part 2 of 2
Kyle Schoepflin appeared healthy when his mother carried him off the plane at Stapleton International Airport, says Dell Lofton, a National Jewish employee dispatched to escort the pair to the hospital. "She [Teresa Schoepflin] said the boy had been sick on the airplane, but he looked normal to me," adds Lofton. "He looked fine."
Lofton left the pair for a moment to phone for a hospital van to meet them. When she returned, Lofton says, Kyle was having difficulty breathing and Teresa was giving him "a treatment" with a "compressed-air machine. She said he'd thrown up. She said, `I know he's bad, but I didn't know we'd be going in with a big bang.'"
The incident at the airport would provide the basis for the first of 38 charges brought against Schoepflin months later by Denver prosecutor Katie O'Brien. According to O'Brien's criminal complaint, the alleged acts of child abuse then piled up with dizzying speed. The next life-threatening event occurred January 10. Then January 13. Two on January 14. And more on each of the next four days.
Dr. Leland Fan, chief of clinical pediatric pulmonary services for National Jewish, later told police that Kyle inhaled liquids into his lungs on numerous occasions. On January 20 Kyle inhaled bath water during what the doctor described as a "near-drowning event"; Teresa had been giving her son a bath in his room at the time. On January 25, the doctor told investigators, Kyle inhaled fluid while his mother was giving him a bottle. On January 28 he inhaled Dr Pepper.
"In every instance," Denver police detective Mark Allen noted in an arrest warrant affidavit dated March 11, "the mother gave the feeding or bath and there were no other witnesses to these events. Each episode resulted in severe respiratory distress and cyanosis (turning blue)."
Initially, however, doctors were not suspicious of Teresa. They went about treating the child as if he had a severe case of asthma.
Then, on January 29, someone apparently cut a catheter that had been hooked to Kyle. "The mother had been very angry over a tapering of his steroids and predicted that he would pull out his line," Allen wrote in the arrest warrant affidavit. "A little while later it was found severed. The mother was alone with the patient at the time and there were no other witnesses to the event."
One of Kyle's most serious attacks occurred on January 30, the boy's second birthday. Fan testified at a preliminary hearing that Teresa had been allowed to put Kyle in a stroller and take him on a walk through the hospital. When the two returned from the walk, Fan said, Kyle was limp and grunting. His skin was blue. The boy was rushed to Children's Hospital and placed in the intensive care unit.
It was at Children's that a pediatric nurse (who asks not to be identified) began tending to the boy. "I cared for him a couple times when he was in ICU," she says. "Then he went to 2-Northwest (an open ward for children who are not in need of intensive care supervision), and I was assigned to him."
Teresa Schoepflin, says the nurse, was "a very angry woman." She argued with the doctors and angered many of the nurses. "Her moods would switch fairly quickly. Most of the time she was pissed off. She would just be very angry.
"The thing is," the nurse continues, "I had a different relationship with her, in that she tended not to get so angry with me. She reminded me of a not-very-sophisticated country lady. That's kind of my background to some extent, so I had some empathy for her. I would sit down and listen to her, even though I suspected this woman might be doing something to her child. By the time she got to 2-Northwest," the nurse says, "things were pretty suspicious, and we were being rather suspicious of her."
Kyle had done fairly well when he was in the ICU, the nurse says, noting that even though Teresa was at his bedside much of the time, "people were around all the time, and the incidents [of respiratory distress] were minimal. The problems came at 2-Northwest, where the moms are allowed to sleep in and take the kids into the hallway unsupervised."
On February 3, Kyle inhaled Jell-O while being fed by his mother. On February 4 he had an attack after she gave him some peach nectar. The incident was especially troubling, says the pediatric nurse, because the boy was scheduled for surgery February 5. Doctors thought Kyle might have a swallowing problem, and planned to insert a feeding tube into his stomach.
In the 24-hour period leading to the surgery, the nurse says, Kyle was to be fed things only with the consistency of yogurt; doctors, who were "trying to rule anything out" in their efforts to diagnose his problems, believed he might regurgitate and inhale anything thinner. The nurse says that she brought Kyle a breakfast tray containing some peach nectar and some gelatin and that she told Teresa to mix the gelatin with the nectar to thicken it to the desired consistency.
"I got him settled in for breakfast," the nurse recalls, "and she immediately pulled all the curtains around his bed. I couldn't see them. So I'm taking care of the kid next door, and all of a sudden, I hear an incredible amount of coughing, choking and gagging coming from Kyle's bed. I couldn't put my child down, so I called out for someone to come check on Kyle.
"The surgeon came in, the one who was to do the surgery the next day, and he said, `What's going on?' And I said, `Come over here right now, because I'm not taking any guff for this mom's misbehavior.' I said, `I told her a hundred times that nectar needed to be thickened.'"
Teresa and the nurse have differing recollections of the incident, but they agree that the doctor then read Teresa the riot act. He warned Teresa that if she gave Kyle anything else to eat or drink, he'd have to postpone the surgery. "And he yelled and said if I gave [Kyle] anything else, I would kill him," Teresa says.
Despite that warning, maintains the nurse, Teresa was "adamant" that Kyle be fed, insisting that it was important to his physical and psychological well-being. "She just wasn't going to give up on the fact that he couldn't eat. Finally, I said to her, `Do you want your baby to die?' I said it right to her face." Teresa says she doesn't remember the nurse saying that.
When the doctor left Kyle's bedside, the nurse says, Teresa renewed her pleas to have her son moved to a private room. Doctors had ignored Teresa's earlier requests for a private room, says the nurse, because of their suspicions that she might be harming the child.
Teresa, though, says she had no ulterior motives for wanting her son moved. She asked for the private room, she claims, so that her son wouldn't have to watch attendants carrying trays of food intended for other children on the open ward. "Kyle wasn't allowed to eat," she says, "and he would get upset when someone would walk by with a tray of food for another child. He'd point at it and whimper. Making him watch that was child abuse."
Shortly afterward, the hospital transferred the boy to a private room.
Kyle had his scheduled surgery and seemed to improve, says the nurse. But his condition again deteriorated, and after suffering two respiratory attacks February 8, he was put on a ventilator for the next ten days.
It was during that period, Teresa says now, that doctors from Children's and National Jewish met in a joint "care conference" to discuss Kyle's case. "There were 22 different doctors there," she says, adding that Fan told her about the conference the day he had her removed from the hospital. "All of them had something to do with Kyle's care. They scheduled the conference because I was concerned about where they were going with his care and what the next steps would be."
It was at that meeting, Teresa claims, that "the doctors from National Jewish brought up Munchausen's. I heard it was evenly divided. The National Jewish doctors thought I did it. The doctors from Children's didn't think I did." (Prosecutor O'Brien says she can't discuss the meeting or any other aspects of the case.)
No severe respiratory events were listed on Kyle's medical charts during the ten days he was using the ventilator. Teresa says she believed that her son was finally getting better. But the attacks started up again February 23, five days after Kyle was taken off the ventilator. Another occurred February 24, the day Kyle was transferred back to National Jewish. More respiratory flareups (all of which Teresa would later be accused of inducing) occurred on the 25th, 26th, 27th and 28th.
Teresa Schoepflin has many complaints about her son's treatment at National Jewish and Children's, but she seems most aggravated by what she describes as inconsistent care. "The doctors rotated every few weeks," she says. "He'd have one [doctor] for three or four weeks, and then he'd get a different one and we'd go back over everything again. One would decide he'd need a new drug, and then he'd rotate out. Then a new doctor would come in, he'd decide that Kyle didn't need that medicine and he'd discontinue it.
"At Children's, they said he had the worst asthma they'd ever seen. National Jewish said they didn't think he had asthma. Then some doctors at Children's said his problem was that he was [regurgitating] and aspirating liquids. There was this constant back-and-forth drift."
By the time Kyle returned to National Jewish, says Teresa, she'd had more than her fill of Denver and its doctors and hospitals. She'd been living in the Ronald McDonald House, a "hotel" for parents with sick children located a few blocks from Children's Hospital, and she was lonely and depressed. She says she desperately missed her husband and her other two sons. She wanted to take her boy and go home, even if it meant transferring him to a hospital in Oklahoma.
She never got the chance. When Kyle was sent from Children's back to National Jewish, Teresa says, her son's case was assigned to Dr. Leland Fan. Hospital officials will not say when or why Fan took over the case. Fan, who is slated to be the key witness against Teresa at her criminal trial, declines to comment.
According to Teresa, she and Fan butted heads almost from the moment they met. During a meeting with the doctor on March 1, she says, "I told him I wanted my son moved back to Oklahoma. I said we'd been away too long." She also told Fan that she didn't think that he and the other doctors were doing anything to help Kyle. "And he said, `You're not moving him, we're not transferring him. End of discussion.'"
When she arrived at the hospital the next day, Teresa recalls, Fan asked to meet with her in his office. "He said, `We turned you in on suspicion of child abuse,'" Teresa says. "He said, `The police will be here in ten minutes; is there anything you want to say?' I said `no.' What was I supposed to say? I was devastated. Then the police came and took this little report thing and I was escorted out of the hospital."
Teresa phoned home as soon as she returned to the Ronald McDonald House. Within hours, a frantic Dale, accompanied by Letha Donaldson, was on his way to Denver. Dale, who requested an emergency leave from his job, wound up staying for two months.
"When we got there," Donaldson says, "Kyle was hooked up to all these wires. He was being fed through his veins. I told him, `You got more wire on you than your Grandpa's old pickup.'"
Donaldson claims that nurses watched her every move when she was with her grandson. "They got to where they didn't want me to hold him too much," she says. "He likes to ride in his stroller, and the first day, they let me take him out in the hallway and walk him back and forth. The second day, they barred me from that. I guess they were afraid I'd roll him out to the car and let his mother see him."
Dale says that hospital personnel also treated him with suspicion. "They limited my visits because they said it would interfere with the nurses' duties. They needed an extra one just to watch me. Guilt by association, I guess."
Doctors targeted him because he doesn't believe their accusations, Dale claims. "Dr. Fan tried to explain to me why he thought Teresa did it," he says. "He was either trying to convince me or himself. He said he wasn't accusing her out of a vengeful act. He also tried to explain the symptoms of this so-called disease he said Teresa had.
"I told him, `You don't know how wrong you are.' I told him that I'd seen Kyle have problems numerous times when Teresa was at work."
Dale's claims apparently weren't given much credence by Fan--or by Denver police, who arrested Teresa on March 11 after asking her to come to the police station for an interview. She was freed a day later after her parents posted her $25,000 bail.
O'Brien says she believes Schoepflin is the first person to face trial on child-abuse charges in Colorado in a case where Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy is central to the prosecution's case. It is not, however, the first case seen in the state. In fact, according to Dr. Carole Jenny, who heads up the children's advocacy and protection team at Children's Hospital, there have been six suspected cases in the past year at that hospital alone. Although Jenny says the hospital "always involves police when we suspect child abuse," getting enough evidence to make a criminal case is often beyond the capabilities of investigators.
"These case are very difficult," says Denver police sergeant Robert Padilla, who oversees the department's family crisis unit. "The case has to be detected and diagnosed by the doctors treating the child. The victims usually can't talk, and we have to rely on the doctor and on the hospital staff to take down each episode of suspected abuse and break it down. Without a statement from the suspect--or a confession--we pretty much have to rely on the doctor's testimony. It all hinges on the doctor taking each episode and charting it out why he suspects abuse."
Padilla says Denver police have investigated "several suspected cases of Munchausen" in the past couple of years. "We had one mother they suspected had put some substance, urine or saliva, in her child's IV tube," he says. "But the lab tests didn't say for sure. And a lot of times," he adds, "we can't get the doctors to commit to a diagnosis."
Police didn't have that problem in the Schoepflin case. Dr. Fan, says Padilla, "put a lot of work into it. He took each one of the episodes aside and analyzed them. He talked to some of the nurses involved. It was Dr. Fan who put the case together. And he was willing to go to court to testify to it."
Fan's testimony was enough to convince a judge to bind Teresa Schoepflin over for trial last April. The doctor also testified at a May custody hearing before a juvenile court magistrate; the magistrate ruled that Kyle be placed in a foster home after his release from the hospital later that month. A dependency-and-neglect hearing for Kyle Schoepflin will be held late next month in Denver Juvenile Court to determine whether he should remain in foster care for the time being.
Teresa Schoepflin's criminal trial is scheduled for October 31--and her Aurora attorney, Dave Berrett, appears confident that he'll prevail in court. The evidence against his client is purely circumstantial, he says, and the state's case is "a crock of horse manure."
In the arrest warrant affidavit, Detective Allen quoted Dr. Fan as saying that after police removed Teresa from the hospital, Kyle's "unexplained and catastrophic episodes" ceased. But according to Berrett and the Schoepflins, her case is awash in reasonable doubt. If Teresa was causing Kyle to be ill, the Schoepflins ask, why must he still be fed through a stomach tube today? Why was Kyle kept in the hospital for two months after Teresa's arrest? And why, they ask, has their son has been admitted to the emergency room at least twice since being placed in foster care (a claim they back up by providing copies of bills to the family's insurance carrier).
At the preliminary hearing, however, Dr. Fan provided testimony that may allow the state to account for the boy's continued medical problems. Teresa's alleged abuse, the doctor said in April, may have permanently damaged Kyle's formerly healthy lungs. The doctor added that the medications prescribed to Kyle might place him at risk for developing diabetes and high blood pressure.
The prosecution may also get a boost from Kyle's former pediatrician, Stillwater's Dr. Bullard. She told detectives that, after learning of the accusations against Teresa and "looking back on all of it, it all seems to fit."
The Schoepflins say that Kyle and their other two children are suffering greatly from the separation. Both Brian and Tye, Teresa says, have nightmares about being taken away by strangers while their parents look on, unable to help. Tye was so affected by their visit to see Kyle in June, Teresa says, that he begged to stay in Oklahoma during the most recent trip to Denver.
The visits with Kyle are heartrending for the whole family, Teresa says. Last week, during their most recent visit, they were allowed to take Kyle to the Children's Museum and to City Park. Each time the boy saw his parents, he ran to them with open arms.
Teresa Schoepflin still breaks down and cries when she talks about her son. "I remember once when Kyle was in Children's Hospital and he was having trouble breathing," she says. "He was gasping for air. Between breaths, he said, `Mama, help.' And the nurses pushed me out of the room and put him on the ventilator. I have that memory of my boy asking me to help him, and now they come back at me and accuse me of doing something to him. I just don't understand why they're doing this to me."
end of part 2
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.