Denise McGrath Wilder

Roseville mother pleads no contest in 2012 death of 2-year-old daughter

Published: Thursday, May. 30, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Thursday, May. 30, 2013 - 6:37 am

The case against a Roseville mom charged with the 2012 death of her 2-year-old daughter ended anticlimactically late last week – with a no-contest plea.

Denise McGrath Wilder entered the plea Friday to two counts of felony child abuse and one count of child neglect resulting in the death of a child.

Wilder's attorney said the plea was entered without any sentencing agreement with the Placer County District Attorney's Office. Sentencing reportedly is is set for October. The Placer DA's Office did not return calls seeking comment.

The plea offers some level of closure for the child's father, who now has custody of the divorced couple's older daughter, but doesn't remove the pain of losing a child, said attorney Mike Haskell.

"She was her mother. She was supposed to protect them," said Haskell, a Michigan-based family law attorney who represented Mark Wilder during custody proceedings.

The case had been a cornucopia of juicy details – from accusations made by both parties in the divorce proceedings, to the arrest of Denise Wilder's father and his guilty plea to charges of possessing child pornography.

Denise Wilder was first arrested April 4, 2012, for what was then deemed the homicide of her 2-year-old daughter, McKinley Wilder. At the time, authorities said Wilder was found intoxicated at her parent's suburban Roseville home. She was the only adult present and had been out of contact with her family for several days.

Authorities later revealed that the 5-year-old daughter was violently ill from alcohol consumption. The coroner's report said McKinley died due to acute alcohol toxicity and acute malnutrition.

On Wednesday, Denise Wilder's attorney offered to shed some light on the events that led to the child's death.

"For several reasons, chief among them the stress of the divorce, Denise had developed a drinking problem," explained her lawyer Kresta Daly, a partner at Barth Tozer & Daly LLP.

Daly said that Wilder had a nervous breakdown while emptying her husband's belongings from their home and went to the home of her parents – who were out of town. There, she drank heavily and passed out.

"Unfortunately her children had access to the alcohol, which ultimately resulted in the death of her younger daughter," Daly said. "Denise is distraught over the death of her child and the fact that she is responsible for her daughter's death."

That story line that Denise Wilder passed out and the kids had a drink doesn't explain why the children had not been fed for days, said Haskell, who was authorized to speak about the case by Mark Wilder.

"She was not passed out for three days. Even if she passed out for a day, she should have woken up and realized her children needed her," Haskell said.

Daly said Denise Wilder remains distraught that she has not been able to have any contact with her living daughter.

Haskell wondered if it would be a good idea for the older child to have contact with her mother at this time.

"She is a felon. She is going to jail for a very long time," Haskell said. He said Denise Wilder's mother is still fighting for visitation rights.

Haskell said the case is an extreme example of parental alienation, with Denise seeking to drive her husband out of their children's lives. The child custody file is packed with filings and affidavits calling Mark Wilder an unfit father. For a time, Denise Wilder had a restraining order against her husband. He was eventually granted partial custody.

For his part, Mark Wilder noted his wife's drinking problem and her failure to comply with testing requirements.

"There was a court order for her to receive periodic alcohol testing because she had a problem. The court did not enforce it," Haskell said.

He said the courts didn't have the budget, time or energy to force Denise Wilder to comply.

Asked whether closer monitoring by the courts could have saved McKinley, Haskell said, "Absolutely."

"This is a scenario where the system failed this little girl," Haskell said "This was entirely avoidable. Mr. Wilder did everything he could to protect the child and didn't get the support he needed."

Call The Bee's Ed Fletcher, (916) 321-1269. Follow him on Twitter @newsfletch.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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