Mother claims innocence in '74 adopted son's death
By Jaclyn O'Malley
James "J.W." Bader was 3 when he died at a Reno hospital in 1974.
At the time, his adopted mother told police and hospital staff that he'd fallen off a lawn chair at his older sister's softball game, and hours later became sick — ultimately dying. The coroner ruled the death accidental, and the case was closed.
More than 30 years later, J.W.'s older sister, Julie Dunn, offered new evidence that led to her mother, Catherine Wyman, being charged with first-degree murder in the boy's alleged child-abuse related death.
On Monday, Wyman, 68, formerly known as Catherine Bader, will face trial for causing the death of her adopted son. She has pleaded not guilty and has been free on $300,000 bail.
Officials said the case is an example of how a severely abused child slipped through the cracks more than three decades ago because uninformed authorities did not know what to do and took the word of a fireman's wife.
But Wyman's attorney denies she abused the boy and claims Wyman's daughter is a liar and possibly the real suspect. Other possible witnesses in the case — her ex-husband Larry Bader and Wyman's younger daughter Tami — are dead.
Dunn, of Chico, Calif., has been estranged from her mother for years. Dunn, who was 15 when J.W. died, told authorities that she feels guilty about not reporting the abuse. Her father's death in 2004 and her cancer diagnosis prompted her to come forward and get justice for her brother, she told authorities.
Dunn has declined to comment publicly.
While the coroner in 1974 ruled J.W.'s death was an accident and police never charged Wyman with any crime, officials said his death was not properly investigated, and that he clearly died of child abuse. Authorities blame the ruling on a lack of experience, communication and awareness of child abuse.
Nevada, like many states, now has a child death-review committee, which scours autopsy reports to see if the death was preventable. Many police departments also have their own child abuse detective unit, often called by medical officials or social service workers.
Reviewing the case
A forensic pathologist in 2005 reviewed the 1974 evidence and determined that James had
19 bruises on his face, deep scalp injuries, 23 bruises on his torso and three bruises on his genitals. The review also found that his intestines split because of severe stomping or kicking, causing toxic chemicals to leak into his body.
James weighed 33 pounds and was about 3 feet tall.
The doctor who performed the boy's autopsy in 1974 and testified before a grand jury last year, and said that while at the time he did not think J.W.'s death was a homicide, he now believes the boy died of child abuse.
Martin Wiener, Wyman's attorney, said no one can determine either how or when J.W. received the fatal injury.
Wiener also criticized the credibility of Dunn's testimony.
"We expect the jury will acquit my client on all the charges," he said.
Dunn said she saw her mother ram her brother's head into a post in their backyard and then later blamed his injuries on Dunn throwing a ball at him, which Dunn said she did not do.
"Have you ever seen the movie 'The Elephant Man?'" Dunn asked when trying to describe to grand jurors what J.W. looked like after the head slamming.
Dunn said she saw her mother repeatedly kick and punch J.W. in the stomach, including hours before he supposedly fell off the lawn chair and died. She said she heard his screams from an open window when she kicked him outside.
J.W., whose birth name was Jimmy Jones, is believed to have been abandoned by his parents in a Las Vegas casino.
The Baders moved to Sparks in the 1960s. Larry Bader worked 72-hour shifts for the Reno Fire Department and had a construction business. His wife stayed home and cared for their children.
Larry Bader, family members said, wanted a son to carry on the family name and wanted him to become his business partner.
But Dunn said her mother hated J.W.
"She had total disgust and spite for him because he wasn't perfect," she told grand jurors.
Last year, detectives went to Wyman's home in Arizona to talk to her about Dunn's claims.
"No, I, uh, we had been to a ball game in the morning and then um, we came home and he ended up at the hospital," she said, according to the transcripts of the interview. "He was sick, he went back to his room ... it uh, we just maybe thought that maybe somehow he had been climbing on the bleachers and maybe fell. Yes, the bleachers."
According to the police report from 1974, Wyman said J.W. fell off a lawn chair when she got up to cheer for a play at the softball game and accidentally knocked over his chair.
The detectives asked her what kind of boy he was.
"He was adopted," she said. "He was just a little boy. I don't know what else to say, was kind of a kid, he was just a little boy and I don't know how to explain that."
Wyman said she had nothing to say when the detectives told her of Dunn's specific recollections of how she abused J.W.
As they showed Wyman her son's autopsy photos, they asked her what people would think when they saw those pictures.
"That I'm a bad person," she said.
Wyman is a retired horticulturist who had worked at the Billagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Wyman divorced Larry Bader in the 1980s after their younger daughter, Tami, died of toxic shock.
Wyman's arrest last year prompted authorities in Nebraska to review the death of her 10-month-old daughter who died there when Wyman was 19. Authorities found no foul play.