WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (USA Today) — A woman who had chronicled her son's medical woes for years surrendered to authorities Tuesday to face charges of murdering the 5-year-old by poisoning him with sodium in what police say was the final act of a deranged mother who medically abused her child.
Acting on a sealed grand jury indictment, law enforcement Tuesday obtained a warrant to arrest Lacey Spears, a former Chestnut Ridge, N.Y., resident, on a charge of second-degree murder. Her son, Garnett, died Jan. 23 at Maria Fareri Children's Hospital in Valhalla, N.Y.
Spears, 26, has been staying with her parents in Kentucky but returned here. Her lawyer, David Sachs, went with her to surrender to police.
The grand jury's vote concluded a two-week presentation from prosecutors, who presented their case based on months of investigation in New York, Florida and Alabama, where Spears and her son lived; and Tennessee, where they visited Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Capt. Christopher Calabrese, commander of the Westchester County Police Detective Division, said the investigation involved hundreds of interviews and the analysis of tens of thousands of pages of medical records by Ramapo, N.Y., and Westchester County detectives and the Westchester County District Attorney's office.
"This is a very sad day for everyone, but it is a day for justice — justice for the betrayal of the intimate trust between a mother and child, justice for a mother's continual abuse and death of her innocent child for her own selfish psychological needs and financial gain, justice for Garnett," Calabrese said.
Authorities suspect the single mother, who was a constant presence on social media sharing stories of Garnett's medical crises, may have poisoned the little boy three times: once before he experienced seizures that sent him Jan. 17 to Nyack Hospital, again on Jan. 19 at Nyack when his sodium level spiked and he had to be flown to Valhalla; and a third time at Maria Fareri hospital after a doctor confronted Spears.
As Garnett lay dying in the hospital, a Chestnut Ridge neighbor said Spears called and told her to dispose of a bag that Spears used to feed the boy through a tube in his abdomen. Police later recovered the bag which tested positive for extremely high levels of sodium.
The homicide case may be one of the first in the era of social media involving Munchausen by proxy, a psychiatric disorder in which a parent sickens a child to garner sympathy.
Spears, who was living with Garnett in the secluded Fellowship Community when the alleged crime occurred, has denied harming her son. She faces a maximum of 25 years to life in prison on the murder charge.
The charges relate to Garnett's death, but authorities suspect Spears subjected him to past medical abuse, fueled by attention on Facebook, Twitter and blog posts. She presented herself as a doting mother caring for a son who had been in and out of hospitals his entire life.
In a Facebook post in November 2009, she wrote that Garnett was back in the hospital again, his 23rd hospital visit in his first year.
The investigation began in January while Garnett was still alive when doctors at Maria Fareri alerted police that the boy's sodium level had spiked to suspiciously high levels.
Witnesses told The Journal News that they saw a doctor at Maria Fareri confront Spears the night of Jan. 19, shortly after she and her son arrived there on an emergency helicopter flight from Nyack. The doctor told her it was "metabolically impossible" for her son's body to produce such extreme levels and that "something isn't right."
At Maria Fareri, Spears continued to sleep in Garnett's room and had unmonitored access to him in the room's attached bathroom, sources said. Nyack Hospital had a similar setup.
The boy was alert and talking on the night of Jan. 20 when friends visited him and Spears in his hospital room. One friend recalled the 5-year-old pleading with her, "Don't leave me."
Not until the following morning, Jan. 21 — after Garnett's condition worsened and he "coded" — did medical staff notified the state's child-abuse hotline, prompting police and the district attorney's office to get involved. The boy was taken life support and declared dead Jan. 23.
In April, the Westchester Medical Examiner ruled Garnett's death a homicide, and detectives have focused on Lacey Spears from the start. Even before the boy's death, they seized food, her cellphone and a computer from her home at the Fellowship Community and confiscated the feeding bag Spears was so concerned about that she contacted her neighbor from the hospital.
A second Fellowship neighbor reported seeing Spears feed Garnett through his tube Jan. 17, shortly before a seizure sent him to Nyack Hospital. That version of events contradicted Spears' claim to others that she hadn't fed him through the tube for at least a week.
Both neighbors testified before the grand jury.
Westchester County police; Ramapo, N.Y., police; and the district attorney's office also have secured medical records and video surveillance from Nyack and Maria Fareri hospitals and statements from medical staff and friends who accompanied Spears at both hospitals.
Investigators have dug into Spears' 14 months at the Fellowship and the time she spent in Alabama and Florida, poring over medical reports and interviewing friends, hospitals and social-service agencies that have fielded calls in the past about Spears' parenting.
Police have spoken to members of a parenting group in Spears' former home of Clearwater, Fla., where she'd share tearful stories about raising a sickly son whose father she claimed died in a crash. One member contacted that state's Department of Children and Families in 2011, one of several times Spears was reported to child-welfare authorities.
However, none of the reports resulted in action to remove Garnett from her care.
Spears, who repeatedly sought treatment for Garnett's severe ear infections and purported digestive problems, told friends that her son needed to be fed via tube because he would go days without eating and was a "failure to thrive" case, a diagnosis for children defined by inadequate weight gain.
But those same friends saw him eat solid foods routinely. To them, Garnett — sporting a gap-toothed smile and long blond hair — appeared happy and healthy.
During Garnett's final hospital stay at Maria Fareri, Spears took to Facebook frequently, pleading for prayers as she posted pictures of her son on life support, noting that the pain in his head was making him scream out loud.
Then, on Jan. 23, Spears posted a final Facebook declaration: "Garnett the great journeyed onward today at 10:20 a.m."
Initially flooded with condolences, support for Spears diminished as friends learned about the investigation and stories from her past: that her frequent emergency-room visits raised eyebrows among medical staff, that she misrepresented herself as the mother of a child she babysat and that she had lied about Garnett's father.
He was not a police officer who died in a crash. He is a garage-door installer still living in Alabama.