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.

But all of this strikes the advocate as extremely odd.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast