Shawna L. Gatto’s ex-husband, son, and others testified in her defense Monday, April 8, the final day of her trial in connection with the death of 4-year-old Kendall Chick. The judge is expected to deliver a verdict April 30.
The five witnesses for the defense testified to their observations of Gatto as a mother and caregiver of children Monday morning, before defense attorneys Jeremy Pratt and Philip Cohen rested their case. Gatto declined to testify.
The state, represented by Assistant Attorneys General John Alsop and Donald Macomber, rested its case Friday, April 5.
Both sides made closing statements. Maine Superior Court Justice William R. Stokes will deliver the verdict at the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta at 1 p.m., Tuesday, April 30.
Maine law differentiates between intentional or knowing murder and depraved indifference murder; however, both charges carry the same sentence of 25 years to life. When a murder victim is under 6 years old, state law requires judges to “assign special weight” to their age in the sentencing process.
Chick lived with her grandfather, Stephen Hood, and Gatto, her primary caregiver and Hood’s fiancee, at 19 Crickets Lane in Wiscasset. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services placed her in the home.
Chick died Dec. 8, 2017 of a blunt-force injury to the abdomen that caused “lacerations of her pancreas” and other internal injuries, according to a detective’s report that cites the findings of Maine’s chief medical examiner. She also sustained blunt-force trauma to the head and numerous other injuries, and showed signs of “chronic physiological stress.”
Gatto was arrested six days after the girl’s death.
Cohen made a brief opening statement Monday morning, saying the case has too many unknowns to convict Gatto.
The defense witnesses each made similar positive comments about Gatto as a caregiver.
The witnesses included Gatto’s ex-husband, Donald Ricker, and his son, Brian Ricker.
Donald Ricker was in a relationship with Gatto from 2000-2008 and married to Gatto from 2002-2008.
Donald Ricker and Gatto had two sons each from prior relationships. Around the beginning of their relationship, Donald Ricker had a 7-year-old and 5-year-old, Gatto a 7-year-old and 3-year-old, and all six of them lived under the same roof.
Cohen asked if the boys ever got into mischief. Donald Ricker laughed and said, “Absolutely.”
He said he would have liked Gatto to use physical discipline with the children.
“She was a kid’s person, meaning she cared more about the kids than me,” Donald Ricker said. “That was one of our problems.”
The third witness, Donna Wilt, Gatto’s friend of 10 years and former neighbor in Brunswick, said they used to spend time together two to three times a week.
Wilt said she never saw her friend abuse her grandchildren or Chick.
“She’s a loving grandmother, you know,” Wilt said, adding that Gatto “spoiled” the kids.
When the friends were together, Hood would text Gatto to “come home, come home, come home,” Wilt said.
Cohen asked if the texts were excessive in number. Wilt said they were.
During cross-examination, Alsop asked how often Wilt had seen Chick in the two years since Gatto had moved to Wiscasset. Wilt said she only saw Chick twice in two years at Gatto’s house, as well as four or five times in the parking lot of a shop.
Heather Berry, who had a child with one of Gatto’s sons and once lived with Hood, Gatto, and Gatto’s son, was the fourth witness.
“Shawna was really interactive with all the kids,” Berry said.
Cohen asked Berry for her perspective on how Hood acted with the children.
“I never saw him act physical, but he would often yell,” Berry said, which she thought was unnecessary most of the time. She said she would “absolutely not” have Hood take care of her child.
In cross-examination, Berry said she had not had contact with the family since December 2015, two years before Chick’s death.
Gatto’s biological son, Joshua Gatto, was the last witness of the day for the defense.
Joshua Gatto said he never saw his mother use physical discipline on any children, including Chick.
No one was treated differently, whether they were biological relatives or not, Joshua Gatto said. “We were all the boys. We were all family,” he said, referring to his brother and stepbrothers.
Joshua Gatto said his mother would make “empty threats” about grounding him with no television, but that was the extent of her discipline.
Before the defense rested its case, District Court Judge Geoffrey Rushlau came in to ask Gatto if she wanted to testify and to inform her of her rights.
“No, your honor,” Gatto said quietly – the first words she said during the five-day trial.
The prosecution made its closing argument first.
Alsop divided the state’s reasons for a guilty verdict into three reasons: medical evidence, physical evidence, and interviews with police, as well as calls and texts implicating Gatto.
All the injuries indicated “textbook child abuse syndrome,” Alsop said.
He listed various bruises on Chick’s arms, legs, and right ear, as well as the “evidence of a human hand” and fingernail found on Chick’s left cheek, which could indicate a slap on the face.
Comparing the testimony by Maine Chief Medical Examiner Mark Flomenbaum and defense expert Dr. John Spencer Daniel III, Alsop said the timing of the fatal injury “doesn’t really matter.” In an interview with Maine State Police Detective Josh Birmingham, the lead investigator, Gatto said the child was in her exclusive care for at least 48 hours before her death.
On the second day of the trial, Flomenbaum said the fatal injury could have occurred between one to 12 hours before Chick’s death, while Daniel said it could have been 16-32 hours.
Alsop mentioned the physical evidence found on scene. It was “a blood event and subsequent cleanup,” Alsop said, adding that some wet blood was found on Chick’s bedding.
Gatto is “fabricating” a story by saying Chick was fine 10 minutes before becoming unresponsive, Alsop said. “I suggest the court take it as evidence that Shawna Gatto is trying to hide something,” he said.
Though Hood is “rough around the edges,” Alsop said, he is a “simple fellow” and “works hard at a good job to make money to keep his family afloat.”
“Is Steve blameless in this case? No,” Alsop said.
Gatto had “virtually no respite time” from babysitting the children, Alsop said. “There is a lot of stress here, your honor,” he said.
Gatto said she never witnessed Chick’s injuries, except for one laceration to her chin when she fell off a chair.
“She is indifferent to Kendall’s welfare and the indifference to the welfare of this child, in these circumstances, is depraved,” Alsop said.
The defense team broke up its closing argument, with Cohen speaking first and Pratt second.
“There are so many ‘we don’t knows’ in this case,” Cohen said.
The unknowns include whether the fatal injury was intentional or accidental, who might have injured Chick and when, and the girl’s time of death.
“In order for you to find (Gatto) guilty beyond any reasonable doubt, you must first find beyond any reasonable doubt that Stephen Hood did not inflict the injury,” Cohen said. “That is something you certainly can’t do in this case.”
He said neither Hood nor Gatto wanted to take Chick to a doctor, or to call 911 the day she died. “What’s the difference between the two?” Cohen said.
The only person who admitted to hitting Chick was Hood, who said he once struck her with his belt.
Cohen reminded Stokes of text messages from Hood stating the couple should call DHHS to see if they could give Chick back to the state, as well as other messages about his being upset with the children.
Cohen also pointed out Gatto’s “wailing” after she received a text stating Chick was dead, which was heard on an audio recording of an interview with a detective.
When Pratt spoke, he told Stokes that if he finds Gatto guilty, he should find her guilty of criminally negligent manslaughter, a lesser crime that carries a maximum of 30 years in prison. The state disagreed.