Richland nanny's friend: baby was lethargic, screaming, early on day of his death

Tri-City HeraldMay 2, 2013 

— About four hours before an unresponsive Ryder Morrison was rushed to a Richland hospital, the 1-year-old woke up screaming in his crib and did not appear to be acting normal, according to his nanny's best friend.

Amy Graves described it as "the worst scream and cry" she'd ever heard out of the toddler and said it made Kelli A. Jacobsen immediately get Ryder and bring him downstairs.

"He was very listless. He was very lethargic. He couldn't keep his eyes open all the way," Graves testified Thursday in her friend's manslaughter trial. "He was crying on and off, whimpering on and off. He seemed to be unconsolable."

That lasted for a few minutes until Jacobsen was able to calm down her young charge. However, Graves -- who often stayed at the Williams Boulevard home where Jacobsen lived with the toddler and his mother -- said when she left for work later the morning of June 22, 2011, Ryder still seemed sleepy and short on energy.

Hours later, her friend called from the ambulance saying they were going to Kadlec Regional Medical Center because Ryder was hurt. Jacobsen asked Graves to come to the hospital.

Graves, who's known Jacobsen for 13 years, said she found her friend sitting on a hospital bed in an emergency room hallway.

"She was visibly upset. She was very worried about Ryder. She was crying," she said.

It wasn't until later that day, when both women were being interviewed at the Richland police station, that they learned Ryder had died during surgery.

Graves was one of four defense witnesses to take the stand Thursday after prosecutors wrapped up their case against Jacobsen.

Jacobsen, 28, is charged in Benton County Superior Court with first-degree manslaughter with aggravating circumstances.

She has maintained her innocence.

She told paramedics that she'd gone into the kitchen to make a snack for Ryder when she heard a thud from the living room and found the boy unconscious with his eyes rolling back into his head.

Her lawyer, Scott Johnson, has told jurors they also must consider the possibility that the boy's mother is responsible or that it may have been accidental and they will never know what happened.

Prosecutor Andy Miller, though, called a number of medical experts trying to show that Ryder's injuries occurred within minutes to hours before his death while the boy was in the care of his nanny.

Ryder's mother, Tawney Johnson, had gone to work early like normal and came home during her 30-minute lunch break. She had been back in her office a short time when a neighbor called with the news.

Ryder, who'd celebrated his first birthday the day before, died from abusive head trauma.

A Richland neurosurgeon who operated on the toddler said it was unlikely his injuries happened more than 24 hours before he died.

Dr. Cheerag Upadhyaya, who is based out of Kadlec, said he rushed downstairs to the emergency room after getting word of a "pediatric code" involving a 1-year-old boy. A scan of the boy's brain showed he had a subdural hematoma -- a blood clot just above the brain.

It was clear that surgery was necessary to remove a portion of Ryder's skull, and doctors knew there would be no time to get him to a Spokane hospital "given the rapid deterioration in his condition," Upadhyaya testified for the state.

He described for jurors how doctors made a question-mark-shaped incision on the left side of Ryder's head and removed a part of the skull bone.

He said after making that initial opening there was evidence of pressure inside the skull, and usually at that point it will decrease and they will wash off the clot.

However, Ryder's "brain had started to swell through the opening," his blood pressure and heart rate continued to deteriorate and soon the doctors found themselves trying to resuscitate the little boy, Upadhyaya said. They ended the efforts after some time given the changes in Ryder's brain and the lack of blood flow, he added.

Tawney Johnson and her mother, Ryder's grandmother Carey Gavaert, left the courtroom after becoming emotional during Upadhyaya's testimony.

Miller asked Upadhyaya if he could pin down the timing of the toddler's injuries.

The neurosurgeon said it is difficult to say exactly when because, based on the information he received, Ryder seemed to be OK prior to paramedics arriving at his house and then there was rapid deterioration.

Asked if a fall of six inches could cause the injuries, Upadhyaya said, "It's a little unusual in my experience."

Upadhyaya also told Scott Johnson that "it would be even more unusual for something to happen more than 24 hours" before the injuries appeared, given the boy's presentation that day.

Kadlec staff chaplains Amy Hoyt and Tom Becraft testified about their contact with Jacobsen and Tawney Johnson in the hospital that day.

Becraft said both of the women were distraught, and he had concerns for the mother's well-being.

Hoyt said Jacobsen was flushed and shaky with surges of outright weeping, and was rocking back and forward slightly on the gurney "in a sort of self-soothing manner."

Tawney Johnson "had a numb look, which is common in grief situations, especially for a parent that's lost a child. It's like their soul gets truncated, their shock is so great," Hoyt said.

Graves spent most of the afternoon on the stand and will continue her testimony today.

She said the night before Ryder died, she ran a few errands with Jacobsen before they returned to the house about 8:15 p.m.

"As soon as we walked in the door, Tawney was walking down the stairs holding Ryder. Ryder was crying and practically screaming," Graves said. "She didn't greet us. The first thing she said was, 'Ryder is really pissing me off tonight.'"

Graves said Jacobsen had offered to help calm the boy down but Tawney Johnson refused. Johnson put her son in his crib and he continued to cry for maybe 15 minutes to a half hour before falling asleep, Graves said.

Johnson then left to go visit her boyfriend for several hours, returning home about 3 a.m., she said. Jacobsen reportedly checked on the boy at some point in the night and he was sitting up awake in his bed but didn't cry again.

Miller tried to discredit some of Graves' testimony, questioning why she didn't tell police about any previous injuries on Ryder until a follow-up interview a week after the boy's death.

The prosecutor also pointed out that Tawney Johnson was the one to comfort her son that night and earlier when he got a bloody nose at his birthday party, though Graves said it was only after the nanny got to the boy first.

Graves was shown a photo of Ryder eating cake at his party with his mother. Miller asked if Ryder appeared to be OK or happy in the picture.

"He seems to be OK," Graves answered, saying that was the toddler's mood before getting the bloody nose.

Testimony continues today in the Benton County Justice Center.

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