Stalled probe of foster child's death failed to address key questions
01/26/2010 12:00 AM
03/01/2011 3:17 PM
Nearly seven weeks after the tragic death of 4 1/2-year-old Amariana Crenshaw in January 2008, Sacramento police made a somber announcement.
"We're basically at a brick wall," said Detective Brian Dedonder, one of two lead detectives in the homicide investigation.
Projected on a large screen behind Dedonder was the smiling face of the little foster child, clutching a chocolate chip cookie. The girl's badly burned body had been removed from her foster mother's rental property near South Natomas before dawn Jan. 11, 2008, after at least one Molotov cocktail erupted in the living room.
"This victim has a face," Nina Delgadillo of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told reporters assembled at police headquarters. "And we want the public to know that. We want the public to see why we're out there, trying to do something on this case – that we're not going to stop."
Today, two years after the arson inside the five-bedroom home on Sweet Pea Way, there are no new developments, no leads and no suspects, a police spokesman said.
No one has laid claim to the $10,000 reward offered that February day, when officials of the Sacramento city police and fire departments and the ATF convened the news conference to try to generate leads. At the time, police spokesman Matt Young described the "thousands of man-hours" that had gone into the hunt, and the "very thorough, very comprehensive" investigation that had ensued. Initial strong leads had been discounted, he said.
But a Bee investigation into Amariana's death has found that many questions never were fully explored, including the most basic question: Why was a 4 1/2-year-old foster child left sleeping alone on the living room floor of a vacant home in the middle of the night?
Amariana's attorney, Terry Holt – appointed to represent her interests in dependency court – never was contacted by investigators. And, Holt said, neither was a key government worker who had intimate knowledge of the foster home and felt the official version of events didn't add up.
That source, who declined to be interviewed, did confirm that she had contacted local law enforcement and ATF and left a name and number, but never got a callback. Documents obtained by The Bee support the source's story.
Amariana's foster mother, Tracy Dossman, who later adopted Amariana's older half sister, remains certified as a foster provider and now cares for five children, ages 10 to 18. Dossman agreed to talk with The Bee last month but skipped the appointment at her home. Reached later by phone, she said she would not be interviewed because the newspaper did not "tell the truth" about her in its coverage of the fire.
"None of it was true, and none of it was nice, and nobody ever came back and apologized," she said.
A new California law that took effect in 2008 was supposed to make it easier to scrutinize the records of children who die while under the county's protection, in the hope of preventing more deaths.
But for months, the county's Department of Health and Human Services vigorously fought The Bee's efforts to publicly open Amariana's child welfare files, stating that "the benefits to keeping the child's confidentiality outweigh the public interest in details of her case."
Deputy County Counsel Scott M. Fera argued in juvenile court that the law enforcement investigation into the child's death was "concluded." Amariana Crenshaw was the victim of a "random act of violence," the attorney said, and no purpose would be served by putting her life "on public display."
In December, juvenile court referee Natalie S. Lindsey disagreed and released more than 200 pages of confidential documents about Amariana's 2 1/2-year journey through the foster care system.
The records, with names blacked out to protect the identities of other foster children, are "directly relevant to issues of the public interest," Lindsey ruled.
Holt, the attorney appointed to represent Amariana before her death, praised the judge's decision. Holt said he was moved to tears by the child's autopsy report and is left with aching questions.
"That little girl died all by herself in that living room," he said, "and somebody needs to be held accountable."
Hours after Amariana died, Tracy Dossman gathered up her foster family – including the dead child's half sister – and took them to a relative's home in Elk Grove.
"Media is camped out in the front of Tracy's home so she does not want to be there now," according to a state report.
Miri Mee, the CPS social worker who had been assigned to Amariana's case since 2006, heard from Dossman at 11 a.m. the morning of the fire, CPS records show. Until then, Dossman had been out of contact with the agency while talking to police – and, she explained to CPS, she had lost her cell phone in the chaos after calling 911.
While law enforcement dug in on the criminal investigation, child welfare officials had their own crisis to manage.
Amariana's death made her the newest member of an unfortunate classification of children overseen by CPS. Her case was now known as a "critical incident" – defined as the death or near death of a child known to the child protection agency at the time of the incident.
In Sacramento County, a critical incident triggers an elaborate response protocol covering everything from who inside CPS gets called first on the phone tree to when various reports must be filed.
Amariana was far from the only case getting such prescribed treatment. An independent consultant later found that in the 15-month period between October 2007 and December 2008, Sacramento County had 10 critical incidents – a dramatic increase over previous years.
Predictably, Amariana's death on a cold January morning had set off a flurry of calls, memos and meetings among the many agencies that had supervised Dossman and protected Amariana.
Conflict and confusion soon emerged.
Lajuannah Sandles, the CPS supervisor who was buying the rental home that burned, spent the weekend with Dossman and the children, "instructing Ms. Dossman to contact all pertinent people," according to county records.
Sandles was described as a friend of Dossman in a CPS log entry after the fire; CPS officials later would express concern about the appearance of a conflict of interest since Sandles oversaw cases of several children in the foster home.
Dossman's foster family agency, Positive Option Family Service, did not learn about the fire until 4 p.m. on Jan. 11, 2008 – more than 12 hours after Amariana's death. And, the county noted, that notification came not from Dossman herself but from a CPS social worker who was monitoring the care of other children in the home.
Dossman's other foster children had their own challenges.
When social worker Mee first visited the family after the fire, she described the children as "shellshocked."
"They did not share much information and appeared to be comforted by each other," Mee observed. "They were all sitting on the carpet in an upstairs bedroom."
One of the children appeared to have been crying but did not want to talk with Mee.
The plan for these children would become another source of disagreement among the agencies.
By Monday, Jan. 14, a CPS supervisor reported she was unable to get from Dossman a clear "minute-by-minute account" of the night of the fire.
In the initial days after the arson, the death of a vulnerable child seemed to rev up the joint team of local and federal law enforcement investigators.
"They're tenacious, and they're going to keep going and uncover every rock they have to to identify the person or persons responsible for this despicable act," then-police spokesman Matt Young told reporters on the day of the fire.
Graham Barlowe, special agent in charge of Sacramento's ATF office, echoed Young's determination: "We're making a really intensive effort to figure out what occurred."
As the sun rose on the morning of the fire, police and federal agents were knocking on doors in the newish neighborhood of beige one- and two-story homes. It was a Friday, and many residents soon would leave for work.
These were the critical first hours of a homicide investigation, and investigators were following protocol: question witnesses and associates, piece together personal histories, chart time frames, canvass the neighborhood.
Randy Rangel, 42, whose large family lived behind the Sweet Pea Way property, was among those asked to recount every detail from the moment he first heard breaking glass. Rangel had seen the black smoke billowing out the back of his neighbor's house and was the second person to call 911 at 3:25 a.m.
"It was terrifying," said the father of six, who had watched the frantic scene unfold from his upstairs bathroom.
As dawn broke, a large white ATF crime truck could be seen in front of the Sweet Pea Way home, where someone would later erect a small wooden cross bearing Amariana's name and dates. That day, a "For Rent" sign was still planted in the front yard.
Amariana's body had been removed hours earlier, but much work remained to be done inside the home.
Sacramento police and ATF investigators still will not say whether there was more than one Molotov cocktail, how the weapon was assembled, or what type of container and accelerant were used. They will not divulge details of their stalled investigation.
John DeHaan, an internationally recognized fire investigator based in Vallejo, explained that investigators combing a Molotov cocktail scene typically look for as many fragments as possible from the container, which may have fingerprints. The wick is the best place to find residue of the liquid used, he said.
Indeed, Amariana's autopsy record reflects that two shards of broken glass found on her left chest were taken to the crime lab.
DeHaan, president of Fire-Ex Forensics consulting firm, said his tests with Molotov cocktails have shown them to be notoriously ineffective and unpredictable weapons. About 25 percent of the time they bounce back, he said. Often they fail to break on contact, or break outside the home or target area.
For Amariana, though, the weapon was brutally accurate, with the Sacramento County pathologist stating he believed two devices exploded very near, or possibly on top of, the little girl.
This puzzled DeHaan, who said a Molotov cocktail would be unlikely to break open on a soft body or carpeted floor. The coroner says Amariana was asleep on bedding and died within seconds.
As firefighters and crime scene investigators gathered the evidence at the home, a different investigation was about to unfold in another part of the city.
At 1:30 p.m., 10 hours after the fire, Amariana's autopsy began at the county Coroner's Office on Broadway. The child's body had been received in a white plastic bag, Case No. 08-00252.
The arduous autopsy procedure included detailed measurements of her organs along with photographs and X-rays. Blood samples and sections of her organs were submitted for testing.
The enormity of the crime was revealed in the tiny bits of charred, sequined pajamas placed in a clean aluminum paint can. The largest piece of clothing identified was the upper part of Amariana's left sock.
The autopsy report notes: "All of the clothing fragments found about the body and in the body bag were turned over to (police) Detective (Eric) Schneider, who will turn it over to authorities at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms."
The county pathologist found that Amariana had no recent or healing bone fractures that might suggest a history of abuse. Nor was there evidence of sexual assault.
The autopsy was witnessed that afternoon by Schneider, who had been assigned to help lead the investigation. Two criminologists attended from the crime lab, which is overseen by the county District Attorney's Office.
While the autopsy report was not formally released until March, county coroner's spokesman Ed Smith said police routinely are given preliminary findings on the spot.
And those findings were perplexing.
Sacramento Chief Forensic Pathologist Mark A. Super concluded that Amariana had died of "thermal burns," but he noted, "I cannot completely rule out that the decedent was not breathing when the firebombs exploded."
Yet when asked last month about the autopsy, police spokesman Norm Leong said that the sergeant in charge of the investigation, Paul Martinson, "did not recall anything like that in the autopsy."
Dr. Cyril Wecht, a nationally known forensic pathologist, said he believes the unusual findings in the autopsy "should have invited further investigation by homicide and fire" officials.
One person clearly investigated by police was Anisha Hill, Amariana's biological mother. Hill had had a turbulent relationship with Dossman; the foster mother had gotten a restraining order against Hill in 2006.
On the weekend after the fire, Hill said, police came and picked her up at her aunt's home in Benicia, where she had gone to mourn. They brought her back to Sacramento for polygraph and DNA tests, she said.
"I got a wham-bam, all at once," said Hill, now 34, claiming her apartment and that of a friend were ransacked by investigators. "Me, a suspect?"
Hill said she was never told whether she was cleared.
However, when asked about Hill at the February 2008 news conference, Dedonder told reporters: "At this point, we don't have any reason to list her as a suspect in this crime."
Dedonder added that investigators had identified no motive for the crime but didn't believe that Amariana was "specifically targeted." The attack "may have something to do with just the residence itself" and people who had lived there before, he said.
"Typically, I'd say a Molotov cocktail being introduced into a home could be meant to send a message, or for fear, or just to do simple property damage," he said.
The Bee was unable to locate the female renter who had been evicted shortly before the fire. But a renter evicted in 2004, who has moved out of state, told The Bee that she never was contacted by Sacramento police or ATF and knew nothing about Amariana's death until the newspaper told her.
At the February 2008 news conference, police said the investigation had been a priority for the previous seven weeks.
"You see the picture of the little girl," said Dedonder, standing in front of the screen displaying Amariana's photo. "I think it tears at everybody's heartstrings to know the little girl burned to death in a fire."
Public documents from the state Department of Social Services show that Dossman and the other children in the foster home, who included six teenagers, swiftly were eliminated as suspects.
Leong, the police spokesman, recently told The Bee that Dossman had been "looked at early on" in the case. "At this point, there's nothing to support that she's involved," he said.
Leong said investigators did review the child welfare files in the course of their work and interviewed the children and teens. However, the contents of at least one interview with the children was of so little use to police that they declined to have it transcribed for state licensing officials, state records show.
Though ATF is widely acknowledged to be the expert in fire investigations, the Sacramento-based team ultimately played a limited role in the investigation, collecting and processing evidence.
Sacramento Fire Department spokesman Jim Doucette told The Bee that his agency's work on the case was largely confined to putting out the blaze.
Leong confirmed that the Police Department took the lead on what he described as an "open homicide case." While he disputed the county attorney's characterization of the investigation as concluded, Leong acknowledged there are "no new leads in the investigation."
"Oftentimes homicide cases aren't as clear-cut as people would like them to be," Leong said. "But we still believe someone knows something out there."
Traces of soot still can be seen around doors and windows of the Sweet Pea Way house.
A new owner has settled in after purchasing the five-bedroom home in December 2008. Dossman had lost the home to foreclosure that year but later sued the lender in an attempt to get it back, claiming she was a victim of "predatory lending practices."
The new owner, who asked not to be identified, said she knew nothing about Dossman's lawsuit and little about Amariana's death. She was stunned to learn that a child had died on her living room floor, saying she had been told by the real estate broker that Amariana had died at the hospital.
The owner said she is comfortable in her home and feels safe in her neighborhood.
Many others continue to experience fallout from the fire through a series of legal and regulatory actions.
After the fire, Positive Option Family Service pushed to move all the foster children out of the Dossman home and into respite care.
"As the record clearly reflects (Positive Option) supervisors attempted to have all children in Ms. Dossman's home removed immediately following the incident as a matter of safety and security (since the suspects had not been apprehended)," the agency wrote in a response to The Bee.
"This request was denied by county social workers and by their county supervisors. (Positive Option) representatives were told the action was not necessary."
The county eventually did take the children from Dossman. But not for long.
By August 2008, she was settling back into her big house in North Natomas, along with the five foster children – despite concerns voiced by a state licensing investigator that the home still had deficiencies.
The county's child protection agency apparently had so much confidence in Dossman, even after the fire, that it allowed two young boys whose 3-year-old brother had been murdered in November 2008 to be placed in her home.
The 4- and 5-year-old brothers later were moved to a relative's home after a CPS social worker, mindful of the fire on Sweet Pea Way, had "enough concern about the (Dossman) home that she pulled the kids," state records show.
Sacramento County Child Protective Services declined to respond to The Bee's questions about the case, but in a prepared statement said: "We hope media attention will shed new information on this despicable crime so the person or persons responsible can be brought to justice."
The insurance company that paid Dossman nearly $60,000 to repair the fire-damaged property is suing her, claiming she cashed the check and hasn't provided documentation for repairs, court documents show. The lender, Downey Savings & Loan Association, claimed it took care of repairs itself and the insurance company said it had to pay the lender an additional $46,000, the suit alleges.
Dossman's foster home in North Natomas continues to be investigated for complaints – including a rape allegation last year, which prompted an unannounced visit from the state Nov. 12.
The state was investigating a complaint that a group-home client on an "authorized visit" to Dossman's home had been sexually assaulted. The report was deemed "inconclusive" after the alleged victim refused to talk to the state worker or police.
Positive Option Family Service – which called Dossman a "model foster parent" in 2008 – recently has come under state scrutiny itself. In December, the state Department of Social Services ordered the agency to attend a "noncompliance conference."
State licensing officials warned Positive Option that it had an "excessive number of complaints," and past issues had gone unresolved.
The state's Community Care Licensing Division already had looked into allegations that the agency was failing to report violations to the state and covering up the problem behavior of at least one unnamed foster mother, state documents show.
Last month, Positive Option officials agreed to a plan of correction and a timetable set out by the state.
In its written statement to The Bee, Positive Option responded: "Every home is checked regularly by professional socialworkers," adding that "(w)e have no knowledge of any PO staff member taking any action which would aim at covering up improper conduct of a foster parent."
On Jan. 14, Tracy Dossman accompanied her nephew to court on his DUI and drug charges and again declined to speak with The Bee. Dossman was scheduled this month to give her deposition in the legal fight over the insurance money she collected after the calamitous fire on Sweet Pea Way.
Anisha Hill, 34, recently completed a residential drug treatment program in Richmond but relapsed almost immediately and has received another jail sentence. She plans to seek additional treatment, she said.
Hill has lost all five of her children to the child protection system – two of them born after Amariana – but says she is determined to turn her life around.
Amariana's biological father, Curtis Crenshaw, says he is a broken man, struggling with depression. Amariana's death, he said, is "like a tattoo on me."
"I'm haunted by this whole situation here," said Crenshaw, 48. "I can't function. It has stopped me dead in my tracks."
Hill and Crenshaw filed a lawsuit last February against CPS, the state of California and Dossman, accusing them of failing to provide a "safe environment" for Amariana.
The case was dismissed, however, because they had no legal standing. In the eyes of the court, in death as in life, they were no longer Amariana's parents.
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