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Jury selection starts for mother in death of son, 5

The Franklin Twp. woman is accused of killing him.
She says he was hurt in Russia a month before his adoption.

Wendy Ruderman

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Jury selection began yesterday in the trial of a Franklin Township woman accused of fatally beating her 5-year-old adopted Russian son in 2001.

Assistant Gloucester County Prosecutor Mary Pyffer is expected to argue that Jacob Lindorff sustained numerous injuries, including second-degree burns on his feet and a fatal blow to the head, at the hands of Heather G. Lindorff.

Defense lawyer Stephen Patrick will counter that the boy was injured in Russia before his adoption two months earlier. Patrick has argued that the death resulted from "rebleeding" of an old injury and that the boy's biological mother occasionally slammed his head against the floor as punishment.

Opening statements could be heard as early as today. The trial in state Superior Court is expected to last about three weeks and include as many as 40 witnesses. It is likely to hinge on conflicting testimony from medical experts.

Lindorff, 39, who is free after posting $100,000 bail, is charged with first-degree aggravated manslaughter and two second-degree crimes, aggravated assault and endangering the welfare of a child.

She and her husband, James, 54, who is free after posting $25,000 bail, are charged with child abuse, a fourth-degree crime carrying a term of up to 18 months in state prison. They are being tried together on those charges, although they have separate lawyers.

If convicted on all counts, Heather Lindorff would face a maximum 30 years in prison on the aggravated-manslaughter charge alone. If the Lindorffs are found guilty of child abuse, the state would move to sever their parental rights, said Ralph Siegel, spokesman for the state Division of Youth and Family Services.

Jacob died Dec. 14, 2001. That evening about 8 o'clock, James Lindorff called 911 and reported that his son had stopped breathing after "some sort of spasm."

According to ambulance workers, family members said Jacob "had been throwing temper tantrums over the past few days and faked being unconscious." The ambulance workers noticed several bruises on the child and "blistering burns" on the top of his feet.

According to a court brief filed by the state, Heather Lindorff told them that Jacob had burned his feet that morning while getting into a hot tub. She later told police that Jacob had hit his head on the couch two to three weeks before his death. She also said he had fallen in the tub and hit his head the day before he died.

On the afternoon of Jacob's death, Heather Lindorff told police, she had heard him let out "a deep, gravelly scream." He then went limp and fell. She put the boy to bed and later asked her oldest daughter to check on him. The daughter discovered that Jacob "wasn't breathing properly," and Heather Lindorff started CPR, according to the court brief.

The Lindorffs have five other children, ages 7 to 19 and all adopted from Russia. Four, all juveniles, live with Heather Lindorff's mother. A 19-year-old daughter, Jessica, continues to live with the Lindorffs on their Victoria Avenue farm in the Blue Bell section of Franklin Township, according to Patrick.

All five are expected to testify, although it was unclear yesterday whether they would speak on behalf of the Lindorffs.

In addition to the children, the witness list includes several police officers, Gloucester County Medical Examiner Gerald Feigin, and the doctor who treated Jacob at South Jersey Hospital Systems/Newcomb Division in Vineland, where the boy was pronounced dead. Feigin ruled that Jacob had died from blunt head trauma. The boy also had bronchial pneumonia, which contributed to his death, Feigin concluded.

The state is expected to call at least four medical experts, including Cindy Christian, a nationally known pediatrician at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, who would testify that Jacob's injuries were consistent with child abuse.

The case will thrust the Division of Youth and Family Services into the spotlight again. The child-welfare agency, which has made international headlines in the death of a North Jersey boy in January and more recently in the case of a Collingswood couple accused of starving their four adopted sons, was also involved briefly with the Lindorff family.

In April 2001, about eight months before Jacob's death, DYFS investigated a complaint that the Lindorffs had been abusing three daughters adopted two years earlier. The allegation, however, was unsubstantiated. The Lindorff case was highlighted in a DYFS report in March detailing 62 child-abuse deaths from 1998 through 2002.

Yesterday, Judge Julio Mendez asked each potential juror: "Have you read or heard any account relating to the Division of Youth and Family Services in the news media?"

Most answered yes, including an ironworker from West Deptford who said he had read about "how division workers have kind of let things fall through the cracks." He was excused, though the judge did not say why.

Contact staff writer Wendy Ruderman at 856-779-3926 or wruderman@phillynews.com.

2003 Dec 3