Baby's death may hold the key in bizarre double suicide

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Date: 2004-04-21

By Jason Alley

SOUTHGATE -- A husband and wife who were the prime suspects in shaking to death a 6-month-old boy they were trying to adopt were found dead in their garage Saturday.

Police believe that hours after being questioned last Wednesday in connection with the infant's death Leonard Columbus, 35, and Carissa Columbus, 25, returned to their house and killed themselves.

After officers were unable to reach them again for further questioning, police broke into their house in the 13800 block of Humphrey on Saturday and found them lying on the floor in the attached garage.

"By all appearances, they were the victims of carbon monoxide poisoning … and had been dead for some time," Police Chief Larry Hall said.

"We have every reason to believe that they were the cause of this baby's terrible, tragic and untimely death, as well as to the suicides of themselves."

According to witness accounts and statements the Columbuses gave to police, the couple met Sara Vanpopering, 19, and her two children, McKenzie, 18 months, and Tyler, 6 months, in the fall and instantly fell in love with the two little ones.

Since then, the couple would often come to Vanpopering's Lincoln Park house and take her children -- sometimes for just a few hours and other times for several days at a stretch -- in order to give the young mother some time by herself.

Having a hard time raising her children, she was considering allowing the Columbuses to adopt them.

On April 8, Vanpopering called the couple, crying, saying she had just backhanded McKenzie across the face and needed a break from her children.

 

Leonard Columbus came over later that morning and agreed to take the tots for the long weekend.

On Easter morning, everyone got dressed up and posed for some holiday photos. A few hours later, they all piled into the car and went to a nearby store to have the film developed.

Their plan was to drive to Frankenmuth, but they decided at 3 p.m. that it was too late for that long a drive. Instead, they headed south and ate at a rib house in Toledo.

As they were driving home after dinner, the Columbuses said Tyler began screaming, vomiting and convulsing.

"His legs and arms became rigid," Leonard Columbus said in a statement to police. "He quit breathing and started turning colors."

His wife told police that Tyler's "eyes were rolling and … his head was thrashing around violently," comparing the child's actions to the movie "The Exorcist."

"Both arms were extended and his palms were faced out with his fingers completely extended and rigid. He then turned from red to purple to white, vomited and then turned bluish and stopped breathing."

The couple continued driving for miles and opted to take Tyler to Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital themselves rather than calling 911.

Hospital records show they arrived well over two hours after they left the restaurant -- a timetable that police found suspicious from the start.

Tyler was airlifted to Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor at about 10 p.m., where he remained in the intensive care unit, being kept alive by a ventilator. He died three days later when his mother decided to disconnect life support.

The infant had internal injuries, which caused severe bleeding on the brain and behind both eyes, according to Dr. David Ubogy.

"This is a classic shaken- baby syndrome with typical injuries," Ubogy said. "The shaking had to be very violent and would have occurred up to some two to three hours prior to the time it was found to have started a seizure and stopped breathing."

Police said they don't necessarily doubt that Tyler exhibited the trauma signs the Columbuses described, but said it wasn't the result of any natural causes, but instead by at least one of them repeatedly abusing the infant.

"Sometime from leaving Toledo at 4:22 p.m. and arriving at the hospital at 6:41 p.m., that baby sustained what ended up being fatal injuries," Hall said.

"Two hours, 20 minutes is a serious gap of time that just doesn't match with their stories."

Right up until their deaths, however, the Columbuses maintained their innocence.

A suicide note signed by Carissa Columbus, says, in part, "No one here would ever hurt Sara's kids."

Vanpopering's other child, McKenzie, has been taken from her care and is a temporary ward of the state.

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month and is being recognized locally by the Lincoln Park Exchange Club, whose members are out in the community selling blue ribbons.

The color blue is used in the nationwide campaign to remember the shade of the bruised bodies of the millions of children who are hurt each year.

Club member Judy O'Brien said Tyler's case is one that is repeated too often around the world.

"Here I am, distributing fliers today to schools on child abuse prevention and they're having a funeral for a 6-month-old baby boy," she said Monday.

"People have got to understand that this can happen right in front of you. It's going on right now in our own back yards."

With the deaths of the two prime suspects, police said, many details about Tyler's death will forever be a mystery.

"Unfortunately, we may never know entirely what happened," Hall said. "Sometimes, things are taken to the grave."

Contact Staff Writer Jason Alley at jalley@heritage.com or at 1-734-246-0867.

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