The Death of Innocence
An accident. A terrible accident.
That was the first story told about how Kyran Gaston-Voss got hurt. The baby fell. The baby hit his head. It was an accident.
That's the way it always starts, of course. The baby fell, the baby tripped, the baby leaped out of my arms -- these things happen. It's always an accident, because no one ever, ever means to hurt a child.
Sometimes, though, the story changes. The terrible accident turns out to be something else, something cruel and grotesque. And sometimes the story gets so twisted, so complex and improbable, that the truth -- the simple, bloody truth of how a child was fatally injured and who was responsible -- gets lost in a tangle of lies and missteps, shabby police work and a rush to judgment.
Kyran's death is that kind of story.
The call comes into the Alamosa Sheriff's Office on the last day of January. Kyran Gaston-Voss, male, seventeen months old, admitted to San Luis Valley Regional Medical Center with severe head injury. Brought in private vehicle by mother, Krystal Voss, and male friend. Possible child abuse, possible county case.
Sergeant Harry Alejo catches the call. An ex-Marine, Alejo has fourteen years in law enforcement, all of it in Alamosa. He's the department's top investigator -- in fact, he's its only full-time investigator. His beat stretches from sexual assaults to dope to homicide to internal affairs. What he finds at the hospital this Friday afternoon is enough confusion and suspicious behavior to occupy an army of detectives.
The child is in critical condition. Krystal Voss is fielding calls on a cell phone. She's been joined by her husband, Damien Gaston, but the man who was with her when she brought her son in, somebody named Pat, is nowhere to be found.
Alejo asks Voss to tell him what happened. She says that earlier that afternoon she left Kyran in the care of Patrick Ramirez, a family friend, while she went to work at a local health-food store. Around 2 p.m. she got a phone call from Ramirez, telling her to come home because something was wrong with Kyran. She found the baby limp and unresponsive, one eye dilated. On the way to the emergency room Ramirez explained that they'd been playing outside; Kyran had fallen off his shoulders.
He fell as he tried to grab Kyran, Ramirez told her. He may have landed on top of the boy, or Kyran might have hit his head on the ground. In any case, Kyran started hollering, then seemed dizzy. Ramirez carried him into the house and tried to revive him, but Kyran was fading and unable to stand. So Ramirez called Voss.
Alejo wants to talk to Ramirez. But Voss sent him back to her house to turn off a Crock-Pot and lock up, because it looks like they're going to fly the baby by helicopter to the intensive care unit at Children's Hospital in Denver, 230 miles away.
Alejo asks Gaston, the baby's father, to go with him to the house, a double-wide trailer on isolated property north of town. Ramirez isn't there. They head back to the hospital and find Voss on the phone with Ramirez, who is many miles away now, on the highway to Denver. She's telling him everything is going to be all right. Alejo takes the phone.
He tells Ramirez he needs to come back to Alamosa. Ramirez is yelling and crying. He isn't sure where he is, he says, or what's going to happen to him. He wants to go to Children's Hospital. Alejo persuades him to turn around and meet him at a convenience store on the way into town.
While Alejo heads off to question Ramirez, a victim's advocate from the sheriff's office stays close to the parents. Gaston seems to be in shock, she notes, uncertain what to say or do. Voss is tired and withdrawn but strangely calm -- not angry or hysterical. She doesn't embrace Gaston. She takes several calls from Ramirez, telling him over and over he did nothing wrong, he would never hurt anyone. She urges him to return to Alamosa. "I love you," she tells him.
Neither parent asks to see Kyran the entire time the advocate is with them.
Maybe they want to keep out of the doctors' way. Maybe they're too busy making preparations to rush to Denver. Maybe Voss doesn't hug her husband because he came in covered in grime and grease from his job, working on irrigation pumps and sprinklers. Maybe she's cooing to Ramirez on the phone to calm him down and get him to come back.
An hour after their phone conversation, Alejo meets up with Ramirez at the convenience store. Ramirez appears to have regained his composure, but he is not, by any stretch, your typical baby-sitter: He's 33 years old, with a wife and two daughters of his own in Denver.
During the drive into town, he tells Alejo his father has some land near San Luis and that he met Gaston and Voss at a party a few months before. He's made the long drive from Denver to see the couple and baby-sit their son several times. He admits having been in trouble with the law in his youth, mostly drinking and fighting. He describes himself as "a full-time student and part-time painter."
At the sheriff's office, Alejo turns on a tape recorder and reads Ramirez his rights.
"It sounds like I'm under arrest," Ramirez says.
"No," Alejo says.
"I guess I watch too much TV. I always thought when they said that, that means...."
"No," Alejo says. "What I'm asking you to do is, Pat, cooperate with me. That sound fair?"
Ramirez says it does and signs the waiver. He tells Alejo that he arrived at Voss's house shortly after noon. He brought a can of Foster's beer with him and drank half of it. The plan was to watch Kyran while Voss worked, then he and Voss were going to drive back to Denver and spend the weekend with his family, leaving Gaston with Kyran. He had come, he says, "mostly to see Krystal...we just get along real well."
Alejo listens impassively. "Would you say -- is she a girlfriend," he asks, "or a mistress, or...?"
His question trails off, as if he's run out of possibilities.
"They kind of have a lifestyle," Ramirez says. "They're not very -- want to be very open about what they do."
"You sleeping with her?"
"I have, but not on a regular basis," Ramirez says. "We're not boyfriend and girlfriend."
"You've had sex together."
"Yes, we've had sex. It was with permission from her husband and my wife."
"You've had a sexual relationship with Krystal," Alejo says again. It's not a question anymore, just a fact.
"I don't think she's wanting me to tell you that."
"Well, that's all right," Alejo says. "She's not here."
After he arrived at the house, Ramirez says, he visited with Voss and Kyran, pinched the boy's cheeks. Then Voss put the boy down for a nap.
"Did you guys then go to bed?" Alejo asks.
Ramirez denies it. The sexual relationship was over.
"I've basically been trying to just develop more of a friendship and kind of back off from the sexual thing," he says, "because it's kind of been, it's not really that great. It's not as exciting as you thought it was from the outside looking in...I think we're going to be better friends than anything else."
After Voss left, Kyran woke up. "He was kind of nervous because he knew his mom wasn't there," Ramirez says. "He wanted me to carry him. I kind of didn't want to, but I thought, okay, I'll put him on my shoulders.... I really like the kid. He's really a sweet kid. Smart, too. You can say something, he can repeat it."
The two were exploring the grounds behind the house when the accident occurred: "I'm not sure if I rolled my ankle, or if I just lost my balance, but he went backwards. I reached back and grabbed him.... That's when I lost my footing... I just couldn't hold onto him... It was almost like I flew back. He landed directly on his head and I landed on him... It really scared me. My elbow hit dead on his side, in his stomach or something, and he let out a squeal."
Ramirez brought Kyran into the house. The boy couldn't stand up. Ramirez panicked. He undressed Kyran, put him in the tub, splashed water on him. He shook him and smacked his face. Nothing helped.
Ramirez feels terrible. He didn't mean to hurt Kyran, he insists. He didn't call 911 because he didn't know the area well enough to give directions to the house. He didn't return to the hospital because he thought he was supposed to go to Denver. He agrees to take a polygraph.
Alejo is far from satisfied. And over the next five days, while Kyran clings to life -- precariously, miraculously, given the devastating damage to his brain -- the investigation takes a bizarre turn. The child's injuries don't match the fall Ramirez recounted. He has bruises on his chest and abdomen, retinal hemorrhages and an acute subdural hematoma -- a bleeding inside the skull that's usually caused by some form of blunt impact or possibly an acceleration injury, in which the head is whipped back and forth. There's no conclusive evidence, such as a skull fracture, of an external blow to the head, but there is more than enough to suspect that Kyran has suffered some form of non-accidental trauma. At least one of the doctors who examines him at Children's Hospital believes he might have been violently shaken.
Armed with that information, Alejo questions Ramirez repeatedly. Although he never takes a polygraph, his story changes, then changes again, into a stunning accusation aimed at Kyran's mother. Alejo also obtains a peculiar written statement from Krystal Voss, in which she admits to having shaken Kyran the night before Ramirez's visit. On February 6, Voss is arrested at Children's Hospital and charged with child abuse.
When Kyran dies in foster care seven weeks later, of causes attributed to the head injury, the charges against Voss are raised to first-degree murder. Ramirez is charged with being an accessory to murder. The prosecution's theory of the case seems to be that Krystal Voss shook her son to within an inch of his life, then concocted the "accident" scenario with her compliant ex-lover in an effort to cover up the crime.
The theory flies in the face of what other witnesses saw and heard, the medical records, the autopsy findings, the physical evidence at the crime scene and what is currently known about the controversial phenomenon known as Shaken Baby Syndrome, or SBS. But such considerations haven't prompted a reevaluation of the case by the Alamosa police or the local prosecutor. Voss's preliminary hearing is scheduled for September.
"We stand by our case," says Alamosa County chief deputy district attorney Mike Gonzales. "That's really all I can say at this point."
Voss maintains her innocence. She says the investigation got off track at the very beginning, when she wasn't behaving the way people expected her to behave at the hospital and Alejo began to draw his own conclusions about why Ramirez wasn't telling him the truth.
"I believe it started with Alejo's opinion of my lifestyle," she says now. "When Patrick told him that he and I had been intimate and that it was okay with my husband, the tone of it all really changed. All of a sudden Alejo decided I was a whore who needed to be punished."
Kyran Gaston-Voss was born in a tub of warm water in Denver on August 3, 2001. From the start, his proud parents and their close friends considered him to be a remarkably happy and good-natured baby.
"He was absolutely perfect," Voss says. "So brilliant. So healthy. Incredibly observant for a newborn. People were like, 'Wow, he's a Buddha baby! He's so mellow!'"
"He was a rather exceptional child," Gaston says. "Very calm, very attentive. He developed very quickly."
"Kyran was one of those kids you meet who change the way you look at the world," says Molly Carmody, a friend of the family. "He never cried when I was around; he'd just sit on your lap and smile. He was a magical child."
His parents had been married for three months. Voss was 27 years old; Gaston was 24. It was his first marriage, her second -- not counting the pagan handfasting ritual she and another man had celebrated in between her two official weddings.
Voss grew up in Wyoming and moved to Denver in her late teens to take art classes. One day, after an herbal tea did wonders for her bronchitis, she decided to pursue a career in nutrition and natural healing; it was her "calling," she told friends. She took courses at Boulder's School of Natural Medicine and received diplomas in several fields, including herbalism, iridology and naturopathy. She met Gaston in 1998, when both of them were working at a Wild Oats store in Aurora and her previous marriage was falling apart.
"I had a horrible crush on him," she says. "But I was his boss, so it was all very platonic for a while."
Gaston shared her passion for natural foods and herbal medicine. They talked about having a family and raising their child out in the country, away from urban toxins, maybe setting up their own wellness center where Voss could teach people about herbs and nutrition and cleansing programs.
Kyran's arrival hurried things along. The following spring, when the baby was eight months old, they moved to Alamosa, with the aim of building a solar-powered, straw-bale home on five acres they'd bought near Blanca, on the edge of the Sangre de Cristo range. Gaston found a job with an irrigation engineering company, while Voss worked at the local organic-food co-op a couple of days a week.
The San Luis Valley has its pockets of New Agers, neo-hippies and granola grannies, mostly in the vicinity of Crestone. But Alamosa is worlds away from Crestone, psychically speaking; it's the valley's center for agriculture and tourism, flanked by large potato farms, the Great Sand Dunes and a string of close-knit, largely Hispanic villages. Gaston and Voss knew few people in the area and didn't have many opportunities to make new friends. "We didn't have a whole lot of community," Gaston says.
At a Labor Day barbecue, a mutual friend introduced them to Patrick Ramirez. Although Ramirez was skeptical about natural medicine, the couple soon discovered they had much in common with him. He, too, was from Denver, from Gaston's old neighborhood near Washington Park. He, too, was interested in building a house in the valley.
"He was taking classes and trying to start his own business," Gaston recalls. "I just got the feeling he was a guy similar to me, a family guy, taking the opportunity to get some education and make more of himself."
They exchanged phone numbers and promised to keep in touch. Ramirez called Voss at home the next day. As Voss remembers the conversation, he was keen on seeing her again.
"He said something like, 'I was kind of tipsy last night. I thought I better stop before I made an ass of myself, but I'm really attracted to you,'" she recalls.
Voss had no doubt that Ramirez was hitting on her. What he didn't know was that Gaston and Voss had an open marriage; they had strong beliefs on the subject, though they weren't exactly eager to share them with strangers.
"I told him that I would need to talk to my husband about it," Voss says, "that I wouldn't cheat and that we had to start out on a friendship basis."
The two began talking on the phone regularly, with Gaston's blessing. Before long, Voss says, Ramirez told her that he and his wife had an open relationship, too.
"He said that at one point she had a partner, and it didn't work out very well," Voss remembers. "He said, 'I don't understand how your husband isn't jealous.' He told me he wanted to show his wife he could bring in another partner and have it be a positive experience."
The subject of sexual jealousy comes up often on the Loving More Web site, which is dedicated to the notion of "growing beyond jealousy and possession in relationships."
In answer to Frequently Asked Question #7 ("What about Jealousy?"), the site explains that if you're in a committed relationship and your loving partner happens to get intimate with someone else -- well, you might feel threatened, maybe even a little pissed off, but don't worry. "Working through this is one of the greatest rewards of multi-partner relating," the text burbles, in much the same cheery tone that your dentist might explain that having a root canal is one of the greatest rewards of multi-tooth decay.
Based in Boulder, Loving More promotes the-more-the-merrier intimacy among consenting adults, also known as polyamory. The organization publishes a magazine, hosts conferences and workshops, and acts as "a national clearinghouse and public forum for the polyamorous movement." That movement's message boils down to this: Monogamy is for hopeless squares, who trudge through life tormented by unrealized desires or skulk about engaging in disastrous acts of adultery and divorce. Truly enlightened beings can learn to explore different kinds of intimacy with multiple partners in an ethical, honest and spiritually satisfying fashion.
"No one person can meet all your needs," declares the Loving More FAQ, which advances the notion that reasonable partners should have a "commitment to love," not each other.
Such abstractions abound on the Loving More site, which is about as sexy as a lecture on Shaker furniture. The group has a horror of swingers, casual sex or sluttiness of any kind, viewing such couplings as the desperate thrashings of benighted hedonists. Still, its high-minded evangelizing has found a receptive audience among people who consider the notion of fidelity to one partner for life (or even just to one at a time) to be burdensome, intolerable or downright hypocritical.
Polyamory appealed to Krystal Voss for several reasons: She'd always been attracted to females as well as males, and her unhappy first marriage, entered into when she was still a teenager, convinced her that she didn't want to limit herself that way ever again. She and her handfasting partner visited the Loving More chat rooms, met like-minded couples and gave jealousy the bum's rush. (Her e-mail name summed up her embrace of the lifestyle: evrykndalv, short for Every Kind of Love.)
When she became involved with Gaston, Voss was clear about her polyness. "We had an agreement that, because of my bisexual nature, we could have an open marriage," she says.
"We had an absolute commitment to each other, but there are different ways to interpret that," Gaston adds. "There are responsibilities you have to your children, and a need for the freedom to seek love wherever you might find it. I've developed my beliefs on tribal cultures. My feeling is, if it's kept discreet and you don't lose track of your responsibilities, you can still have a functioning marriage and family."
Ramirez's interest in Voss was the first practical test of the couple's beliefs. The attraction was mutual and immediate.
"I don't understand it to this day," Voss says now. "I don't know how to describe it except as otherworldly. It seemed like we had a connection. We'd get into each other's philosophies, and he was fun to talk to. It felt like we knew each other before."
She and her husband talked over the possibility of her "getting to know Pat in that way," Voss says, but within certain guidelines. There would be no secret meetings, no sneaking around. Voss wrote a letter to Ramirez's wife, giving her phone number and address. Several get-togethers followed, in Alamosa and Denver. Yet the sexual relationship lasted only a few weeks. (Ramirez declined to comment for this article, referring all questions to his attorney, who also declined to comment.)
"We happened to get intimate three times," Voss says. "All the intimacy ended two months before Kyran got hurt. We decided, 'This really isn't working. We just need to stay friends.'"
Breaking off the sexual relationship was mostly Ramirez's idea, she adds. "But we both agreed that with our responsibilities, the added sexual aspect was just overbearing," she says. "His wife wasn't super-happy with it. I think she thought there was a lot more sex than there was."
There were no hard feelings, apparently, about the decision; in fact, Ramirez still volunteered to baby-sit on occasion. Voss already had an arrangement with a mother and daughter to watch her son while she worked, but she'd seen Ramirez playing with his own daughters and considered him to be a good parent. She was impressed by how he looked after Kyran, too, making sure that he was wearing sunscreen or that his fingernails were clean -- even if he did protest that Voss and Gaston were "spoiling" the boy by being overprotective.
The couple had kept Kyran on a natural diet -- nothing but breast milk for six months, then organic veggies and juices. Ramirez saw himself as a kind of alternative father figure, Voss says, complaining that the toddler should get a taste of McDonald's, encouraging him to walk rather than be carried, to avoid girly hats, to play hard -- to be a little man, rather than a coddled Buddha baby. "I suppose I'm kind of macho around him," Ramirez told Alejo, describing his approach to baby-sitting.
Voss didn't mind Ramirez's influence on her son. But there were many details of Ramirez's past she knew little about. She knew, for example, that he liked a beer now and then, but not that he'd gone on an alcohol-related spree in his early twenties, resulting in theft, criminal-mischief, assault and deadly-weapon charges (baseball bat, butcher knife) incurred in a single 24-hour period in two counties. She knew he occasionally smoked pot -- Ramirez would tell Alejo that he, Gaston and Voss had indulged together -- but not that he'd served time in jail; after bargaining his multiple assault charges down to a couple of misdemeanors, he then failed the conditions of his probation by repeatedly testing positive for marijuana.
She knew he was a Type-A driver, but she didn't know much about how he responded to stress -- or the explosive temper that had led to a tense incident at Children's Hospital a year before she met him. According to the police summons issued to Ramirez, he became "belligerent" with a doctor who was treating his daughter; after security officers were called to remove him, he allegedly hurled a final threat at the physician: "I'm going to come back here and kill you." Ramirez pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace, and the threat charge was dismissed.
In many ways, despite their intimacy, the man who was watching Voss's son was a stranger to her.
Voss got up shortly after 8 a.m. on January 31. Her husband had already left for work. Kyran woke up a few minutes later, Voss says, waited patiently while she finished her shower, and devoured two bananas for breakfast. Twenty-eight pounds and only a few days shy of eighteen months old, he already had a 53-word vocabulary and loved to look at books while sitting in her lap.
Damien's father, Steve Gaston, called the house from Denver around ten that morning and spoke to Voss. He heard Kyran giggling in the background, playing with his toys. Voss told him she was going to Denver that evening with a friend named Pat; Damien was planning to stay in Alamosa with the baby over the weekend.
Ramirez arrived right around noon. At that point, the accounts diverge. Voss's version, which closely resembles what Ramirez initially told police, is that Kyran visited with their guest, and then she put him down for a nap. After he fell asleep, she hung out with Ramirez on the porch before heading off to work. She arrived there a few minutes later than her usual 1:30 p.m. starting time.
She'd been gone from the house scarcely half an hour when she received a phone call from Ramirez. According to Voss, it went something like this:
"Krystal, you need to come home right now. Something's wrong with Kyran."
"Just come home, right now!"
Laura Cranson, the assistant manager of the Valley Food Co-op, was the person who handed her the phone. She confirms that the call was extremely brief. "I knew something was wrong," Cranson says. "I could feel she was becoming agitated."
Voss left immediately, leaving behind her paycheck. If she'd had more information, she says, she would have called an ambulance. But she didn't realize how badly her son was hurt until she got to the house, and at that point she decided it would be faster to take him to the hospital herself, with Ramirez doing the driving.
From the hospital, Voss called her father-in-law to tell him that Kyran was hurt. Steve Gaston tried to call her back around 4 p.m.; he ended up reaching Ramirez, who'd borrowed Voss's cell phone and was on his way to Denver. Ramirez repeated the same story he'd already told Voss about his Chaplinesque fall on top of Kyran.
"He was hysterical, crying and saying, 'I'm so sorry,'" Steve Gaston recalls. "He said he shook him and shook him, trying to revive him. He didn't go into more details. I asked him why he took him outside, where there was all this debris, and he said Kyran wanted to go. It was like he was blaming Kyran; he sounded like a seven-year-old child. That's when I got the impression there was something more he wasn't telling me."
Ramirez told his story over and over the next few days. He told it to Alejo and Damien Gaston. He told it to Damien's mother and her husband after the family began to gather at Children's Hospital.
"He was very apologetic," says Major Marcks, Damien's stepfather. "I told him that we've all made mistakes; I took what he was saying at face value."
Ramirez apologized profusely to Voss, in person and in numerous plaintive phone calls. He vowed to go door-to-door to raise money to help with the hospital bills.
Then the story changed.
On Sunday, February 2, Ramirez returns to Alamosa at Alejo's request for a second interview. Once again, Alejo reads the suspect his rights; once again, Ramirez gives his account of how Kyran fell, with a few crucial added details.
This time around, he admits stopping on the drive down from Denver to smoke marijuana. He remembers that, after the initial fall, Kyran slipped in the tub and hit his head twice while Ramirez was splashing water on him, trying to bring him around.
Alejo finds all of this very interesting, but he also asks Ramirez dozens of questions about Krystal Voss. He explains to Ramirez the possible consequences of being an accessory to a crime and conspiring to obstruct his investigation. The injuries don't match what Ramirez is telling him, he says, and he has his own ideas why that might be the case.
"My theory in all this is that I think that possibly there's more to the story," Alejo says, "as far as you trying to cover for her."
Ramirez denies the accusation. But Alejo presses on. Ramirez concedes that Voss has a temper, although he's never seen it. He recalls that Voss said she didn't get much sleep the night before he arrived because Kyran had been so fussy. She told him she was so mad at Kyran "she could have killed him," he says, but maybe it was "just a figure of speech."
"Do you think possibly that baby was shook the night before?" Alejo asks.
Ramirez hedges. He's never seen Voss shake Kyran, but he has seen bruises on the baby before. He just figured they occurred as the kid was learning to walk. But months ago, he says, when he was teasing Voss about being too nice a person, she told him she wasn't really all that nice; one time she was so upset that she shook Kyran -- hard enough that she scared herself.
After the interview, Alejo puts Ramirez under arrest, charging him with child abuse and reckless endangerment. He then makes arrangements to head up to the hospital in Denver, determined to learn more about what happened to Kyran the night before Ramirez's visit.
Taken in the context of Ramirez's admission that he was the one who had injured Kyran, his statements about Voss's temper don't amount to much. Still, they've planted a seed in the investigation, one that Alejo is interested in cultivating as he learns more about the baby's injuries -- particularly the bruises on his chest and stomach, which one physician described as being "in multiple stages of healing."
But trying to date bruises by their appearance is a horribly inexact science; even bruises that are turning yellow might be no more than eighteen hours old. The reddish-brown and purple bruises that were observed on Kyran in the emergency room could have been contemporaneous with the head injury. According to one physician's notes, the abdominal bruises "became more clear" as the emergency team worked on the boy, indicating that they'd been recently inflicted.
"There's such variability in how long it takes a bruise to heal," says Amy Martin, deputy coroner for the Denver Medical Examiner's Office. "Usually, if there's a lot of yellow or green color to a bruise, you can feel fairly comfortable that it's not fresh; it's probably a day or two old or longer. But getting more precise than that is dangerous. I've seen brownish-red bruises that are acute; you can't say those are older than the purple ones."
Alejo, who also serves as the county's deputy coroner, didn't see any harm in being precise. In a taped conversation with Steve Gaston, he would later claim that yellowish marks observed on Kyran four days after the injury were evidence that the child had been abused before.
"Do you know anything about injuries and how long it takes for injuries to turn different colors?" Alejo asked Gaston. "For [a bruise] to turn yellow, it's been there for over a week."
On Tuesday, February 4, Alejo sits down with Damien Gaston. Gaston acknowledges that Kyran had some bruises a few weeks before after falling down some stairs -- an incident that occurred, curiously enough, while Ramirez was baby-sitting.
But last Thursday night was nothing special, Gaston says. Although Kyran has his own small bed in his parents' bedroom, he frequently wants to be in bed with them; that night he was fussy and gassy, crawling around their bed, but he eventually fell asleep. Both Kyran and Krystal were sleeping peacefully when he left for work the next morning.
Alejo wants to know if Voss has ever shaken the baby. Gaston denies it.
Next, Alejo asks to speak with Voss alone. Unlike in his interviews with Ramirez, he doesn't advise her of her rights or tape-record the session.
Alejo tells her he just wants to check on Ramirez's credibility, but the questions soon begin to focus on what she might have done to Kyran the night before. He writes the words "accident" and "homicide" on a sheet of paper, even though Kyran is still alive.
"I'd hate to see anyone go to prison for homicide when it was really an accident," he says.
Voss says that Kyran was waking up every half hour or so that night, passing gas and wiggling around her head. Her story closely tracks Gaston's, but Alejo tells her he doesn't think she's telling him the truth. His tone becomes increasingly accusatory.
"You shook him, didn't you?" he asks.
Voss admits that she did, although what she describes sounds more like a jiggle. She was frustrated from lack of sleep, she says, so she finally propped herself up on one elbow, sat Kyran up and shook him. Then she put him on the other side of her, sang to him and rubbed his tummy. When he woke up again a little while later, she nudged him over to Damien and finally fell asleep.
Voss can't believe it. She hadn't been forceful at all. She tells him Kyran was fine the next morning -- laughing, playing, eating breakfast. Alejo says that doesn't matter, that it can take hours for the brain to swell. He hovers over a tearful Voss and insists that she write a detailed statement.
"I continued to wake to move him off my head or try to comfort him," she writes. "I later awoke from a little sleep angry at Kyran. I grabbed him out of bed and shook him 2-3 times, and probably more violently than I meant to, then swiftly put Kyran on the other side of me . . .he went back to sleep to awake later. I told Damien . . .I needed help with the baby, that I didn't want to hurt him."
At Alejo's urging, at this point she inserts a damning phrase: "In looking back he'd already been hurt . . .I think I accidentally added to, or began as the case is, the trauma to my son's brain that happened the next day."
Alejo confers with the doctors. He returns with a social services worker, who explains that the state is taking temporary custody of Kyran. Alejo tells Voss the doctors don't think her story explains the massive injuries to the boy. "Didn't you slam him into the wall?" he asks. "Maybe you slammed him into the floor."
Voss denies slamming her child into anything. After nearly two hours, the interview finally lurches to a halt. Exhausted, she heads back to Kyran's room.
Voss says now that she felt like "a prisoner of war" during her interrogation and only wanted to get out of there, back to Kyran. "I explained how it was and showed him over and over what I did," Voss says. "I'd had very little sleep over the past four days at the hospital and hadn't had a solid night's sleep in eighteen months. I was fried, and somehow he convinced me that I could have injured my son."
She didn't see a copy of her statement until weeks later. She was horrified to discover what she'd written, how easily she'd gone along with the notion that she had violently shaken Kyran.
"What I was feeling was, 'Oh, my God, I left my kid there; it's my fault,'" she says. "I was looking for something I might have done, because I felt responsible."
Three nights in the county jail have done wonders for Patrick Ramirez's attitude. When, after obtaining Voss's self-incriminating statement, Alejo sits down with him on February 5 for their third and final interview, Ramirez is eager to cooperate.
He's so eager, in fact, that Alejo appears to be prompting him rather than conducting an inquisition, taking him through a much-polished recitation. The two are chummy now, with Ramirez calling the sergeant "Harry" throughout the taped session; the transformation is so striking that Voss's supporters will later wonder what they discussed before the tape recorder was turned on.
"I'm bringing you out for another interview, Pat," Alejo begins, "because I think you left some things out of what you told me the first time."
"My first statement was not true," Ramirez says. "I didn't do any drugs, and I hadn't been drinking...This whole time, I've been covering up for Krystal."
"Why were you covering for her?"
"When I got there, she was visibly -- I don't know if the word is distraught or shaken or nervous... She said she needed my help... She said she lost her cool, and she might have hurt Kyran. She said she lost her temper and was shaking him; she may have shaken him too hard...
"I asked right away, 'Is he all right?' She says, 'He's fine, he's resting now... When I go to work, I want you to wait a little bit and call me, and then we can take him to the doctor, and we can try to make up a story because I don't want to lose my son.' She kept reassuring me he's okay, he's going to be fine."
"Did you ask why he had to go to the doctor?"
"Of course. She said that she thought his breathing was funny."
Ramirez says he insisted on seeing Kyran. Voss took him to a darkened room where he could dimly make out the boy lying down and hear his "deep, labored breathing." Voss pleaded with him to come up with a story about Kyran falling while he was baby- sitting: "She kept telling me that she loves me so much, and she knows that I will help her, [saying] 'I don't want to lose my baby.' She rambled on for a few minutes, things I didn't really understand."
Even though he already suspected "she had hurt this boy worse than she's telling me," Ramirez says he went along with the plan. After Voss left, he went to check on Kyran and found "he wasn't responding at all." He says he undressed him, saw numerous bruises and splashed water on him in the tub.
"He was limp in my hands," Ramirez says. "I should have rushed to 911, called the police and an ambulance. But I was so afraid that I would be blamed for it. That's when I called her...They got her on the phone, and I said, 'Krystal, what did you do? Get over here now! Oh, my God. Get over here now! What did you do?'... I knew I didn't do anything to that baby, but I thought for sure I would be in big trouble, because I was the only one there, Harry... I knew I was going to get the blame in my guts. I just got sick to my stomach. It took me three days to eat, Harry."
"So everything you told me before was a lie," Alejo says. "This is the truth."
"This is the truth, Harry."
"Anything else you need to tell me?"
Ramirez describes a conversation he had with Voss at Children's Hospital, during which she asked him what he was telling Alejo. He says she told him to meditate in order to beat the polygraph test and sent him to Wild Oats to buy a spray to put on Kyran's skin, something that would "make bruises go away."
Between Voss's statement and Ramirez's latest version of events, Alejo figures he has more than enough to wrap up his case. He arrests Voss at Children's Hospital shortly after midnight. According to his report, Gaston and Voss attempt to elude him by fleeing down some stairs, but the door to the stairwell is locked. That detail receives prominent play in the accounts of the arrest published in the Alamosa Valley Courier, as a demonstration of suspicious, if not guilty, behavior.
But Gaston and Voss say that's not the way it happened. Alejo met up with Gaston first, telling him, "The chase is over." When Gaston realized the investigator was going to arrest his wife, he ran upstairs to talk to her, while Alejo took the elevator. Voss was barefoot and in pajamas, staying in the women's sleeping area, and the couple insist they weren't trying to leave the hospital. They later went back and videotaped the stairwell in question to show that it has no locks.
"My only hope was to get a few minutes to talk to her before she was arrested," Gaston says, "so I could tell her, 'Don't say anything, don't give them anything else.'"
Many of the details in Alejo's reports aren't correct, they insist. He attributes comments to the couple -- based on interviews that weren't recorded and for which Alejo took few notes -- that they maintain they never said; for example, Gaston is quoted as saying that Voss had a "threesome" with Ramirez and his wife, but Gaston says he told Alejo that wasn't true. When they first met the investigator, Voss adds, he complained of being hard of hearing and wrote down their address incorrectly three times.
Alejo declined to comment. In conversations with Steve Gaston, he said he didn't bother to tape all of his interviews but was careful about taking notes. In a deposition in another case, he said it was his practice to shred his notes as soon as he prepares a typed report.
All of Alejo's interviews with Ramirez were taped, but that doesn't mean they aren't full of lies -- particularly the last one, Voss says. Kyran was conscious, unbruised and active when Ramirez arrived, she insists. It's absurd to think she would leave her son near death for hours, waiting for her ex-lover to show up and agree to be the fall guy. The phone call at work, observed by Cranson, was too brief to be filled with the histrionics Ramirez described ("What did you do? Get over here now! Oh, my God"), and Voss would have to be a consummate actress to respond the way she did. The spray she bought for Kyran was arnica montana, a homeopathic treatment for a wide array of injuries, not some magic potion to mask bruises.
As for advising Ramirez about the polygraph, she does remember him telling her that he was nervous about taking one. "What I said was, 'Come from a place of absolute truth within yourself, and you'll be okay,'" she says.
The arrest of Krystal Voss shocked many people. Friends, relatives, co-workers and former teachers wrote letters to the Alamosa newspaper or to the judge, asserting that the woman they knew was incapable of being violent toward anyone, let alone her own son. They wondered how the man who had admitted to injuring Kyran, a man with a prior record of assaults, had become the chief witness against her.
Damien's mother, Eileen Marcks, a veteran nurse, had spent enough time around the couple to know that her grandson was far from the "absolutely perfect" child his mother described, but she never saw Voss lose her temper with him. "I've seen them coping with him when he was fussy, and they were incredibly calm," Marcks says. "I have seen a remarkable patience in her."
"I've known Kyran since he was a day old, and that kid was surrounded by nothing but the highest quality of love," declares musician Rob Judson, a longtime friend of the couple. "I have a daughter, and I'm a pretty loving dad, and I felt pretty inadequate. When she visited them, they had her eating vitamins and brushing her teeth with herbal supplements that she just loved. This is very frustrating to me, because they're really good people."
"Krystal is the most loving, compassionate, open, caring person I've ever met," says Molly Carmody, Judson's girlfriend. "But this is really about Kyran. I want to see justice done for the guy who did this, and justice for an eighteen-month-old baby who couldn't speak for himself."
The arrest kept Voss away from her son for most of the last few weeks of his life. Even after she was released on bail, a restraining order requested by social services barred her from visiting the hospital. Eventually, she was granted supervised visitation of one hour a day, then two hours.
Both parents wanted to be actively involved in caring for their son, but Kyran now had a court-appointed guardian who could overrule any of their medical requests. The doctors at Children's were too busy battling the head injury with surgery and drugs -- procedures to drain fluid from Kyran's skull and reduce the swelling, to stabilize him with a temporary drug-induced coma, to insert feeding tubes and treat his seizures -- to pay much heed to the parents' requests for transdermal herbal wraps, cayenne pepper rubs and their son's special nutritional needs. It probably didn't help that there were few prior medical records for the child; Kyran had been to the doctor only once in his life, for a viral infection. He hadn't received any vaccinations because of his parents' beliefs on the subject.
Despite the doctors' efforts, Kyran had little spontaneous movement. He couldn't see or eat with his mouth. But Voss and Gaston were convinced that he could feel their presence. "It was subtle," Gaston says. "Nothing that medical science would deem as proof."
They held him, sang to him, surrounded him with his favorite stuffed animals. "You could soothe him with music," Marcks says, "or Damien's voice. So he had some level of consciousness. We loved him any way he was. He was our guy."
In March, Kyran was released to a foster home. His parents saw him one time after that, during a supervised visit at a child-placement agency in Arvada. They were allowed to administer one of his prescribed medications. He fell asleep immediately, a deep sleep that made them question whether their son was being overmedicated.
Two days later, they received a phone call informing them that Kyran had passed away during the night.
According to Lakewood police reports, the foster mother found Kyran lying on his stomach in his crib; he wasn't breathing. From her own reading of the reports, Marcks suspects that the baby rolled over and suffocated because he was too weak to raise his head; she believes that the foam wedges that were supposed to keep the baby on his side when he slept had been forgotten or improperly placed. No investigation has been launched of the caregiver; from a legal perspective, it may not matter whether he suffocated or not. The head injury had left Kyran barely alive, and officially, he died of complications from that injury.
The foster mother told the police that Kyran suffered from Shaken Baby Syndrome and that his biological parents were strange people: "She said they were holistic, and they tried to heal their child by placing a tea bag over his head."
When Damien Gaston returned to the double-wide trailer after spending several days at the hospital in Denver, he found a copy of the search warrant Alejo had left shortly before he arrested Voss. He also found traces of a crime scene that tells a somewhat different story than the one Ramirez offered in his final session with Alejo.
There was a dirty diaper on the floor of the living room. In his first statement, Ramirez had talked about changing Kyran's "crappy diaper" before he took him outside. But his later account said nothing about a crappy diaper; Kyran was supposedly already badly hurt when he arrived.
Of course, an unconscious child could have a bowel movement. But that didn't explain the scene Gaston found in the bathroom, where Ramirez said he'd taken the unresponsive child to splash water on him. There were feces splattered on the sides of the tub and the wall, as if something traumatic had happened there. Ramirez's account makes no mention of the mess.
Gaston took pictures of the bathroom and brought in friends, including Carmody, to see the place for themselves before cleaning up. "There were a lot of things that weren't noted in the police report," Carmody says. "There were a lot of questions that weren't asked, like why Patrick re-dressed an unconscious baby."
"For a long time, I held onto the possibility that Pat's original story could have been true," Gaston says, "and that what caused the injuries was him not handling the situation correctly. Now I think it's a fabricated story."
Gaston has his own suspicions about what might have happened to his son. In his first interview, Ramirez said the boy "was kind of nervous" after he woke up and found his mommy gone. Anyone who'd ever spent time with Kyran knew how upset he could become when separated from Voss.
"I've seen how mad that baby gets when his mommy isn't around," says Voss's mother, Terry Munk. "When she walked out of the room, he absolutely threw a fit."
"Kyran is a light sleeper," Gaston says. "I think he heard Krystal leave, he woke up and was crying, and Patrick snapped. I get the impression he beat him up. The clothes were in the tub; maybe he tried to wash off the blood with cold water. Maybe Kyran was scared, tried to get out of the tub, and that caused more injury."
Gaston's scenario describes what child-abuse researchers term the "impulse homicide," in which a trivial provocation results in a sudden eruption of rage. "The perpetrator is often a husband or boyfriend or, less often, the mother," explain the authors of Forensic Pathology, a standard text in the field. "Children crying or dirtying their diapers give rise to a sudden venting of suppressed anger and frustration by the perpetrator. Typically, the child is picked up and thrown or slammed against an object, floor, or wall."
In Kyran's case, the scenario is sheer speculation. But the impulse homicide is a far more common cause of death among murdered children than Shaken Baby Syndrome. In fact, SBS is a finding that many respected pathologists, including the man who performed the autopsy on Kyran Gaston-Voss, simply don't accept.
The notion of SBS hinges on the premise that it's possible to shake a child so severely as to cause fatal brain damage, without any sort of direct-impact injury to the head; the damage comes from the acceleration-deceleration effect of the head being whipped back and forth. Research on the subject dates back thirty years, but critics of SBS say the research is greatly flawed.
That children, especially newborns, can be injured by shaking is undisputed. But studies on primates conducted decades ago suggest that it takes an incredible amount of force to kill a child simply by shaking him -- particularly if that child is as large and developed as 28-pound Kyran.
"It's an extremely controversial subject," says Amy Martin, Denver's deputy coroner. "There are pediatricians and forensic pathologists who don't even believe it exists, that you always have to have some kind of impact, whether you can document it or not. Frequently, there is a combination of a shaking and an impact; the perpetrator shook the baby and threw him in the crib or against the wall. Personally, I have not seen one where there's absolutely no physical or historical evidence of impact."
Despite the theory of the case advanced by doctors at Children's Hospital and doggedly pursued by Alejo -- that Kyran was violently shaken -- his autopsy report makes no mention of Shaken Baby Syndrome. According to the report, Kyran died from injuries "incurred when the deceased was either struck by a blunt object or hurled against a blunt object."
"I don't believe in shaken babies," says Robert Bux, the deputy medical examiner for El Paso County who performed the autopsy. "I've always asked people who believe in this to give me a case where this occurred in public. I don't want one where it occurred in the privacy of their house, because people lie. I want a public exhibition of it, with a resulting injury. It doesn't exist."
Bux's report doesn't rule out the possibility that Kyran suffered some type of acceleration injury; it does, however, detail the fatal damage to his brain in a manner that makes it almost impossible to accept the case that has been built against Krystal Voss. Regardless of what side they're on in the SBS debate, several pathologists consulted by Westword, including Bux, agree on one basic point: The brain injury Kyran suffered would have produced immediate, dramatic symptoms. Some forms of mild brain injury can take hours to manifest themselves, as Alejo claimed, or even days or weeks, but Kyran's acute subdural hematoma isn't one of them.
In other words, Kyran couldn't have suffered the brain injury the night before Ramirez's visit, then be observed calmly sleeping by his father at six the next morning and be heard giggling on the phone by his grandfather four hours later. "That doesn't sound like a severe shaking occurred," Martin says. "There should be some symptoms right away. The child might not be unconscious right away, but he would be lethargic, vomiting, maybe seizing. You would notice that something isn't right."
Given the severity of the injury, it's also unlikely that Kyran would have survived eight or more hours without medical attention -- another circumstance that suggests the injury occurred shortly before he was brought to the hospital. "My impression, from looking at the medical records, is that the child suffered a severe, nearly lethal blunt-force trauma to the right side of the head," says pediatric pathologist Harry Wilson, "right around the time that the call for help went out to the mother."
A former Children's Hospital staff pathologist who now lives in Texas, Wilson has served as an expert witness in the trials of Andrea Yates and several other high-profile child-homicide cases. He doesn't rule out the possibility that Kyran was shaken, as well, but the asymmetrical nature of the injury points to blunt-force trauma -- "a whack upside the head," as he puts it.
According to Wilson, it's not uncommon in child-abuse cases for perpetrators to retool their stories in an attempt to explain away the injuries under investigation. "In a situation where someone has special knowledge about what happened to a child, they will often change stories to fit the information that comes to light," he says. "Changing stories with time can be an indication that the person is trying to hide something."
It's also not unusual, Wilson adds, for innocent parents to blame themselves when trying to figure out how their child got hurt. "In cases where a child is injured," he says, "people who care about the child are going to feel guilty. It's a normal human response to think, 'What could I have possibly done that might have caused this?' Loving parents will come up with the most insignificant thing."
Steve Gaston broods on the death of his grandson. He thinks about the case all the time, he says. Thinks, broods, wonders, obsesses -- with rising anger.
Right after Kyran was hurt, when everyone was talking about an accident and apologizing and forgiving each other, he was already angry. How could anyone be so careless with a baby like that?
Later, when he found out about the love affair between Ramirez and Voss, he was full of questions and reproaches. His relationship with his son and daughter-in-law became severely strained. "My feeling is that Krystal and Damien enabled the guy who caused this to happen to be in their life," he says. "She lost track of what she had. They say it could have happened to anybody, but there were clues they didn't want to look at."
Both of Kyran's parents were simply too trusting, he says. "When he was young, Damien had friends who robbed my house," he explains. "I would try to warn him, but he'd disagree and argue. He's been too naive. Both of them believed in being totally honest, but Sergeant Alejo couldn't recognize total honesty."
Following Voss's arrest, Steve Gaston had several lengthy phone conversations with Alejo. He told the investigator about hearing Kyran laughing and playing two hours before Ramirez arrived. He told him about the apologies Ramirez blubbered later that day, about the apologies Ramirez offered to Voss in subsequent phone calls when he couldn't know the conversation was being overheard. "Why would he be apologizing to Krystal for what he did if there was a conspiracy?" Gaston asked.
Alejo told him he didn't know. To this day, he's never taken a formal statement from Gaston about what he witnessed. When Gaston persisted in calling him, demanding to know why he was "persecuting" Voss, Alejo threatened to have him arrested for harassment.
Among cops, judges and even defense attorneys in Alamosa, Alejo has his defenders, who regard him as an honest, experienced investigator. But then, most small-town police departments are poorly equipped for complex child-abuse investigations; in some states, such cases are handled by experts from a statewide agency who can pool resources.
"The standards of law enforcement down here are substantially less than they are in the metro area," says Cas Garcia, a former Denver prosecutor who now practices law in Alamosa. "They don't have comparable skills; they're not paid as well, and there's a lot more slipping and sliding. I think Harry does the best he can, given the situation."
Gaston and Voss held a service for their son on a blustery spring day in the mountains. Kyran had loved books, so they passed out bookmarks that bore his photo, a poem and the too-close dates of his birth and death.
Sometimes described as a "Native American prayer," the poem is a widely circulated work of consolation. Its authorship is disputed, but it's frequently attributed to a Maryland homemaker, Mary Elizabeth Frye:
Do not stand by my grave and weep.
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on the snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn's rain...
Do not stand by my grave and cry,
I am not there, I did not die.
Kyran's body was cremated, his mother says, but his spirit returned to the air.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.
- A Republican Senator's Clever Ploy to Get the Feds to Leave Colorado Pot Alone
Fri., Oct. 16, 7:00pm
Fri., Oct. 16, 7:30pm
Sat., Oct. 17, 1:30pm
Sat., Oct. 17, 7:00pm
- Reader: Big Pharma's to Blame for Influx of Heroin in Colorado and Here's Why
- Denver Musician Amanda Capper's Brave Breast Cancer Battle