Stephen Hood, of Wiscasset, the grandfather of 4-year-old homicide victim Kendall Chick, testified about the toddler’s injuries and their possible causes on the third day of his fiancee’s trial, Wednesday, April 3.
Hood testified that Chick “always” had bruises, though her injuries were progressively more severe in the time before her death. He also said he and his fiancee would not take her to an emergency room or anywhere in public because of her many bruises.
The bench trial of Shawna L. Gatto, 44, the Wiscasset woman charged with depraved indifference murder in connection with Chick’s December 2017 death, is taking place at the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta.
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 report by Maine State Police Detective Jonathan Heimbach, which cites the findings of Maine’s chief medical examiner. She also suffered blunt-force trauma to the head and numerous other injuries, and showed signs of “chronic physiological stress.”
The trial began Monday, April 1. When the trial comes to a close, Maine Superior Court Justice William R. Stokes will determine the verdict, as Gatto waived her right to a jury trial in August 2018.
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 “assign special weight” to their age in the sentencing process.
Chick lived with Hood and Gatto at 19 Crickets Lane in Wiscasset. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services placed her in the home in January 2017. Chick’s biological father is Hood’s son.
The prosecutors, Assistant Attorneys General John Alsop and Donald Macomber, called Hood as a witness for the state.
Stokes reminded Hood of his Fifth Amendment rights and said what he says in court could potentially incriminate him. An attorney for neither the state nor the defense was present to answer any questions Hood might have, but he did not wish to speak with the lawyer.
The state played an audio recording of a Dec. 19, 2017 call from Hood to Gatto at Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset in which the couple speaks about the cause of Chick’s death. The conversation included multiple expletives.
“We are supposed to be a happy home. I thought we were a happy home, with happy children,” Hood said a few minutes into the conversation.
Hood repeatedly said he wanted to know what happened to his granddaughter. Gatto kept responding by saying she did not know and she swore “on her (expletive) life” that she did not do anything to Chick.
Hood said if he had known of any abuse, he would have stopped it.
About half a minute later, Gatto kept repeating her fiance’s name to get his attention and asked if he loved and trusted her. He agreed to both.
“Then, you should know your answer. Why are you questioning me now?” Gatto said. There was a brief silence and Hood asked about the reason behind Chick’s death. “What happened?”
“I don’t know,” Gatto said.
Later in the conversation, Hood said of Chick, “Something obviously had to have happened. If there were no accidents that day, like you say, then something doesn’t add up.”
He added, “The simple fact is, something happened to her pancreas, and she bled internally. In that house.”
“I don’t understand that though, Steve, because she was fine,” Gatto said.
“You better start thinking, that’s all I can say,” Hood said. “I love you with all my heart, I loved you the day before she died, and I loved you the day after.”
In Alsop’s direct examination, he asked about Hood’s job and home life.
Hood works 40-plus hours a week as a welder at Bath Iron Works’ Hardings Plant in Brunswick.
Before Chick’s death, Gatto was taking care of her two grandchildren, another 4-year-old and an infant, as well as Chick. Gatto’s two children live in trailers on the property.
Hood and Gatto were each in recovery programs for opioid addiction involving the medication Suboxone. Hood still takes the medication, while Gatto does not.
DHHS separated Chick from her biological parents because of their addiction issues and placed her with Hood and Gatto.
Hood noticed bruising on Chick, saying she “always” had bruises, but the amount of bruising grew before December 2017. “I don’t know why she didn’t seem to protect her head” when she fell, he said.
“I would usually come in after the fact or Shawna would explain” after traumatic injuries occurred, Hood said. He said he was “sure” there were times he saw Chick fall, but he could not remember them.
He described Chick as a “good girl.”
Hood said he never struck Chick, but recalled an incident when he spanked her three times with a belt. He described it as his decision and said he did it because Chick soiled her pants.
Gatto “was upset with me for not disciplining the children,” Hood said.
“I felt like crap and I texted Shawna the next day and told her, ‘I’m never doing that again, because I do not want her afraid of me,’” Hood said. He said Gatto replied that he “didn’t even leave a mark.”
He said he vaguely remembers Gatto asking for a paddle to spank Chick because she had hurt her hand doing it before.
Hood said an injury to Chick’s right eye, which was purple and swollen shut at the time of her death, was caused when she was running and fell into a doorjamb. A week later it was taking on a shade of yellow, an indication it was healing.
Hood said Gatto told him that Chick fell – he did not see it for himself.
“There was a second reinjury of the same eye,” Hood said. He said he came home from work and it was swollen shut again.
“I threw my hands up in the air and said, ‘What the (expletive)?’” Hood said. He said Gatto told him the girl had fallen into the corner of a coffee table.
He said he was also concerned about swelling on Chick’s head. He noticed the swelling a month before she died.
The couple had talked about taking her to emergency care and the possibility of her wearing a helmet, Hood said.
“(Gatto) assured me that she knew what she was doing because she is in the nursing field and that she was watching her, there was no concussion, and she would be fine,” Hood said.
He said Gatto had reservations about bringing Chick to emergency care because the couple “couldn’t take her in her condition.”
“We both agreed on that. We couldn’t take her in public because obviously we have a child that has multiple bruises, so it would be awfully uncomfortable,” Hood said.
The third day of the trial ended without enough time for Gatto’s defense team, Philip Cohen and Jeremy Pratt, to cross-examine Hood.
Bonnie Lane, a cashier at the Family Dollar in Wiscasset, testified for the state.
Lane said she noticed bruising on Chick a few times when she came into the store. Lane asked Gatto about her condition and was told she banged into a coffee table at home.
Lane also worked in health care and was a mandated reporter of possible child abuse. She called DHHS about the toddler, but did not have sufficient information about the family, so she said she would do more research.
When the news broke about Chick’s death, she matched the family to the one she had spoken with before.
On the morning of the third day of the trial, the prosecution focused on physical evidence from the home.
Sgt. Jason Richards, of the Maine State Police, testified first, saying various items he found with reddish-brown stains all tested presumptively positive for blood. The items included towels, clothing, a sponge in the spare bathroom, bedding in the children’s bedroom, and blood from walls.
Photos of the items were shown in the courtroom.
Richards also noted a “defect in the Sheetrock” on the wall in the children’s bedroom. “There was a hair embedded in the break of the wall,” Richards said.
Pratt asked if any evidence was taken from the other trailers on the property. Richards said there was not.
Pratt asked about the age of the bloodstains, and Richards said he could not determine the age.
Forensic chemist Melissa Robitaille, who testified for the prosecution, tested the blood again to make sure its source was human. Afterward, forensic DNA analyst Catherine MacMillan matched a majority of the blood to Chick’s DNA.
Asked by Pratt, MacMillan said she could not identify when the DNA was deposited or if it was directly or indirectly deposited.
The trial will break Thursday and resume Friday morning.