Only two people truly know who inflicted fatal injuries on Kyran Gaston-Voss a year ago, and they know it beyond any doubt.
One of them, Kyran's mother, has always maintained her innocence. The other, the mother's ex-lover, changed his story dramatically in the days after eighteen-month-old Kyran was airlifted from the San Luis Valley to Children's Hospital in Denver, suffering from a severe head injury. Patrick Ramirez III, boyfriend turned babysitter, first claimed that the baby was hurt accidentally while in his care but revised his account considerably after being arrested and charged with child abuse ("The Death of Innocence," July 31, 2003).
Two weeks ago, Ramirez appeared in an Alamosa courtroom as the principal accuser of Kyran's mother, Krystal Voss. For the first time under oath, he repeated the tale of duplicity and betrayal that shifted the focus of the police investigation from him to Voss, who now faces trial for first-degree murder in the death of her child. But key details of the story offered by Ramirez, who cut a plea deal with prosecutors in exchange for his testimony, keep changing.
Voss and Ramirez took Kyran to an Alamosa emergency room last January 31. Voss told doctors that she'd left her child with Ramirez, a friend visiting from Denver, while she went to work at a local health-food store; Ramirez later summoned her home, telling her that Kyran had fallen off his shoulders and hit his head.
Ramirez told essentially the same story to Alamosa County Sheriff's Office investigator Harry Alejo that evening. But Kyran's injuries didn't match up with the account of a fall; he had multiple bruises on his chest and abdomen and a subdural hematoma, often found in cases of shaken babies. In a second interview with Alejo, Ramirez modified his story to suggest he'd possibly injured Kyran while trying to revive him.
After his arrest, Ramirez had a third interview with Alejo. This time he claimed that the baby had already been hurt when he arrived in Alamosa, that Voss had admitted "losing her cool" and shaking him. She'd persuaded him to call her at work, he says, and concoct the story of an accidental fall.
Shortly before that third interview, Alejo had obtained a written statement from Voss, admitting that she'd become frustrated with a fussy Kyran the night before Ramirez arrived and had shaken him briefly, "probably more violently than I meant to," before asking her husband, Damien Gaston, to help put the baby to bed. Armed with that statement and Ramirez's latest account, Alejo arrested Voss and charged her with felony child abuse.
The charge was raised to murder a few weeks later, after Kyran died in foster care of complications from his head injury, which had left him brain-damaged and sightless. The medical examiner who performed the autopsy concluded that the boy had been "struck by a blunt object or hurled against a blunt object."
Voss has denied causing Kyran's injuries and has denounced Ramirez's account of cooking up a story together as a complete fabrication. The case against her has several problems. Chief among them: The shaking Voss described as occurring the night before couldn't have caused the massive injuries Kyran suffered. Both the baby's father and grandfather say the child seemed to be behaving normally hours after Voss supposedly shook him, yet child-abuse experts agree that the symptoms of Kyran's severe brain injury would have been immediate and alarming.
"He couldn't have acted normally after these injuries occurred," said Dr. Kathryn Wells, a Children's Hospital physician who was called as a prosecution witness at Voss's preliminary hearing. "He would have been quite ill.... Whoever caused the injury was with the child when he became significantly abnormal."
On the stand, Ramirez tried to explain the discrepancy by suggesting that Voss had admitted injuring Kyran shortly before he arrived at her house at noon. But his prior taped statement to Alejo was much less precise on the time of the injuries.
On other points, Ramirez was less confident than he had been in his previous statements. Masticating gum or a lozenge and speaking in a faint voice, he was somewhat hazy about how much time passed while he and Voss discussed the story he would tell about Kyran's fall, as well as how much time elapsed before he called Voss at work to summon her home. He recalled undressing Kyran and splashing water on him in an attempt to revive him but not what clothes he was wearing. He recalled seeing a "huge" bruise on the boy's abdomen -- "It would have caught anyone's eye," he insisted -- but couldn't say what color it was.
He was more expansive concerning his deep, albeit complicated, feelings toward Voss. The two had carried on a brief love affair, with her husband's permission, but the sexual relationship had ended a few weeks before Kyran was hurt.
"It was a pretty unique relationship," he testified. "I still have feelings for her, despite the fact I've been manipulated by her. I don't turn love on and off with a switch. I have a bond with her."
He agreed to lie about Kyran falling because he wanted to protect Voss, he said. He later decided to tell the truth because he found out how badly injured Kyran was and didn't want Voss, "a person who can manipulate with the best of them," to get away with murder.
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Yes, testifying against Voss was part of the deal he made with the district attorney, which involved pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of reckless endangerment and a minor felony -- tampering with evidence -- that carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison. But he felt it was his duty. "My life is most definitely ruined because of this," he said. "I felt I made a mistake and I would face it."
Voss attorney Ernest Marquez made no attempt to challenge Ramirez's testimony or impeach his credibility. He seemed chiefly interested in getting as much of it on the record as possible, with all its simmering contradictions. The standard of proof at a preliminary hearing is quite modest; as Alamosa County Court Judge Martin Gonzales noted at the end of the day, he was obliged to view the evidence in a light most favorable to the prosecution. He quickly bound the case over for trial.
No date has been set for Voss's trial, and the process may be a long one. Recently, the Colorado Supreme Court threw out a Pueblo man's statement in which he admitted shaking his baby daughter because of the circumstances under which the statement was obtained; Alejo's interview of Voss, which wasn't taped and didn't include any advisement of her rights, was conducted under eerily similar circumstances. If Marquez is successful in having her statement thrown out, then much of the case boils down to whom a jury will believe: Voss or Ramirez, the mother or the man with the shifting story.
Ramirez is scheduled to be sentenced on Monday, January 5. That same day, Voss will be back in court to enter a plea of not guilty.