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Focus shifts to mother of toddler in hot car death

Published: Sunday, July 06, 2014 @ 4:31 AM
Updated: Sunday, July 06, 2014 @ 4:33 AM

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Leanna Harris’ husband, prosecutors alleged Thursday, had two sides: Churchgoing family man and another, darker persona, one that compelled Ross Harris to knowingly leave their 22-month-old son to die, locked inside a sweltering SUV.

Based on her own, sometimes confounding words, along with evidence disclosed at her spouse’s probable cause hearing Thursday, many are wondering whether there’s another side to Leanna Harris.

>> RELATED: Prosecutors: Father was sexting while child sat in hot car

The 30-year-old dietitian, who two years ago moved to Georgia from Tuscaloosa, Ala., has not been charged with any crime. But police have disclosed that, like her husband, she had researched children dying in hot vehicles prior to her son Cooper’s death, telling officers it was her “worst fear.” On average, 38 kids die each year after being trapped inside automobiles, according to KidsAndCars.org.

Investigators described her behavior the day of her son Cooper’s death as odd, if not suspicious.

When informed by workers at her son’s day care facility that Cooper had never been dropped off, she calmly responded, “Ross must have left him in the car. There’s no other explanation,” according to Cobb County Police Det. Phil Stoddard’s testimony Thursday.

Then, when reunited with her husband at police headquarters after he had been charged with murder, Leanna Harris asked him, “Did you say too much?” according to Stoddard.

“There isn’t enough to make her a co-conspirator … yet,” said criminal defense lawyer Esther Panitch.

>> RELATED: Photos: Dad accused in son’s hot car death appears in court

Whatever Leanna Harris’ role winds up being in this case — witness, defendant or supportive wife — prosecutors and the public are taking note of her public actions. What they’ve seen so far is stoicism that seems at odds with what has become a public tragedy.

She has expressed little emotion throughout. At Thursday’s hearing, she stared blankly ahead, chewing gum as prosecutors delivered one bombshell after another.

When she called home June 18 with the grim news of Cooper’s death, her mother could be overheard on the phone: “Why aren’t you crying? Why aren’t you reacting?”

Her response, according to Stoddard: “I must be in shock.”

Then there was her eulogy at Cooper’s funeral last Saturday in Tuscaloosa. To those who don’t know her, Leanna Harris’ comment that she wouldn’t bring her son back, even if she could, seemed suspicious.

>> RELATED: Police: Father who left child in hot car charged with murder

“He’s in the most peaceful, wonderful place there is,” Leanna Harris said.

But the 250 or so mourners who gathered at University Church of Christ gave her two rounds of applause, and Harris’ statement is not unusual among the deeply religious who believe the afterlife is God’s greatest gift.

Still, it’s clear, according to veteran legal observers, that police are looking at Leanna Harris’ potential culpability in her son’s death. On Thursday, Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds said the investigation continues and “much work remains,” though he offered no details on where the probe may be headed.

“Knowledge of a crime isn’t prosecutable. A cover-up is,” Panitch said.

But if, as many increasingly believe, her husband ends up facing more significant murder charges, prosecutors may seek to use Leanna Harris as a witness. In Georgia, the spousal privilege shielding a wife from testifying against her husband, and vice-versa, doesn’t apply in cases of domestic violence or death of a child.

>> RELATED: 'I’ve killed our child,' dad screams over tiny body

“She needs to make a deal before the state finds more evidence against her,” Panitch said.

So far, Leanna Harris has remained loyal to her husband of seven years. At Cooper’s funeral, she said she holds no anger toward her husband.

“Ross is and was a wonderful father,” she said. As Ross Harris listened from jail on speaker phone, his wife told him, “I love you and I’m doing this for you.”

It’s unclear whether Leanna Harris knew then of her spouse’s “sexting” habits, first disclosed publicly during Thursday’s hearing. Friends and family shielded her from reporters as she left the courtroom and insist she’s a woman of strong faith who treasured her role as wife and mother. Ross Harris’ half-brother, Randy Michael Baygents, a police officer for nearly two decades, said Thursday had Ross Harris been released on bond he would have returned home.

“What you saw here is what is truly in her,” the Harris’ pastor, David Eldridge, said at Cooper’s funeral. “There is an example here for all of us on how to deal with things.”

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Her eulogy was part memorial, part confessional.

“Some of you might wonder how I’m standing here today and I ask myself the same question,” Leanna Harris said. “I should be crumpled into a pile of tears and snot on the ground. (The Lord) is standing behind me, holding me up.”

She spoke of her difficulties getting pregnant and her awkward teen years.

“Junior high and senior high — they weren’t the happiest times (for me),” she said, listing heartbreaks her son would be spared. “He won’t have to suffer through the death of his (grandparents). He won’t have to suffer through the death of me and Ross.”

In his closing prayer, Eldridge said, “I’m not sure there’s a better testimony to who You are or what You do than Leanna.”

Deported Fairfield mother from Mexico wins appeals ruling

Published: Wednesday, January 17, 2018 @ 6:11 PM


            Maribel Trujillo Diaz, a mother of four from Fairfield, was deported back to Mexico on Wednesday, April 19. Trujillo had been in the U.S. illegally since 2002. PROVIDED
Maribel Trujillo Diaz, a mother of four from Fairfield, was deported back to Mexico on Wednesday, April 19. Trujillo had been in the U.S. illegally since 2002. PROVIDED

A Mexican mother of four once living in Fairfield who was deported nine months ago won an appeal on Wednesday , a decision indicating the immigration court that sent her back to Mexico “abused its discretion” and must reconsider her case.

A three-judge panel from the Sixth U.S. Court of Appeals found that the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that Maribel Trujillo Diaz failed to demonstrate a case for asylum under the Immigration and Nationality Act “because she failed to show that she would be singled out individually for persecution based on her family membership.”

That immigration appeals court must now reconsider the matter, obeying the Sixth Circuit’s guidance.

RELATED: Maribel’s case: What options do immigrants have to become legal?

The decision is by no means a complete victory meaning she can return to the country, according to one of her lawyers, Kathleen Kersh. It does mean there will be more hearings, and the possibility of a return — if not permanently, perhaps while the legal battles continue. Her family continues to live here.

“They found that the BIA had abused its discretion when it did not sufficiently consider the evidence that we gave in support of our motion to reopen Maribel’s asylum case,” Kersh said.

Trujillo and her supporters had argued she originally fled Mexico because drug cartels targeted her family.

Kersh told this media outlet in April that Trujillo’s asylum request was made after her brother was kidnapped and threatened by a cartel in Mexico, but she had lost that case.

FIRST REPORT: Mexican woman with work permit detained by ICE near her Fairfield home

Kersh in April — before the BIA’s ruling — said Trujillo’s father had more recently been kidnapped, which Kersh felt made her asylum case “much stronger.”

“We have recently found some information out from her father that her father had been kidnapped, so there are new facts that came to light in the asylum case that really change things — it makes it much stronger,” she said in April.

When told about Wednesday’s decision, Trujillo was “really happy and excited,” Kersh said.

“She is living in fear every day, and I think she feels vindicated in a way, that somebody is finally recognizing that, and she has really good reasons for her fear of living in Mexico, because of some of the dangers that her family specifically faces,” Kersh said.

“This is indeed good news, but far from a victory,” said the Rev. Father Pucke, who was her pastor at St. Julie Billiart Church, which advocated for her to stay, as did the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

It still is possible her evidence will be considered but that she will be denied the ability to return to this country.

She was deported April 19 back to Mexico.

Woman accused of killing father, encasing body in concrete for weeks

Published: Wednesday, January 17, 2018 @ 5:20 PM

Dayna Jennings, left, is accused of killing her 69-year-old father, William Mussack, encasing his body in concrete and stashing it in the crawl space of his Federal Heights, Colorado, home. Mussack's remains were discovered Jan. 10, 2018, about five weeks after he was last seen or heard from.
Adams County Jail/Federal Heights Police Department
Dayna Jennings, left, is accused of killing her 69-year-old father, William Mussack, encasing his body in concrete and stashing it in the crawl space of his Federal Heights, Colorado, home. Mussack's remains were discovered Jan. 10, 2018, about five weeks after he was last seen or heard from.(Adams County Jail/Federal Heights Police Department)

In William Mussack’s final text conversation with his son on Dec. 7, the Colorado man relayed a chilling fear: he believed his daughter may have poisoned his food. 

“William described the feeling of being drugged and falling asleep in a recliner chair for 15 hours,” an arrest affidavit obtained by KDVR in Denver read. “He recalled taking a bite from a hamburger, and the hamburger was still on the end table with one bite taken out of it when he awoke.”

Mussack, 69, told his son, Brian Mussack, that his daughter, Dayna Michele Jennings, gave him the hamburger. The day after that discussion, William Mussack vanished. 

Five weeks later, Mussack’s body was found encased in concrete in the crawl space of his Federal Heights home. Jennings, 44, is charged with first-degree murder with extreme indifference and is being held without bond in the Adams County Jail.

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The investigation into Mussack’s disappearance began on Dec. 28, when his brother, Robert Mussack, called the Federal Heights Police Department to request that officers do a welfare check on his brother, whom he had not heard from in several weeks, the affidavit read. It ended in investigators’ grisly discovery on Jan. 10.

Jennings, who was being questioned at the Police Department while a search warrant was executed at her father’s house, admitted to detectives that she poured concrete in the crawl space of the home. Her admissions and cooperation would soon end, however. 

“When Dayna was confronted with the information that investigators on scene were breaking up the concrete in the crawl space, she stated that she wished to speak with a lawyer,” the affidavit read. “At this time, the interview was ended.”

Robert Mussack and other family members and friends told detectives that it was not like William Mussack to go days or weeks without speaking to his loved ones. The last time any of them heard from him was Dec. 8, the day after he told his son about the suspicious hamburger. 

When an officer went to Mussack’s home to check on him on Dec. 28, Jennings told them her father no longer lived there and that she, too, had not seen him in several weeks.

Nothing at the home seemed amiss, so the officer left.

The following day, an officer once again went to the home after speaking to both Robert and Brian Mussack. Brian Mussack told investigators that, prior to that final Dec. 7 text conversation, he ordinarily heard from his father daily.

The concerned son told police officers he believed his sister knew where their father was, but was not telling anyone, according to the affidavit. Family members and William Mussack’s girlfriend all told investigators that the lack of communication was out of character for him, and that he always kept his cellphone with him.

Jennings claimed her father had forgotten his cellphone at the house before leaving on a mountain trip with his girlfriend. The girlfriend told police officers, however, that she last heard from Mussack on Dec. 8, when he agreed to go to a Christmas party with her the following day. 

Despite telling her to RSVP for him, he failed to show up at the party and she was never able to reach him again, the court document read. 

When the officer went inside Mussack’s house on the second visit, on Dec. 29, he noticed a bad smell he described as the smell of “sewage and something rotting,” the affidavit said. When Jennings allowed him to look around, the officer noticed that Mussack’s bed, located in the basement, was covered in women’s clothing and looked as though it hadn’t been used in weeks.

The officer paid a third visit to the home on Dec. 30, at which time Jennings refused to allow him inside. 

Family members received text messages from Mussack’s phone after police began searching for him, but investigators trying to locate the phone through the missing man’s cell service said the phone “pinged” from the area of his home -- even after his daughter claimed he’d stopped by, picked up the phone and some money and left again. 

Brian Mussack also told police officers that his sister sent him text messages claiming that that their father had been abusive toward her and that he couldn’t afford to make his house payment. Family and friends said Mussack was a mild-mannered man who was very frugal and had plenty of money set aside for his retirement.

Despite Jennings’ claims that her father no longer lived there, the house remained in William Mussack’s name, the affidavit said. Three vehicles registered to Mussack were in the driveway.

When a concerned friend texted Jennings on Jan. 5 asking about her father, Jennings responded that her father was in Arizona, “enjoying the sun,” the document said. Mussack’s family said he did not know anyone in Arizona. 

Further investigation showed that someone had been using Mussack’s bank account after he disappeared. Several items were purchased for Jennings from Amazon and a $500 check written to her was cashed on Dec. 29. 

A Wells Fargo branch manager told police that the signature on the check did not match Mussack’s signature, which the bank had on file. 

Jennings’ first husband, Joel Jennings, told police that his ex-wife “adored” her father, but that he believed she might have killed Mussack because it was not like his former father-in-law to disappear and not contact his family, the affidavit read. He described Dayna Jennings as “impulsive and irrational at times” and said her relationships with family members and friends were “intense and unstable.”

Joel Jennings also said that, during a visit to the house on Dec. 31, he saw flooring and carpet that his ex-wife had apparently pulled up and disposed of. Investigators learned that she ordered multiple dumpsters that were delivered to the home and parked out front for several days in December.  

Jennings told investigators that his ex-wife’s massage business, her sole source of income, folded in November. On her business website, The Good Massage, Dayna Jennings wrote on Dec. 1 that she was taking personal leave for a few months “to tend to family and personal needs.”

Joel Jennings told detectives that Dayna Jennings’ second husband, Chris Newton, also moved out of the Mussack home, where they were living together, in November.  Newton reportedly remarried Dec. 9, the day after Mussack was last heard from, the affidavit said

Driver backs up Cadillac Escalade into Florida lake

Published: Wednesday, January 17, 2018 @ 9:22 AM

Cadillac Escalade Gets Backed Up Into Florida Lake By Driver

A driver sank a Cadillac Escalade Tuesday while backing up his boat into Lake Weir, the Marion County Sheriff's Office said.

The man, whose identity wasn't released, was reversing his SUV on a boat ramp at the Carney Island Recreation and Conservation Area when he was unable to put the vehicle back in park, deputies said.

>> Read more trending news 

The vehicle followed the boat into the lake, well past a pair of signs that bear an arrow and the words "caution end of ramp."

The driver escaped the vehicle and was uninjured.

Divers with the Sheriff's Office helped a tow truck driver retrieve the SUV from the water.

Click here for boating safety tips from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Doctor arrested for showing up for surgery inebriated, police say

Published: Wednesday, January 17, 2018 @ 2:49 PM

Kentucky Surgeon Arrested For Arriving To Work Drunk

A plastic surgeon showed up for surgery Monday while intoxicated and was arrested, according to police. 

>> Read more trending news

Dr. Theodore Gerstle was confronted by the chief medical officer at Baptist Health Lexington and then left the hospital on foot, according to WKYT

Police were then called and took Gerstle into custody. Gerstle was charged with public intoxication.

“Patient safety is always our number one concern,” Ruth Ann Childers, hopsital spokeswoman, told WKYT. “This will be thoroughly investigated.”