A judge has found Shawna L. Gatto, 44, of Wiscasset, guilty of depraved indifference murder in connection with the December 2017 death of 4-year-old Kendall Chick.
Superior Court Justice William R. Stokes announced the verdict at the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta on Tuesday, April 30.
“The physical abuse suffered by Kendall Chick, when viewed objectively and in the totality of all the circumstances, can only be described as outrageous, revolting, shocking, and brutal,” Stokes said. “If what the defendant did to Kendall Chick does not constitute depraved indifference to the value of human life, it is difficult to imagine what conduct would ever meet that standard.”
Gatto’s sentencing is tentatively scheduled for June 25 at 9 a.m. in Wiscasset.
The verdict follows a five-day bench trial April 1-3, 5, and 8. Gatto had waived her right to a jury trial in summer 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.
According to state law, a person commits this offense if he or she “Engages in conduct that manifests a depraved indifference to the value of human life and that in fact causes the death of another human being.”
Assistant Attorneys General John Alsop and Donald Macomber prosecuted the case. Waldoboro attorney Philip S. Cohen and Camden attorney Jeremy Pratt represented Gatto.
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 had placed her in the home.
The Wiscasset Ambulance Service responded to the home for a report of an unresponsive 4-year-old girl the afternoon of Dec. 8, 2017. An ambulance crew brought Chick to Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick, where she was pronounced dead.
Police found evidence of “trauma and subsequent cleanup” of blood in multiple rooms of the house.
Chick died 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 sustained blunt-force trauma to the head and numerous other injuries, and showed signs of “chronic physiological stress.”
Maine State Police detectives arrested Gatto at home six days after Chick’s death, on the evening of Dec. 14.
According to Maine Chief Medical Examiner Mark Flomenbaum, 15-20 distinct injuries were found on Chick’s face, head, and neck after she died.
Stokes said he reviewed a few court cases involving Flomenbaum and his former employment as chief medical examiner in Massachusetts.
According to the Bangor Daily News, Flomenbaum was fired from his position in Massachusetts after his office misplaced a man’s body.
“The court has given that information the weight it has deemed appropriate,” Stokes said.
During the trial, prosecutors presented photos of Chick’s injuries. Gatto, in a recording of an interview with police, blamed the injuries on the girl’s clumsiness.
According to Hood, the DHHS checked on Chick once in the time she was at 19 Crickets Lane.
After the deaths of Chick and Marissa Kennedy, 10, of Stockton Springs, in February 2018, the Maine State Legislature ordered an investigation into the DHHS response to reports of neglect and abuse of both girls. The investigation revealed failures to follow policy and other problems at DHHS’ Office of Child and Family Services.
Hood, on the third and fourth days of the trial, testified that Chick “always” had bruises, though her injuries grew more severe before her death. He said he and his fiancee would not take her to an emergency room or anywhere in public because of her many bruises.
Before Stokes listed the reasons for his verdict, he recapped the evidence presented at trial.
He said the state had to prove three pieces of information beyond a reasonable doubt for the defendant to be guilty of depraved indifference murder. The state had to prove Chick died, Gatto caused Chick’s death, and Gatto engaged in conduct that manifested a depraved indifference to the value of human life.
Stokes said he considered the nature and extent of Chick’s injuries, Gatto’s statements to police and others about Chick’s bruises, and the physical evidence found at 19 Crickets Lane when making his decision.
He referred to the photos of Chick’s injuries as “profoundly disturbing.”
“Anyone looking at those photographs, and anyone looking at Kendall while she was alive, would immediately recognize that she was a battered child, unless they were totally ignorant, in the deepest denial, or were covering up for the abuse,” he said.
Stokes said Gatto’s insistence that Chick was fine “is nothing short of preposterous.”
Gatto said she was the only one present when Chick was injured, but she did not know how the injuries occurred because she never saw them. She blamed the injuries on Chick being accident-prone.
“But even as she told the story of a hopelessly clumsy child who could not protect herself, Ms. Gatto recognized the absurdity of what she was saying,” Stokes said.
Neither Gatto nor Hood wanted to take Chick to a doctor because they knew it would look like she was being abused, Stokes said.
“She knew it looked like child abuse because it was child abuse,” he said.
Stokes found the fatal injury “was not accidental but was inflicted,” although the exact cause of the injury was not determined.
Stokes said he considered the possibility of Hood causing the injuries to his granddaughter because he lived in the same house, was alone with Chick at times, and has a violent criminal history.
However, Gatto never claimed Hood was responsible for Chick’s injuries; instead, she said Chick was in her care when the injuries happened.
Stokes said that during a Dec. 28, 2017 phone conversation between Gatto and Hood, she instructed him to stop cooperating with investigators.
“She even tried to plant the idea that the police would falsely implicate him in Kendall’s death,” Stokes said.
Considering this information, Stokes said he found Hood’s testimony more credible than Gatto’s statements to police.
“Whether Stephen Hood knew or should have known what was really happening at 19 Crickets Lane, and what he should have done about it, is not for this court to decide,” Stokes said.
“The court is highly suspicious that Kendall was, in fact, dead much earlier in the day of Dec. 8, 2017 and that the scene at 19 Crickets Lane was contrived and staged by the defendant,” Stokes said.
Emergency medical technicians and a paramedic on scene that day noted that Chick was cold to the touch, and the emergency room doctor noted stiffness and difficulty opening Chick’s mouth to insert a breathing tube, Stokes said.
Both signs indicate the onset of rigor mortis, which, according to Flomenbaum, could occur at four to six hours after death in a child.
In addition, blood had been cleaned up in the bathroom Chick was in.
“The death-producing conduct engaged in by the defendant – the fatal abdominal injury – was the culmination of a long and continuous pattern of physical abuse perpetrated against a child who had just turned 4 years of age,” Stokes said.
He said this was not a “one-time, momentary loss of control by a frustrated and sleep-driven parent or caregiver.”
Stokes noted the head-sized defect in the bedroom Chick slept in that had left behind her blood and a single hair.
The force Chick endured to her abdomen that lacerated her pancreas “can only be described as torture to a young child,” Stokes said.
Throughout Stokes’ explanation for his verdict, Gatto dabbed her face with a tissue.
After the announcement of the verdict, the attorneys for both sides held press conferences outside the courthouse.
The prosecutors said they were pleased with the verdict.
“It’s a very serious case and we will be asking for a very significant sentence,” Alsop said.
Of the photos shown throughout the trial, Macomber said, “I think that anybody viewing those photographs has to have been affected by this case, and those photographs prove what happened to Kendall.”
He added later, “Kendall Chick was murdered by her caretaker; now her caretaker is going to pay the price.”
Cohen, one of Gatto’s attorneys, said, “Obviously we’re disappointed and have to respect the court’s decision, and now we’ll have to move on and look at all our appeal options.”
Cohen said he believes Chick was partially the responsibility of DHHS as well as Hood.
Gatto was “upset” by the verdict, Cohen said. “I’ll leave it at that.”