A Cleburne woman whose 13-year-old son’s “terminal illness” prompted donations, media coverage and a visit from a wrestling superstar, was arrested Friday on accusations that she lied about her son’s medical condition.
Danita Tutt, 40, is accused of causing serious bodily injury to her son, Colby, by lying about his medical history to the boy’s doctors, prompting the boy to undergo unnecessary surgeries and be placed on unneeded pain medications.
Those surgeries, police say, included placement of a central line that later led to a potentially life-threatening blood infection. She also withheld food and water from the boy, investigators said.
Tutt was arrested Friday afternoon by fugitive officers at her home in Johnson County, said Sgt. Wade Walls, supervisor of the crimes against children unit. Bail on the warrant is set at $25,000.
Child Protective Services took custody of Colby and his younger brother May 6 after a report was made to the state agency that the Tutts had removed Colby from the Ronald McDonald House of Fort Worth, where he had been receiving palliative care since April 21.
The report claimed that Tutt had been refusing to feed and provide water to Colby and that she had already made funeral arrangements and purchased a casket for the boy.
“Mrs. Tutt is an attention-seeking type person and enjoys the attention she gets for having two medically fragile children,” the allegations included, according to CPS documents obtained by the Star-Telegram. “There are concerns that she may end Colby’s life. There are concerns for the safety of his sibling.”
Medical staff told CPS and police that they feared Colby would die prematurely under the care of his mother, who allegedly asked more than once if there was something that could be given to her son “to make him go to sleep” and not “wake up.”
The boys currently live with their maternal grandparents.
When removed from his mother’s care in May, an arrest warrant affidavit states, Colby weighed 51 pounds, had a feeding tube, a central line and a colostomy bag, and was on several pain medications.
Now, he eats only by mouth, has gained approximately 10 pounds and has had his central line and colostomy bag removed, states the affidavit, written by Crimes Against Children Detective B.W. Kesler.
Colby has also been weaned off all pain medications, the affidavit states.
Christopher Cooke, Tutt’s attorney, said Colby has suffered from a variety of medical problems since his premature birth.
“There’s no question that he was sick,” Cooke said. “There’s no question that he continues to be sick.”
Cooke said he has documents signed under oath by two separate doctors, including a do-not-resuscitate order, stating that Colby is terminally ill.
“There were at least five others who told her the same thing,” Cooke said.
Cooke said Tutt comes from an outstanding family and is the daughter of a retired Fort Worth police detective.
“This lady has literally devoted her life to taking care of this little boy and his medical problems,” Cooke said. “… In our opinion, there’s no way the allegations against Mrs. Tutt are true. There were too many people looking over her shoulder — physicians, family, friends. I literally have 25 affidavits sitting on my desk attesting what an outstanding individual she is.”
Injury to a child is a first-degree felony punishable by 5 to 99 years or life in prison.
Munchausen syndrome by proxy
The complex investigation of such cases was recently highlighted in a series published by the Star-Telegram in December.
Experts say such abusers — mostly mothers — exaggerate or present false symptoms, often leading to painful and unnecessary medical procedures. In extreme cases, such abusers have been known to purposely induce illness in a child.
The driving force, experts say, is gaining attention.
The Tutts got local and national attention after social media was flooded with messages regarding Colby’s “final wish” to attend WrestleMania at AT&T Stadium in April.
A GoFundMe account was started and in the end, Colby got his wish plus so much more. Wrestler Erick Rowan paid a surprise visit to Colby at his Cleburne home in late March, and World Wrestling Entertainment arranged a limo to take the family to the event.
Several media outlets did stories about Rowan’s visit. Soon after, friends put together a benefit featuring the Josh Weathers Band and Sonny Burgess to raise money for the family.
The Cleburne Times Review also published a feature on Colby and his family titled “Fight of his life.”
“Danita is the strongest person I’ve ever known,” one longtime friend of the mother was quoted as saying in the Times Review article. “ She is just always at the hospital and she will listen to what the doctors have to say, but if she didn’t agree she would see another doctor to get more answers. She just never settles for what they have to say.”
‘No magic medicine’
Fort Worth police began investigating May 6 after being contacted by CPS.
CPS had taken emergency custody of Colby that same day after hospice workers reported to the state agency that the boy’s mother had removed Colby from their care the night before without doctors’ permission and in disregard for the boy’s heath and well-being.
Cooke, Tutt’s attorney, said it appeared that Colby was going to die after he contracted sepsis, a potentially deadly blood infection.
“Well, that cured itself, finally he came out of it, and of course, once you come out of sepsis, you’re going to start feeling better,” Cooke said. “Right during that period of time that the sepsis went away is when he was removed by Child Protective Services.”
CPS took Colby to Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth.
In an interview with a CPS investigator May 6, Tutt said Colby had been born premature, weighing just 1 pound and 3 ounces.
She said her son had struggled with medical problems his whole life, including holes in his esophagus, chronic lung disease, brittle bone disease and being unable to tolerate eating.
Tutt told CPS that her son had been admitted into Cook Children’s in February after collapsing at home. She said a palliative team spoke to the family and told them the prognosis for their son was “not good.”
“She stated there is no magic medicine and they have been at Cook’s every month since September,” the CPS investigator wrote she was told by Tutt. “She stated they said Colby cannot handle any other surgeries and there is nothing else they can do. She stated they said he had a short life expectancy and they were set up with hospice.”
On March 7, Angel Unaware, a Fort Worth-based pediatric hospice agency, was picked by the family to provide palliative services to Colby.
The hospice administrator said numerous attempts were made to control the pain that Colby’s mother claimed that her son was having. She said the staff also attempted to provide nutrients to the boy via a gastric tube, intravenously and orally, all of which the mother discontinued.
‘Ate a bean and cheese burrito’
On April 21, Colby was moved into the Ronald McDonald House of Fort Worth.
The hospice administrator, Connie Koehler, said in an affidavit to investigators that between April 21 and May 5, Tutt asked more than once if there was something that could be given to her son “to make him go to sleep” and not “wake up.”
Koehler claimed Tutt also repeatedly asked for additional medications for her son and refused to have any food or drink brought to the boy, stating his eating would only “prolong the inevitable.”
But during a 30-hour observation of Colby on May 4 and 5 — when his parents were not present — hospice staff told investigators that they found Colby desired and could tolerate solid foods and fluids.
“My evening with Colby was surprising in that Colby ate a bean and cheese burrito, a piece of cake and approximately 20 ounces of sweet tea and tolerated it all,” one hospice nurse wrote in an affidavit.
Staff also told investigators that it was the mother who always insisted that Colby was in pain even when the boy’s behavior and vitals showed differently. When asked directly if he was in pain, one nurse said Colby often wouldn’t answer or told staff to ask his mother.
“On the rare occasions I got Colby to answer about pain himself, he would tell me he didn’t hurt,” C. Raines, a registered nurse, wrote in an affidavit. “Mom would then tell Colby that he needed to be honest with me. She would tell him I couldn’t help him unless he told me the truth about his pain.”
“Ultimately Colby would state that he hurt everywhere,” Raines wrote. “I do not recall a time Colby said he hurt everywhere on his own without prompting by Mom.”
‘Went to pick out a burial plot’
Tutt told CPS investigators that it was the hospice administrator who told the family that Colby could not have any food or drink or it would “flood his insides.”
Her husband, Clinton Tutt, also told investigators that the couple was told to limit the boy’s food and drinking.
“He stated they were giving him yogurt and mashed potatoes. He stated when he drank anything, he was flooding himself,” CPS documents state.
Tutt said she removed her son from the Ronald McDonald House and took him home after Koehler refused to let the family visit the boy and stopped returning calls and messages. She said she had intended to take her son to Children’s Medical Center for a “new set of eyes.”
Both Colby’s parents told CPS investigators that Colby had recently had spiritual experiences.
“She stated Colby raised his arm to the sky and he started seeing the light and and his angels were there,” the investigator wrote she was told by Tutt. “She stated he was ready to go to heaven. She stated he told them he was going to get a new body.”
Clinton Tutt told investigators about two weeks after his son had the spiritual experience, the hospice administrator informed the family that it was time to make plans.
“He stated they were told the time was near so they went to pick out a casket and went to get a burial plot,” the investigator wrote.
A local funeral home director confirmed to police that the couple had discussed funeral arrangements for the boy and that a headstone and casket has been purchased.
‘Colby is not dying’
But doctors interviewed by police and CPS said Colby is not dying, according to the arrest warrant affidavit.
Colby’s primary pediatric gastroenterologist, Dr. Bankol Osuntokun, told Kesler that in diagnosing Colby, he relied 100 percent on the medical history provided by Tutt.
When told of Colby’s improvements since being removed from his mother’s care, Osuntokun told police that the change was indicative of starvation.
“When Dr. Osuntokun was asked if he had seen such a rapid recovery before, he said only in cases of Munchausen by proxy,” Kesler wrote in the arrest warrant affidavit.
Another of the boy’s doctors, Dr. John Uffman, told Kesler that he had treated the boy for about four years. He said he had seen Colby’s progress since his removal and that “it appears Danita had been withholding food and water from Colby.”
“Dr. Uffman said that he emailed with Colby’s other providers and no one thought that Colby was dying,” Kesler wrote in the affidavit.
Dr. Jane Keng, a gastroenterologist at Cook Children’s, told a CPS investigator that she had made it clear to the Tutts that palliative care was “to improve the quality of life for Colby so he did not have to keep coming to the hospital.”
“She stated they also made it clear it was not because he was dying,” the CPS investigator noted in a petition to take emergency custody of Colby. “Dr. Keng stated Colby is not dying,”
Despite this, police allege Tutt was presenting a different picture to the public.
In a report filed with Burleson police about an alleged theft, Tutt claimed in a signed document that Colby was “terminally ill, on hospice and slowly dying,” the affidavit states.
Though Tutt’s Facebook account was deleted June 3, police were able to retrieve postings from her page through a search warrant. In March, according to those postings, Tutt allegedly wrote about stopping her son’s central line feedings and keeping him “comfortable.”
On April 24, the affidavit states, Tutt wrote, “I know it’s just hard watching him slowly die[.] I pray he will go to sleep and not wake up.”
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GoFundMe will honor all requests for refunds for donations made to the Tutt family, Bobby Whithorne, a GoFundMe spokesman said. Contact GoFundMe through the website with the email used to make the donation.