Woman sentenced to 15 years in murder of adopted son
August 16, 2007
Section: Main News
By Jaclyn O'Malley
Thirty-three years after the beating death of a developmentally disabled Sparks toddler, his adoptive mother was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his murder.
Catherine Wyman, 67, cried Wednesday as she was led in handcuffs past her estranged daughter, whose tip to police in 2005 resulted in the review of James "J.W." Bader's Aug. 10, 1974, death.
"J.W. is resting in peace now," Julie Bader-Dunn said and smiled. "He's happy. I'm happy."
Authorities called the case a classic example of deadly child abuse that slipped through the cracks. Reports say the boy's intestines were split from forceful abuse, which caused a fatal infection. His mother claimed he got sick after he fell from a lawn chair.
Washoe District Judge Jerome Polaha said he considered the brutal abuse of J.W., as well as Wyman's advanced age and crime-free life, in setting Wyman's punishment. Wyman's second-degree murder conviction carries a five-year-to-life term. Jurors found her guilty after an eight-day trial.
"A young life was snuffed out," Polaha said. "Fifteen years (for Wyman) may very well be a lifetime (in prison)."
The coroner in 1974, an insurance salesman with no medical training, ruled J.W.'s death an accident, authorities say. The case was closed until Bader-Dunn came forward.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Karl Hall said J.W.'s abuse was cold and calculated and inflicted by his "mean" mother, who made sure most of his injuries weren't obvious. The day he died, Bader-Dunn said she saw her mother repeatedly kick him in the stomach, causing him to scream in pain.
"I don't believe that day she intended to kill him when she beat him," Hall said. "Her hatred and disdain grew into a cancer that overtook her. She hated him so much that part of her regular routine was brutalizing the boy that culminated into his death."
Bader-Dunn testified she saw her mother punch the boy, ram his head into fence posts, slam toilet seats on his genitals, attempt to drown him in the bathtub and submerge in hot water.
Hall said Bader-Dunn's recollections of the abuse were corroborated by forensic experts who reviewed his injuries. J.W. had dozens of bruises, head to toe, when he died. Those injuries prompted medical staff to call police, but no arrest was made.
J.W. was adopted by homemaker Catherine Bader and Larry Bader, a Reno firefighter. J.W. lived with them in Sparks for 18 months until he died.
The Baders also had two teen daughters, Tammi, who died years later of toxic shock syndrome, and Julie. A third daughter died in the 1960s in Nebraska as an infant.
Bader-Dunn said her mother never wanted to adopt J.W., who was abandoned by his parents at a Las Vegas casino. She said her mother also resented his developmental disabilities. Bader-Dunn said her father loved the boy and wanted him to carry on the family name and take over his construction business. Larry Bader was typically working 24-hour shifts at the fire department when J.W. was abused, Bader-Dunn said.
When J.W.'s injuries were obvious, Wyman would blame them on Julie. Her father would then punish her, she testified.
Wyman testified that she loved J.W. and denied beating him. Her lawyer, Martin Wiener, said Bader-Dunn is a liar and it's possible that someone else inflicted J.W.'s fatal injury. He is appealing the sentence.
Bader-Dunn said her mother threatened her if she told anyone about her brother's abuse. Her father, she said, always suspected her mother was responsible for J.W.'s death but could not prove it.
"He asked me to see it through and make sure she pays the price," Bader-Dunn said. "It was hard emotionally to keep this secret. J.W. made a big impact on my life. There is not a day that goes by that I don't think of him."