Sheriff: Evil kin starved boy, 4

Date: 2008-11-20

Clarion-Ledger, The (Jackson, MS)
Author: Kathleen Baydalakbaydala@clarionledger.com

Correction: CORRECTION Austin James Watkins is the 4-year-old who died from apparent starvation in Scott County. A story in Thursday editions gave the wrong middle name for the child. (THIS CORRECTION RAN ON SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 22, 2008 ON PAGE 2A)

·Insurance policy found in starved child's room had lapsed, official says

By Kathleen Baydala kbaydala@clarionledger.com

FOREST- Scott County Sheriff Mike Lee blames wickedness -not potential financial gain - for the starvation death of a 4-year-old boy.

Lee said he believes Austin Davis was starved over several months by his paternal grandmother and aunt before he died Nov. 9. The women have been charged with murder and felony child abuse.

The boy weighed only 19 pounds at death.

Scott County Coroner Joe Bradford said a preliminary examination of the boy's body ruled out any pre-existing medical condition as a cause of death. The autopsy results likely will not be available for two or three months, he said.

"We think they were giving him liquids because, otherwise, he would have died in a matter of days from dehydration," Lee said.

He met with the district attorney about the case Wednesday.

"The more and more we look at (Austin's death), we see how this was done and methodically thought out. They (the grandmother and aunt) always had an answer on why the child looked ill. They kept him out of the public's view," Lee said. "I wish we had more of a motive than this being done by horrible, wicked people. They both have shown very little emotion since their arrests."

Deputies learned last week that a $10,000 insurance policy had been taken out on Austin Watkins and was kept attached to the wall of the boy's room in his grandmother's home.

However, they ruled the policy out as a motive because it was outdated and no longer valid, the sheriff said.

Janice Mowdy, Austin's grandmother, and Stephanie Bell, his aunt, are being held without bond at the Scott CountyJail. They do not yet have attorneys.

Their case could be referred to the next grand jury meeting in December.

District Attorney Mark Duncan could not be reached late Wednesday afternoon.

Meanwhile, investigators have interviewed family members who made statements to media earlier this month that indicated they may have known the boy was being abused.

Lee said those statements were exaggerated. "They knew a lot less than they originally stated (to the media)," he said.

No more arrests are anticipated in Austin's death, and Mowdy and Bell could face stiffer charges as deputies continue to investigate the homicide.

Investigators also have subpoenaed Austin's medical records from 2007, when they say he was admitted to a hospital. Lee said investigators will study those records along with Austin's autopsy results to determine whether there was a prolonged pattern of abuse. The women's charges could be upgraded to capital murder, based on the findings.

Mowdy told investigators that Austin was sick when he died, Lee said. The sheriff said he believes Mowdy and Bell were using a false illness to cover up the starvation.

Lee had said another possible motive investigators were exploring is that Austin's extended family was not close to the boy.

"The grandmother has said she always thought he was not her son's child, not her grandson," he said.

Investigators also believe Austin was dead by the time his aunt called the Sheriff's Department on Nov. 9.

"We got a call saying the boy was found unresponsive and not breathing," Lee said. "When first responders arrived within seven minutes of the call to provide emergency medical services, the child was deceased and rigor mortis had begun.That takes time."

The Mississippi Department ofHuman Services had removed Austin and his three siblingsfrom their mother's home in 2005. Their father, Kenny Watkins, has been in and out of jail and was not a stable person in their lives, the sheriff said. He currently is in jail on a probation violation charge.

Mowdy was granted custody ofthe four children in 2007 by a Scott CountyChancery Court judge. No one had alerted DHS or the Sheriff's Department about any possible abuse or neglect since then, the sheriff said.

Austin's mother, Tammie Watkins, filed for custody of her remaining three children Tuesday. Those records are sealed in Chancery Court.

Tammie Watkins could not be reached Wednesday. Chancery Court records show as a child she had been the subject of a custody battle between her mother and paternal grandparents. She ended up in state custody until she turned 21 in July 2005, according to the records.

Lee said he and DHS want Watkins' other children - ages 9, 6 and 2 - to remain in protective custody so they can continue to be monitored for trauma.

"Anything they need, we want to be able to give to them," the sheriff said. "There is no doubt in my mind that the children, especially the 6- and 9-year-old, would have had an idea of what was going on."

Lee said he believes it was possible for Austin to starve without anyone noticing because Mowdy lived in a rural, isolated area of Scott County near the Leake County line.

"There were tenant workers on a poultry farm," the sheriff said. "The home is in a secluded area that is not regularly visited. They kept to themselves."

Even though Austin's two older siblings were in school, the children did not say anything about what was happening to their brother, the sheriff said.

"They were reared very strictly by their grandmother and Bell," Lee said. "They pretty much were in their control and were somewhat fearful of them."

When workers at Austin's day care asked questions about the boy's health, his grandmother removed him, the sheriff said.

Lee said day care officials did not report the incident to law enforcement because his grandmother and aunt allegedly told them the boy was sick and they were getting him treatment.

Mowdy and Bell also allegedly told the day care they were moving to Rankin County and would enroll him in a program there, the sheriff said.

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