-old's death, police arrest her stepbrother

FORT WORTH -- At first, Debbie Speegle had been told that her 8-year-old daughter had accidentally burned herself in a bathtub of scalding water while left in the care of her teenage stepbrother.

Later, some doctors concluded that it was an extremely rare disease that caused Erica Lynn Shoup's skin to blister and shed, her liver and kidneys to fail and her blood to stop clotting.

But from the first glance of her daughter in her hospital bed at Cook Children's Medical Center, Speegle knew in her heart that no disease -- nor accident -- had caused the extensive damage that would claim Erica's life less than a month later.

On Tuesday, more than 19 years after Erica's death -- and her mother's persistent pursuit of justice -- police arrested Erica's stepbrother, Jason Draper, on a murder warrant in the case.

Draper, now a 34-year-old married father living in Columbus, Ohio, was being held Thursday in the Franklin County Jail without bond. "The biggest worry I had was that he would do it to another child," Speegle said Thursday in a telephone interview from Toledo, Ohio. "Yes, I want justice for Erica, but it's the kids that are still here that I worry to death about."

Widespread burns

Erica was a tomboy at heart, but she was also known to get dolled up and dreamed of being a dancer.

"We called her a scrapper," Speegle recalled. "She would fight with the boys just like she was one of the boys. Yet she was in a beauty contest and was a gorgeous little girl. She was quite a little beauty but quite a tough kid."

In 1991, Erica, who typically lived with her mother in Toledo, was spending the summer with her father and his family in north Fort Worth.

On Aug. 17, she had been left in the care of Draper, then 15, and his younger sister while her father was away on a business trip and her stepmother was at work.

Speegle said she learned from an emergency room doctor at Cook's, not her ex-husband's family, that Erica had been hospitalized that day.

"I didn't know anything," Speegle said. "I had called to talk to Erica earlier in the day and never got an answer on the phone. I thought maybe they had gone out to dinner."

At about 11:30 p.m. the doctor's phone call roused Speegle from her sleep

"The doctor told me on the phone she had been burned, scalded in a bathtub," Speegle said. "They did not think she was going to live through the night."

Erica's stepmother, Lynne Shoup, went to the airport to pick up Speegle and Speegle's ex-husband, who by coincidence was on the same flight. On the drive to the hospital, Speegle said, Lynne Shoup kept saying that she didn't know what had happened and that it appeared to be an accident.

She said she was later told that Erica had taken a bath and gotten out of the tub after her stomach began to hurt. She said Draper called 911 after a neighbor came over, took one look at Erica and said an ambulance needed to be called.

A Fort Worth police report filed that day indicated that Erica had suffered second-degree burns on her stomach, back, buttocks and genital area, as well as third-degree burns on both her feet and legs.

Disputed diagnosis

At least two doctors, however, would conclude that Erica had had not been burned but was suffering from toxic epidermal necrolysis, a rare disease that can be triggered by a viral or bacterial infection or allergic reaction and is often mistaken for scalding.

Other doctors disagreed, as did Speegle.

"When you look at it with fresh eyes, you wonder what they were thinking about in the beginning," Speegle said. "But all I cared about was her getting better. I wasn't worried about fighting about a diagnosis."

When her daughter died Sept. 12, 1991, an autopsy performed at Cook's attributed Erica's cause to "extensive epidermal necrosis" but noted that the exact cause of death could not be established because the disease process had not been established with certainty.

But Speegle said things didn't add up. She showed the report to her daughter's pediatrician, who agreed and recommended calling the authorities.

In 1992, Fort Worth police reopened the case, and Dr. Nizam Peerwani, the Tarrant County medical examiner, conducted an inquest into Erica's death. In September, a year after Erica's death, Peerwani ruled Erica's death a homicide, caused by toxic shock due to immersion burns or scalding.

Despite the new ruling, no arrest was made. A Tarrant County grand jury heard the case once but no indictment was returned because of insufficient evidence.

'An absolute shame'

Frustrated with the lack of action in the criminal case, Speegle found an attorney in Ohio who agreed to take on the case, pro bono, in civil trial. A lawsuit was filed against Speegle's ex-husband, Jerry Shoup, and his wife, Lynne Shoup, for wrongful death, alleging the couple was negligent in leaving Erica in Draper's care.

The Shoups, who moved to suburban Toledo shortly after the incident, have said they did nothing wrong.

Speegle said she met Draper before Erica's death and thought fondly of the boy.

"He is the all-American boy that every mother would say, 'I would be just so grateful if my daughter would meet someone like him,'" Speegle said.

But Speegle said she began to see another side of the teen when she and her attorney came to Fort Worth and began interviewing neighbors of the family. They were told that Draper had been seen threatening Erica with a crude torch made out of an aerosol can and disposable lighter, Speegle said.

"I didn't want to believe the worst. I didn't want to believe this was something she suffered at the hands of someone else," Speegle said.

The civil jury found that Draper placed Erica into the scalding bath and that his mother and stepfather were negligent in leaving Erica in his care. Speegle was awarded $2.5 million.

"I wasn't surprised," Speegle said of the jury's decision. "But it is an absolute shame that the event happened the way that it did at the hospital because had this been investigated 19 years ago, they would have all been in prison."

Speegle said her ex-husband, who has since died, immediately declared bankruptcy. As a result, she never received any money from the suit. "That wasn't what I was there for, so it wasn't a big deal," Speegle said.

Pushing for arrest

After winning the civil suit, Speegle said she drove to Fort Worth, where she met with an official with the Tarrant County district attorney's office in hopes the criminal case would now be pursued.

"He said, 'I'm very sorry for your loss. Unfortunately, you must realize it takes a greater amount of evidence in a criminal trial than a civil, and that's why we haven't pursued, not that we don't believe it,'" Speegle said.

Speegle said she made the trip again the next year and got the same response. After that, she called the DA's office annually.

This year, she talked to Alana Minton, chief prosecutor of the crimes against children unit, who agreed to look over the case.

"When I got Alana, it was like a breath of fresh air," Speegle said. "She took a new look at it and decided it was definitely worth looking into again."

Soon, Speegle was contacted by Tom O'Brien, then a detective with the cold-case unit, who informed her that the case had been reopened.

"I was careful not to get overly excited about it because so many times I had thought, 'This is it. This is it,'" Speegle said. "Then after the civil trial, it was like, 'How can they not do anything now?' Each time it was 'Sorry,' and they sent me on my way."

Sgt. Pedro Criado, a police spokesman, said that after further investigation by the cold-case unit, a murder warrant for Draper's arrest was obtained Dec. 1. Criado said he could not provide details on what new evidence led to the warrant's being issued.

Draper was arrested Tuesday after being pulled over while driving to work.

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Deanna Boyd, 817-390-7655