Love and Death - Accused of violently shaking her 22-month-old son, Sarah Allen faces a charge of manslaughter and a life withou

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Date: 2003-06-01
Source: Sun Journal

Accused of violently shaking her 22-month-old son, Sarah Allen faces a charge of manslaughter and a life without children.

LISBON - Sarah Allen held her breath and clicked twice to open the digital photograph.

The tears came as soon as she saw his jet-black hair, his dark, squinted eyes, his tiny arms lost in the sleeves of his baby-blue jumper.

Allen imagined kissing his pudgy cheeks and rubbing her hand across his soft head. She could smell his clothes, his breath. She closed her eyes and she could feel his day-old skin on her face.

It would be nearly a year before the adoption process was complete and Allen and her husband could go to Guatemala to meet their son. Hold him. Kiss him.

For now, they had only the photo that the adoption agency sent the day after the boy was born.

Allen studied every detail of the photograph, then she printed five color copies - one for the refrigerator, one for her wallet, another for a frame in the living room and a couple for each set of grandparents.

Later that day, the new mother opened her baby book to a page that asks about the first time she saw her baby, the boy she named Nathaniel.

"I cried and I cried. All I could do was think how I wanted to take care of you," she wrote. "You were much smaller than I thought! But very handsome and gorgeous! The sweetest baby in the world!!"

The baby book - a special kind for parents who adopt - now sits in a cardboard storage box on top of Spanish coloring books, a flag that Allen and her husband bought in Guatemala and hung on their banister and piles of adoption papers.

Most of the pages in the hardcover book are blank. The growth chart ends at 20 months and 26.8 pounds, and a diagram tracking the loss of Nathaniel's baby teeth has only eight entries.

These days, Allen, 29, only goes into the storage box to get something for her lawyer.

A copy of Nathaniel's birth certificate. A court document from the adoption proceedings. Photographs of the night she held Nathaniel for the first time in a hotel lobby in Guatemala City.

Anything to help boost her lawyer's argument that she didn't shake her son with so much force that it rattled his brain and killed him.

'Something didn't feel right'

Allen's husband, Jeremy, was standing by the window when he noticed a police van pull up in front of their home in Lisbon Falls.

It was Feb. 26, nearly two weeks after Sarah Allen called 911 to report that Nathaniel had fallen and was gasping for air.

Police kept Allen in the living room while paramedics treated the 22-month-old on the kitchen table. When it came time to go to the hospital, Allen asked if she could ride in the back of the ambulance with her son.

She was told to sit in the front.

"Something didn't feel right from the very beginning. Nobody was telling me anything. I didn't understand," Allen recalled, sitting in her lawyer's office last week, days before her first court appearance.

At the hospital, Allen was ushered to a private waiting room while doctors hooked Nathaniel to a life-support system. Her husband, a Navy journalist based at the Brunswick Naval Air Station, met her there after rushing back from a business trip in New Hampshire.

A Maine State Police detective, a Department of Human Services social worker and the state's child-abuse expert showed up within an hour.

At that point, Allen says, she had no idea that her son was so close to death or that she was suspected of causing the injuries that left him brain-dead.

While doctors tested Nathaniel for signs of hope, Allen went back to her house with the detective to replay the day's events.

Many bruises

The towel that Allen used to dry Nathaniel after he got out of the tub was still wet when she and the detective got to the house.

A brand-new windbreaker was hanging in Nathaniel's closet, the tags still attached. Allen bought it in the fall and hoped it would fit perfectly by spring.

A red wagon was parked in the garage next to Jeremy Allen's 10-speed bike with the attached baby seat.

At 27 pounds, Nathaniel was still too small to ride with his dad.

Weeks later, Allen and her husband found a Matchbox car and a Mickey Mouse book collecting dust under the refrigerator, where Nathaniel had shoved them when his mom wasn't looking.

<$>By then, Nathaniel was dead, Allen was charged with manslaughter and her husband was facing an assault charge for allegedly spanking the boy on the thigh and buttocks on the day before he was rushed to the hospital.

According to court documents, Allen told the detective while walking him through the house that she had watched Jeremy hit the boy with a spatula two or three times. She also told him that Nathaniel had been unstable, falling frequently and bruising his face.

The boy had fallen in the bathtub twice that night, she said. Then he fell several more times before collapsing in his bedroom for the last time.

A medical examiner noted bruises on Nathaniel's eyelids, cheek, upper thigh and buttock and left wrist, Maine State Police Detective Herb Leighton wrote in a statement about the case.

Manslaughter

Allen and her husband decided to take Nathaniel off life-support on Feb. 15 after doctors confirmed that his brain would never work again.

Police contacted them several times over the next two weeks. Detective Leighton called their cellular phone while they were making arrangements at the funeral parlor. He told them he had new medical findings that he wanted to discuss with them.

The couple didn't answer any of his questions and immediately contacted Auburn defense lawyer Verne Paradie.

When Jeremy Allen shouted from the living room as the detectives got out of the van and walked toward the house, Sarah Allen knew they had come to arrest her.

She was charged with manslaughter, a crime punishable by up to 40 years in prison, and was taken to Androscoggin County Jail where she waited in a cell for her family and friends to come up with $25,000 bail.

Jeremy Allen was charged with assault a few weeks later after state prosecutors presented the case to a grand jury.

Three signs

The oldest daughter of a computer scientist and a stay-at-home mom, Allen graduated from Maryland Bible College. She considered becoming a missionary, but she ended up working as a substitute teacher, an editor for a computer trade magazine, then a part-time hairdresser.

She knew she wanted to adopt when she was an 11-year-old volunteer for a busing program that picked up poor children at their housing projects in southern New Hampshire and took them to church.

Allen claims that she never hurt her son and she certainly didn't kill him.

"I loved him so much. He meant everything to me," she said, her eyes glassy, her voice quiet, but her tears contained. "I never abused him."

Police say they have evidence to prove otherwise. They say Allen shook Nathaniel so hard that it jolted his brain.

According to court papers, an autopsy performed on the boy revealed three telling signs: bleeding around the retina, bleeding around the brain and swelling of the brain.

"We are convinced that this is a case of shaken-baby syndrome," said Maine State Police spokesman Stephen McCausland. "This baby was violently shaken."

In a statement about the case, the lead detective pointed out that two doctors agreed that Allen's explanation that the boy fell and struck his head several times while sitting and standing could not have caused his head injuries.

"Children do not die from falling down. If that was the case, none of us would have made it past the age of 2," said Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese, the state prosecutor on the case.

Paradie, however, said he doesn't plan to argue that the baby died as a result of the fall. Allen told police about the falls because she wanted them to know everything in order to determine what was wrong with her son, he said.

The Auburn lawyer is waiting for the results of a second autopsy in which samples of fluid from the boy's brain were taken to be tested for infections and other brain disorders.

Paradie believes Nathaniel suffered from a pre-existing neurological problem - a condition that may have caused him to still wobble when he walked. It may also explain why he could only make sounds such as "dah dah" and "wello wello," and why he fell so much in the days leading to his death.

"His developmental delays indicate that he had something going on neurologically," Paradie said. "They arrested her, they charged her and they hadn't even conducted the second autopsy yet."

Marchese said she has not seen any information to indicate that Nathaniel suffered from a pre-existing condition.

"Nathaniel died from a very violent incident," she said.

The crib

Nathaniel spent the first year of his life with a foster family in Guatemala, while lawyers led the Allens through the lengthy legal process of making the adoption official.

During the year, the Allens moved back to Maine from Italy, where Jeremy Allen was stationed for a couple of years. They bought a house in Lisbon Falls.

In the spare room they put a crib that they had bought two years ago for a Mexican baby whose mother disappeared before giving birth. But they didn't decorate the room.

Allen was afraid something would fall through, as it did with the first baby. The Allens learned about the girl in June 2000, shortly after starting their search. They bought her a brand-new crib, and Allen's friends gave her a potty, a pair of tiny sneakers and other gifts at a surprise baby shower.

A month after the party, weeks before the baby was due, the birth mother was gone.

Promises of other Mexican babies came and went before the Allens learned that Mexico was closing its borders to international adoptions. They turned their search to Guatemala.

A month later, their lawyer called about a baby girl who was due in two weeks. The Allens decided to name her Bethany. They went shopping for summer dresses. Then they learned that the lawyer had made a mistake. Another couple had been promised the same baby.

"It was like getting kicked in the stomach," Allen said. "I cried. I cried a lot."

'It's Mommy'

The adoption agency continued to tell them about other possibilities, but the birth mothers kept disappearing into the hills or changing their minds.

Eventually, Allen got a puppy, a miniature pinscher named Leila who woke up every three hours to be walked and fed.

In February 2001, the Allens had a choice: hire another lawyer who was trying to find parents for a 6-month-old abandoned boy or stick with their lawyer who was in contact with a young woman who was seven months pregnant.

They chose the birth mother. The e-mail with Nathaniel's photograph came two months later.

"Congratulations," it said. "Your son was born at 9 p.m. last night."

Allen was sitting on the floor in her bedroom when she heard Nathaniel for the first time. He was already 9 months old and his foster mother held the phone to his ear.

"Hi," Allen said. "It's Mommy."

Nathaniel laughed out loud. And Allen started to cry.

No sister

When their lawyer's assistant walked into the hotel lobby two months later with Nathaniel in her arms, Allen could do nothing but stare at the boy and grin.

"We thought we'd break down and cry but we had cried for months," she said. "All we could do was smile."

At that point, Nathaniel belonged to the Allens. Unlike domestic adoptions conducted through the state Department of Human Services, there would be no probation period, no monthly check-ins after the couple got the baby home.

All of the work - the intensive home visits, the background checks, the 50-page reports - were done.

From the time Allen and her husband began researching adoption agencies to the night when Allen dressed Nathaniel in his Winnie the Pooh pajamas for the first time, the couple spent $24,000.

When she lay down next to her newborn son in the hotel room that first night, watching his eyes wander the room and humming him to sleep, none of the frustrations of the past two years mattered. He was as soft and sweet-smelling as she had imagined.

Allen knew she would eventually do it all over again.

Weeks before their son died, she and her husband began to contact private adoption agencies. They were ready for another baby, a sister for Nathaniel.

As Allen and her husband stood before a judge Friday afternoon and pleaded not guilty to the charges against them, they knew that no matter what happened in court, they would never use the crib, the potty, the blue windbreaker.

They would never finish a baby book.

lchmelecki@sunjournal.com

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