Fatal child neglect charge for Newburgh man

PUBLISHED: Sept. 19, 2017

BY: Shannon Hall & Tori Fater, Courier & Press reporters 

A Newburgh man accused of fatal child neglect in Warrick County has been arrested.

Thaddious Rice, 23, was taken into custody on a warrant Monday afternoon and is being held in Warrick County jail without bond.

He has been charged with murder and neglect of a dependent resulting in death in Warrick County in connection with the death of 10-month-old Jaxson Wheeler. The child neglect charge is a Level 1 felony – under Indiana law, the most serious felony level after murder.

Warrick County Sheriff’s Office started investigating Wheeler’s death in April. According to court documents, Rice took Wheeler to Deaconess Gateway Hospital’s emergency room April 10 for treatment of a head injury.

The baby was unconscious, had no pulse and was not breathing, police say. He was transferred to Deaconess Hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit for a traumatic brain injury.

Wheeler died two days after going to the hospital. The Vanderburgh County Coroner’s Office ruled his death a homicide in an autopsy report given to the Sheriff’s Office on August 17.

Rice was the boyfriend of Wheeler’s mother but not the infant’s father.

He changed his account of what happened multiple times while talking to police and the Coroner’s Office, according to a probable cause affidavit.

Rice first told detectives that he fell down the stairs at his apartment in Newburgh while holding Wheeler in a car seat and lost consciousness. Court documents state that Rice said he heard the child crying but then said he found the baby in his car seat, stiff, with his eyes rolled back and not breathing. According to court documents, Rice said he tried to administer CPR but didn’t know how.

This was also the story he later told the Coroner’s Office, though he had allegedly given detectives two more accounts of what happened by that time.

Police say they didn’t find any damage on the walls surrounding the apartment’s staircase.

Jordan Hughes, Wheeler’s mother, told police she received a photo of Wheeler and Rice together via text that afternoon and did not hear from Rice again until after the hospital contacted her. She tried to reach Rice several times, and when he did answer his phone, he told her that he believed Wheeler would be fine, court documents state.

Other interviews with Rice say he called 911, but dispatch records didn’t show Rice calling.

Rice later told detectives he heard Wheeler “yell out when he was falling and the child was scared and had a heart attack,” documents state.

Later, Rice changed his story again, saying the baby had been in his car seat on the banister and fallen down the stairs in the seat. Rice told police he tripped over the diaper bag and lost consciousness, then shook the infant very hard while Wheeler was still in the car seat to try and revive him.

Vanderburgh County Coroner Steve Lockyear said Wheeler’s cause of death was a severe head injury with hemorrhaging.

The baby had scrapes on his left elbow, right ear and both sides of the neck as well as bruising on his genitals and buttocks, according to court documents.

A doctor who reviewed the autopsy and other investigative findings told police that a fall down the stairs in a protective car seat would not explain the injuries the baby suffered. Doctors at the hospital also told police the severity of the baby’s injuries, as well as bruises suffered before the head injury, could not be explained by the fall.

The doctor who reviewed the autopsy wrote that details found by investigators were “consistent with a pattern of child abuse,” according to court documents.

A babysitter for Wheeler told detectives that her childcare slowed down because Rice had been watching the child. Toward the end of March, the babysitter noticed several bruises and injuries to Wheeler, which she logged in a journal and documented with photographs.

“She stated she had never seen injuries like these before and she wanted documentation in case she noticed more in the future so she could report them,” the probable cause affidavit states.

She also told detectives she noticed Wheeler was more attached to her when she babysat and Wheeler was easily startled.

According to the probable cause affidavit, a consultation report from a doctor at Riley Hospital for Children stated “any delay in receiving medical care after he sustained his head injury would have worsened his prognosis. … It is possible that Jaxson may have survived his head injury if medical attention had been sought immediately.”

Rice’s initial hearing is set for 1 p.m. Thursday. Electronic court records show Evansville attorney Robert Canada will represent Rice.

The Courier & Press has reached out to Canada for comment.

Rice was also charged in two separate sex crime cases earlier this year in Vanderburgh County.

In one case, Rice was accused of raping a heavily intoxicated woman during a July 2016 party and charged in March with rape when the victim is unaware, a level 3 felony.

He was also charged with two counts of sexual misconduct with a minor as a level 4 felony in April, after allegedly having sex with a young teen when he was 22 years old.

Both cases are still waiting ajudication.

To report suspected child abuse or neglect, call the state DCS at 1-800-800-5556 or local law enforcement. Leave a tip anonymously by calling the WeTip line at 1-800-78-CRIME.

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