January 29, 2013

Trial begins in tot's death

It's easy to see why parents would have trusted their child to Sheila's Garden Daycare.

It's easy to see why parents would have trusted their child to Sheila's Garden Daycare.

Photos of the Mather home where it was based show elaborate play and climbing structures, brightly colored tables and chairs for children and neatly organized drawers of books and art supplies.

Rachelle Rominger was so taken with it that she once told owner Sheila Caceres that if anything happened to her she would want Caceres to take care of her daughter, Savannah.

That all changed on Feb. 23, 2011, when Rominger's 10-week-old son, Avin, died after being found unresponsive inside the 2,800-square-foot home.

Now, nearly two years after Avin's mysterious death, Caceres' trial on a felony child endangerment charge has begun before Sacramento Superior Court Judge Sharon A. Lueras. Rominger took the stand Monday as the first prosecution witness against Caceres.

Rominger, who is expecting her third child in March, recalled for the jury the last time she saw her son alive.

"She was actually holding him when I left. He was smiling at her more than he was smiling at me, and he was cooing," Rominger testified.

A few hours later Avin would be pronounced dead at Mercy San Juan Medical Center in a death that officials still cannot fully explain.

Investigators have said Caceres gave them conflicting stories of what happened prior to Avin being found unresponsive inside her home, and prosecutor Nancy Cochrane indicated in her opening statement that Caceres lied to detectives and asked her daughter to lie to them, also.

"I'm going to get my license taken away," Cochrane quoted Caceres as telling her teenage daughter. "I'm going to go to jail."

Officials were never able to pinpoint the cause of Avin's death, eventually ruling it a case of sudden unexpected infant death. But coroner's officials also have indicated "medical intervention could have saved the baby's life."

At issue is whether there was a delay in calling 911 once the baby was found to be in distress, and why Avin had been taken to an upstairs room in violation of state fire regulations.

Caceres, who also faces a misdemeanor charge of violating fire regulations by placing children upstairs, initially told detectives she found Avin unresponsive in a downstairs crib.

A day later, she contacted a detective and changed her story, saying she found him unresponsive in a car seat upstairs, then placed him on his side in a portable playpen, rubbed his back and went downstairs until Avin's father arrived to pick him up, authorities have said.

Dave Rominger showed up around 5 p.m. that day. Caceres greeted him as if nothing was wrong, then went upstairs to get Avin and came running back downstairs screaming for him to call 911, the father said in brief testimony following his wife's.

Avin's mother testified that she selected the Caceres day care center from a list of recommended providers for her daughter and, later, her infant son.

She said she had volunteered to help in the home more than 200 times and that "I was comfortable leaving my child there."

Rachelle Rominger, a 911 dispatcher, learned there was a problem at the day care center when a 911 call came in to a colleague from that address.

Since her son's death, Rachelle Rominger has insisted that Caceres should face charges and has confronted her in the courthouse during past hearings.

Monday morning, during breaks, she frequently stared directly from the witness stand at Caceres.

Caceres has declined interview requests, and her attorney said in his opening statement that the case is a matter of sudden infant death syndrome.

"This is one of those cases where they don't know what killed little Avin," attorney Joe Welch said.

He contends that once Caceres found Avin in distress, "she picked him up and went into action."

"Her training went into immediate effect," Welch said. "She went downstairs. As she was going downstairs she had the father call 911."

Caceres then began CPR and had a neighbor, who is a paramedic and was outside in his driveway, come over and assist, he said.

Welch told the jury that Caceres' conflicting stories came from being traumatized by the death and a desire to protect her daughter.

He indicated outside the presence of the jury that he plans to bring in an expert to testify that Caceres may have been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because of Avin's death.

"She was traumatized," he told the jury in his opening statement. "She had lost Avin and she was very fearful she was going to lose her license and her ability to care for children she loved."

Caceres, who faces up to six years in prison if convicted of the felony count, has accepted an agreement with the state Department of Social Services that bans her for life from operating, working in or being present in a day care home.

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