Joseph Wayne Graham is one of several young victims who died from alleged abuse by their caretakers, many of them young airmen. (Graham family)
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As 7-week-old Adam Sauk clung precariously to life at Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore, Md., his father recounted for at least the fourth time in less than 12 hours the events that brought him there.
Tech. Sgt. James Sauk first described to a 911 operator how his infant son lost consciousness in the early morning hours of Jan. 10, 2011. He'd told the first responders and the emergency room pediatrician. Now he sat down with a police detective and a social worker inside a small room at the hospital.
The detective was cordial. He asked to record the conversation, told James Sauk he was not under arrest and could leave anytime. James Sauk, who was 29 at the time, began his story — the account a military jury would hear more than two years later in a Joint Base Andrews, Md., courtroom.
His wife, Kelly, had gone to bed about 11:30 p.m., he recalled. Their 2-year-old daughter was upstairs asleep, leaving James Sauk alone with Adam in the living room of their two-story rental house in Pasadena, Md., about 15 miles from Fort Meade, where James Sauk worked for U.S. Cyber Command. The baby, like the rest of the family, had been sick with a cold for days. Adam threw up around midnight, and James Sauk had gotten him changed and settled. Then Adam began heaving again. This time, he coughed up mucus.
“Before I could do anything,” James Sauk told the detective, “he swallowed it.”
The 7-week-old began to choke. “He went limp. He was going pale. He wasn't really breathing.”
The detective and the social worker asked whether Adam had suffered any head injuries. The doctors treating the infant already suspected abuse. James Sauk's story didn't jibe with what they'd so far discovered, they would later testify in court, and infants aren't capable of harming themselves.
James Sauk told them about an incident a couple of weeks before. He'd been carrying Adam in one arm and holding a diaper in the other when he tripped on his daughter's toy. James Sauk described how he'd head-butted the baby, slamming into his mouth and nose, as he nearly fell. Kelly Sauk, who was out at the time, came home to find Adam with a cut inside his mouth and a bruised face.
An Air Force prosecutor would focus on this incident and the night Adam stopped breathing when decrying James Sauk as a murderer March 19 during opening statements at his court-martial.
“Every time that boy suffered some mishap, he was in the sole care of the accused,” Capt. Gabriel Podesta said.
Adam died a day after the interview at the hospital. Seven months later, on Aug. 19, 2011, the Sauks learned the results of his autopsy: He had a hairline fracture on one of his ribs, bruises to his face, thigh and chest and at least five separate brain injuries, one of which was inflicted just before Adam lost consciousness.
“I would describe this as blunt force trauma,” Dr. Ana Rubio, the medical examiner, would testify at the court-marital. “There was nothing to convince me these were accidental.”
The Sauks remained under investigation by police and Child Protective Services after Adam's death. In April 2012, they had a third child, a girl named Lydia.
No one was charged in Adam's death until September 2012, when an X-ray revealed more than a dozen fractures in 4-month-old Lydia.
On March 22, following three days of testimony, a jury of three officers and five non-commissioned officers convicted James Sauk of involuntary manslaughter, negligent homicide and two counts of assault against Adam. Jurors acquitted the technical sergeant of murdering Adam and assaulting Lydia. James Sauk was sentenced to five years in prison, reduction to airman basic and a bad conduct discharge.
The verdict followed a week punctuated by news of the deaths of a 22-month-old at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, and a 15-month-old at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C. In the Idaho case, Airman 1st Class Richard Laubach, 20, is charged with killing his stepson. In the second case, Senior Airman Matthew Theurer, 21, was arrested after the body of his child was discovered discarded in a bag along a roadside some 100 miles from the base.
Authorities have offered little detail, although there appeared to be warning signs prior to both deaths. Laubach was accused in September of abusing his stepchild, but charges were dismissed after he agreed to marriage counseling, and anger management and parenting programs.
The Goldsboro, N.C., News-Argus quoted neighbors of Theurer who said the young airman would leave the boy at home alone with little food after his wife left the area, and that he dismissed their offers to help.
In August, the neglect death of 22-month-old Tamryn Klapheke at her Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, home left the community shaken. Her mother has been charged in the death. A Dyess airman will stand trial this year on charges he failed to report the neglect of the girl and her two young sisters.
Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody said the recent deaths of four children all younger than 2 are tragic and alarming. He stopped short of calling it a trend — at least for now.
“We have to go through this process that gets all the facts [so] we understand what took place,” Cody said.
Reports of child fatalities from abuse and neglect more than doubled across the four services from 2003 to 2011, from 14 to 33, according to data from the Defense Department's Family Advocacy Program office. A 2011 analysis by Military Times showed the rate of child abuse fatalities in the military had begun to outpace rates in the civilian population.
In the Air Force, there was a spike in 2011, with eight reports of child neglect and abuse deaths. Experts have been unable to say whether this is due to better record-keeping or an actual increase in child abuse. The 2012 report is expected to be released later this month.
In many past cases, efforts by the military to protect children failed. Authorities were already aware of problems in the homes of about a third of the 15 Air Force children who would later die of neglect or abuse between 2005 and 2009.
Both the Dyess Family Advocacy Center and the Child Protective Services division in Texas were involved with the Klapheke family prior to Tamryn's death in August.
Evidence and testimony presented at James Sauk's trial last month revealed Maryland CPS workers intervened after 7-week-old Adam died from head wounds. A safety plan was put into place to protect their surviving older child and later, Lydia. It was relaxed over time and ultimately gave both parents at least occasional unsupervised access to both children.
The Air Force's top enlisted leader called on supervisors at every level to make sure they are taking the time to get to know their airmen and their families.
The better you are at this, the better chance you have at recognizing when something isn't right so you can intervene, Cody said.
While airmen may not know all the resources available to them if they suspect child abuse or neglect, their supervisors or first sergeants do, Cody said.
“If it's clearly in your mind that there's neglect going on, you can report it to our Security Forces, who will then turn [it] over to the appropriate agencies to investigate,” Cody said.
“It is normal at any given time for parents to be overwhelmed from parenting, and that's OK, but certainly we can't allow that to get to a point where our children, our families are endangered in any way, shape or form,” he said. “Service in our Air Force is family business. We need to be able to understand and take care of each other in that way.”
Signs of abuse
Kelly and James Sauk met in late 2005. Kelly Sauk was a social worker in St. Louis, Mo. James Sauk was stationed at Scott Air Force Base, Ill. They wed in September 2007, and their first child was born the following November.
She was a quiet, complacent baby. Kelly Sauk cared for her while James Sauk worked during the day. James Sauk would take over in the late afternoon while Kelly Sauk worked as a crisis intervention counselor answering phone calls from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.
The new mother noticed she was increasingly irritable and short-tempered after her daughter's birth — symptoms, she learned, of postpartum depression. After getting treatment and going to counseling with James Sauk, the couple decided to try for another child. A month after Kelly Sauk discovered she was pregnant a second time, James Sauk received orders to Fort Meade.
Kelly Sauk had never lived more than an hour from her family or outside the St. Louis area, and she was not enthusiastic about the move. But she'd known such change was inevitable when she married James Sauk. At 28 weeks pregnant, Kelly moved into their new Maryland home and became a full-time, stay-at-home mom to their young daughter. For most of the pregnancy, she felt sick and exhausted, and her agitation seemed to grow.
There had been little time to make friends or find a support network before Adam's arrival in November 2010. On the witness stand, she admitted to shouting at both her husband and her daughter. Money was tight. She didn't think James Sauk helped enough with the children.
James Sauk was in and out of the hospital with kidney stones the first week of Adam's life, leaving Kelly Sauk to rely on a longtime friend, a social worker who had recently relocated to the area.
Adam's temperament was far different from their first child, she said. He cried on and off for hours every day.
“He was just kind of fussy all the time,” Kelly Sauk testified. “He spit up a lot. Later on, he had trouble eating. He just never seemed settled.”
Bruises showed up in odd places — on his shin, his big toe, his ears and his head.
“I was trying to figure out where it was coming from,” Kelly Sauk said. “I was concerned there was something seriously wrong with him.”
Then there was the head-butting incident weeks before Adam's death. Kelly Sauk was running errands when she got a text from James Sauk. There had been an accident, James Sauk told her, and there was a lot of blood. She told her husband to call 911 and rushed home. James Sauk told the same story he repeated to the police detective in the hospital a day before Adam died.
But Kelly Sauk felt something wasn't quite right. She sent her friend, the social worker, a text message insinuating James Sauk may be hurting Adam. Several times, the friend offered to pick up Kelly Sauk and the children. They could stay at her house, the friend told her. Kelly Sauk declined.
Weeks later, just before midnight on Jan. 10, 2011, she left a smiling, cooing Adam downstairs with James Sauk and went to bed.
She awoke to the sound of James Sauk screaming her name. At first, she thought it was a dream. But the shouting continued. When Kelly Sauk reached the top of the stairs, she could hear James Sauk on the phone with 911. She was afraid to go down. When she did, Adam lay on the floor, pale and unmoving.
The 911 recording, played for jurors, captured the final minutes before rescue workers arrived. The operator instructs James Sauk in infant CPR. Kelly Sauk wails in the background.
Safety plan failed
After Adam's death, the Sauks agreed they did not want another child, Kelly Sauk testified. She described pushing through the weeks after his funeral in a grief-filled haze, trying to keep life as normal as possible for their daughter. In the months that followed, “we worked toward wanting another child. We weren't sure it was the right time,” she said. Then “[James Sauk] said, ‘now or not at all.' ” The Sauks received Adam's autopsy results a day after Kelly Sauk learned she was expecting another baby. Adam's death was being ruled a homicide, they learned.
At the time, Kelly Sauk testified, “I didn't believe we hurt Adam.” She didn't blame James Sauk. “Just knowing [him] and knowing his personality, I didn't think he was capable of that.”
When pressed by the defense during a lengthy cross-examination, Kelly Sauk recalled James Sauk's relationship with their first-born and began to cry. “He was so close to [her]. It just didn't make sense to me. The person I knew was always calm, collected, laid back. I was concerned my husband was going to be held responsible. I didn't understand why Adam and not [her].” CPS put a safety plan in place to protect the couple's surviving daughter, and then Lydia. At first, neither James Sauk nor Kelly Sauk could be alone with the toddler. CPS lifted the restriction on Kelly Sauk. After Lydia was born, James Sauk was allowed to be alone with the toddler but not the newborn. That was later relaxed to include unsupervised access to both children every two weeks for two hours.
But, Kelly Sauk testified, she would often be in other parts of the house while James Sauk was with the children, including six nights a week when she exercised in the basement. She said she believed she was following the CPS plan as long as she did not leave the home.
Lydia's temperament in her first months of life was somewhere between their firstborn and Adam, Kelly Sauk said. Then Lydia began to have unexplained injuries as Adam had.
“At about 1 month old, I noticed blisters on her toes. It looked like blood blisters on all of her toes. They were swollen,” the mother testified. Lydia had blotches on her face, scratches on her eye and what appeared to be a rash on her chest and neck.
Kelly Sauk testified that despite her husband's protests, she took Lydia to the doctor for her toes. She was told Lydia's socks could be causing the blisters and was instructed to treat them with Vaseline.
She said James Sauk told her the scratches were from his wedding band. And when Kelly noticed in the middle of the night that Lydia's arm had gone limp, James Sauk said he'd found her with it stuck between the rails of her crib, she testified.
Kelly Sauk called the doctor the following morning and scheduled an appointment. She said James Sauk told her she was over-reacting. The doctor sent Kelly Sauk and Lydia to the emergency room for an X-ray.
Both of Lydia's arms were fractured. So was her collarbone. There were six fractures in her right leg and five in her left. Dr. Tanya Hinds, the Children's National Medical Center child abuse pediatrician who treated her, found 17 fractures in all. At least eight were caused by “aggressive pulling or aggressive twisting,” she said.
“My opinion,” Hinds testified at James Sauk's trial, “is that Lydia survived child physical abuse on more than one day.”
No verdict for Lydia
This time, the Sauks' older child, now 4, was removed from the home and placed in a foster home. Lydia joined her sister after her release from the hospital.
Police questioned both parents. The Air Force charged James Sauk with murder, involuntary manslaughter, negligent homicide and assault on both Adam and Lydia. He was reassigned to the 11th Force Support Squadron at Andrews to await court-martial.
“Now, I have no doubt in my mind he created those injuries,” Kelly Sauk testified at her husband's trial. Kelly Sauk declined an interview request. A friend, Jennifer Robinson, described her as a “wonderful mother.” Kelly Sauk put the safety of Lydia above her own concerns of having her children taken from her, Robinson said. She is now working to regain custody.
“She's been through hell and back,” Robinson said.
James Sauk did not take the stand in his defense. His attorneys argued Kelly Sauk had equal or greater opportunity to harm Adam and Lydia. They portrayed Kelly as an overwhelmed military wife who felt trapped inside her home and was frustrated by child-rearing duties and a lack of support. One expert witness, called by the defense, testified Adam could have been abused hours before he lost consciousness — contrary to the medical examiner who said the fatal injury was inflicted just before he stopped breathing. That would have put Adam in the care of Kelly Sauk instead of James Sauk.
The jury didn't agree, and held the technical sergeant responsible for the death of his 7-week-old son.
No one has been held responsible for injuring Lydia.
Staff writer Jeff Schogol contributed to this story.