Foster mom gets 10 years in Virginia Beach infant's death

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Date: 2011-11-03

By Kristin Davis
The Virginian-Pilot
© November 3, 2011
VIRGINIA BEACH

For the first seven months of his life, Braxton Taylor thrived.

Born to a drug-addicted mother whose other children were already living among relatives, Braxton went to live with longtime foster parents Ben and Sarah Fitzpatrick when he was 3 days old.

"Braxton was an angel. Very easy to care for. Very content," Sarah Fitzpatrick testified Wednesday in Circuit Court.

But three months after he left their care, the baby was dead, shaken to death by his second foster mother, 30-year-old Kathleen Ganiere.

Judge Patricia L. West on Wednesday sentenced Ganiere to the maximum 10-year prison term for voluntary manslaughter, exceeding sentencing guidelines that called for no jail time and even the eight years the prosecution had sought.

"I don't need an expert to tell me something horrible happened to that child," West said. "He was a baby who never had a chance once he was with Ms. Ganiere."

In a photo shown in court, 6-week-old Braxton wears a blue-striped shirt with a red train on the front and sleeps with his arms above his head. The infant suffered from acid reflux that caused him to spit up, Sarah Fitzpatrick testified, and his hands had quivered on and off those first weeks.

He was an otherwise normal baby, she said. Braxton had been born with no drugs in his system.

Another photo shows Braxton at 6 months - just before he went to live with Ganiere and her husband, Brian Kezer, in November 2009. He sits against a cushion and grins from inside a teddy bear Halloween costume.

The Fitzpatricks decided it would be best for Braxton to move to a home where he was more likely to be adopted, Sarah Fitzpatrick testified. The Fitzpatricks have eight children, six biological and two adopted, including a child with a spinal condition that required surgery.

When Braxton was admitted to the hospital just before his death, the 10-month-old weighed less than he did at his 6-month checkup, according to a stipulation of facts in the case. His testicles were crushed, and his groin, abdomen and ear bruised.

Kezer had spent five days away from home prior to that, leaving Braxton in Ganiere's care, the stipulation said. When Kezer returned, Braxton no longer could sit up, would shake for hours at a time, and would not focus his gaze, it said.

While alone with Ganiere the morning of Feb. 6, 2010, Braxton stopped breathing. A day later, he was pronounced dead. His brain had swelled from being shaken, the stipulation said, and filled with blood.

Ganiere was charged with second-degree murder and felony child abuse but pleaded guilty to the lesser voluntary manslaughter charge in June.

At Wednesday's sentencing, Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Scott M. Lang asked for an eight-year sentence plus probation. He said Ganiere had expressed no remorse and told authorities she didn't know what happened to Braxton but she must be responsible because it happened while he was in her care.

"He was helpless, defenseless, he deserved better," Lang said. "There is a dead child, and people's lives have been ruined."

Ganiere's attorney, Moody E. "Sonny" Stallings Jr., asked the judge to consider his client's "past life," which included no criminal record. Ganiere voluntarily reported to jail four months ago, he said.

Before West pronounced her sentence, Ganiere stood at the defense table and read from a note.

"I wish I could go back," she said, between sobbing sounds. "I would change everything that I did. I never meant to hurt Braxton. I don't know what happened but I know it was my fault.... I loved Braxton.... The pain of his death is with me every day. God have mercy, I am so sorry. I wish I could go back and change everything I did."

West, in turn, read statements Ganiere made to police after the baby's death.

Ganiere told them she did not know she was receiving a special-needs baby, she didn't want a "vegetable," and she "was not a dumping ground for kids no one else would take," West read.

"Those statements make me sick."

Kristin Davis, (757) 222-5131, kristin.davis@pilotonline.com

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