PRINCETON — Someone beat Joshua Isaiah Boozer to death early in the morning of Feb. 7, 2010. The 6-month old baby died two days later at a Roanoke, Va., hospital, after medical officials determined there was nothing they could do to counteract the blunt-force trauma inflicted to the baby’s head.
Wednesday, his mother pleaded guilty to child neglect resulting in death, a dramatic step down from the charges of first-degree murder and child abuse resulting in death charges a grand jury handed down last year.
Attorneys for Katharine Janelle Boozer, 24, of Princeton, announced on April 1 that they had struck a deal with Mercer County Prosecutor Scott Ash to reduce the charges to child neglect resulting in death, in exchange for her cooperation in a potential prosecution against Boozer’s ex-boyfriend, Aaron Johnston.
Although Mercer County Circuit Court Judge Derek Swope provisionally accepted the guilty plea this week, he reserved his final ruling until the conclusion of a pre-sentence investigation.
“Clearly, the child was murdered. Clearly, this was a homicide. Nobody disputes that,” Swope said, later reminding both sides that he had been empowered by the people of Mercer County and the judicial system to act in the best interest of the community and of justice. “I want to make sure, before I do this, that there’s somebody out there who’s responsible, and that they will be prosecuted.”
The problem with the case, from the state’s perspective, is that there were only two possible suspects — Boozer and Johnston. They each pointed fingers at the other.
Ash, presenting the state’s case thus far, said the evidence was balanced.
“It is clear that one of the two people committed the murder of Joshua Boozer,” he said. “Forensic evidence in this case lends no support one way or the other.”
Ash said he agreed to the plea bargain because Johnston became extremely mentally unstable in recent months — to the point of injuring himself during an incident that left him charged with public intoxication, breach of peace and brandishing a deadly weapon. And, state officials doubted his testimony, at this point, would safeguard a conviction against Boozer.
“No deals, no promises have been made to Mr. Johnston,” Ash said.
W.Va. State Police Trooper 1st Class P.H. Shrewsbury testified during a preliminary hearing that Boozer initially told officers she and Isaiah were alone at her Pepperidge Apartments home all day Feb. 6 and early Feb. 7, when she discovered him unable to breathe and bleeding from the nose and mouth.
Investigators said that story quickly changed, when she advised that Johnston had visited and stayed there overnight. It was also the night of Feb. 6, according to defense counsel Thomas Czarnik, that Boozer told Johnston she and the baby’s father planned to reunite.
Despite the alleged break-up, Boozer and Johnston reportedly fell asleep at the apartment. When Boozer awoke Feb. 7, she exited the apartment and discovered she needed help scraping snow from her car. She allegedly woke Johnston to assist her before going back inside to wake and feed Isaiah.
Boozer told officers she had no idea anything was wrong with the baby until she found him gasping for air and bleeding.
“She basically said, ‘I don’t know how that happened,’” Shrewsbury testified.
According to Johnston’s previous testimony, he allegedly stayed in the living room while Boozer woke the baby.
“I heard the baby make a moaning noise,” Johnston said, adding that Isaiah Boozer’s eyes were allegedly half open and his breathing was labored when Boozer carried him into the living room.
“I’ve never heard no kid make that noise before,” Johnston said, denying several times that he had done anything to harm the baby.
Boozer then said she began attempting to suction the blood from the baby’s airway and to get Johnston to leave the apartment before emergency workers arrived.
Boozer was employed as a care coordinator for Southern Highlands Community Mental Health Center, and she was in charge of Johnston’s case. Her job would be at risk if supervisors learned she had violated ethics rules and engaged in a personal relationship with Johnston.
As the investigation unfolded, Isaiah was transported to Roanoke Memorial Hospital, where he died Feb. 9, 2010.
Shrewsbury attended the autopsy, where he testified he saw “an extremely bad skull fracture,” on the baby’s head. He estimated the break was approximately five to six inches long.
Wednesday, court officials said the West Virginia Medical Examiner’s Office determined the injuries were inflicted by striking the baby’s head against a hard, flat surface — like a wall.
Katharine Boozer was under investigation by Child Protective Services in early 2010, when a day care worker found his genital and abdominal area so badly bruised and swollen that directors at Mother Goose Day Care determined he needed immediate treatment.
When Boozer was notified of her son’s condition, West Virginia State Police Sgt. M.D. Clemons testified previously she said he was suffering from lactose intolerance and that she didn’t have time to leave work to take him to the hospital.
Ultimately, Mother Goose employees transported the baby to Princeton Community Hospital, where he was admitted and treated.
When medical officials doubted the possibility that a lactose intolerance could cause the severe injuries Isaiah suffered, Clemons said Boozer first said she accidentally kneed the baby in the genital area as she attempted to lay him on the floor to change his diaper.
She later allegedly told Shrewsbury she may have accidentally “squashed his balls,” causing the bruising that was fading but still evident at the time the baby died. Another statement, according to West Virginia State Police Trooper R.A. Marsh, indicated she saw Johnston inflict those injuries.
Meanwhile, Ash said Johnston told investigators he observed the incident that caused the bruising, indicating that Boozer “stumbled” when she attempted to lay the baby down and that she hurt him by accident.
The CPS case never reached a conclusion. Isaiah died first.
Presenting Boozer’s side of the case, Czarnik said the young mother established a clean, orderly home for Isaiah, stocked with age-appropriate clothing, toys and books and decorated with framed photos of the baby.
“He had a clean household,” he said.
Even crime scene photos taken after Isaiah’s injuries showcased a bottle and a bib on the table, prepared the morning of Feb. 7. Czarnik indicated the scene did not point to a mother determined to kill her child.
Instead, he said that Boozer was guilty only of allowing Johnston into her life and creating the situation that would endanger Isaiah.
“It is true that she lied about Aaron Johnston,” he said, telling the court that Boozer even hid the clandestine relationship from her parents, who sat stoically in the gallery Wednesday.
If the judge doubted the sincerity of her concern upon discovering Isaiah’s injuries, Czarnik suggested that he listen to the 20-minute 911 recording when she called for help.
“That 911 tape, your honor, is excruciating,” Czarnik said, referring to the worry in Boozer’s voice.
An investigator in the courtroom gallery agreed that the tape was excruciating, but more because dispatchers could hear the baby’s last efforts to live than for Boozer’s pain.
The defendant, who appeared in court Wednesday wearing a bright purple top and pinstripe pants, offered short, concise answers when addressed. As she entered an official plea, Boozer stood between Czarnik and co-counsel Phillip Scantlebury, clasping her hands in front of her.
Although Swope encouraged Boozer to “put it all out there” and tell the court exactly what happened in her apartment the day Isaiah was hurt, she never mentioned her son or the actions that took his life. Her only statements were directed at Johnston’s violent nature.
“I knew he had a violent history,” she said, referring to a previously diagnosed schizoaffective disorder.
“I watched him through his therapy and through his medication, and he appeared to be stable,” she said.
After prompting from Czarnik and Scantlebury, Boozer said Johnston had been violent toward her, as well.
Although Swope accepted the guilty plea provisionally, he instructed Boozer to cooperate fully with a pre-sentence investigation.
“You need to be fully open and candid with her,” Swope said. “I need to know what happened in more detail than I’ve heard today ... This is her shot.”
If the judge ultimately accepts the deal, she could face three to 15 years in a state penitentiary. For now, she remains on home confinement with her parents.
Swope will rule on the plea and a sentence on June 28.
— Contact Tammie Toler at firstname.lastname@example.org.