Shawna Gatto, 45, of Wiscasset, was found guilty of depraved indifference murder in a verdict Justice William Stokes rendered Tuesday. Gatto was on trial for the murder of her fiance’s granddaughter, Kendall Chick, 4, who died on Dec. 8, 2017.
Chick’s grandfather, Stephen Hood, called 9-1-1 in the late afternoon on Dec. 8. Gatto had phoned him, thinking he had left to go to the hardware store, but he was still in the yard, and came in to find his granddaughter unresponsive, pale, cold to the touch, and naked, having been in the bathtub for cleaning up what Gatto called a bathroom accident. When the ambulance arrived, the EMTs transported Chick to the hospital immediately. She was pronounced dead an hour or so later.
After several interviews with the Maine State Police, Gatto was arrested and charged with depraved indifference murder on Dec. 14, 2017. A grand jury returned an indictment against her on Jan. 3, 2018, and she was arraigned on Jan. 12, 2018, entering a plea of not guilty. She was unable to make bail and has been at Two Bridges Regional Jail since then.
Gatto and her attorneys, Jeremy Pratt and Phillip Cohen, had opted for a bench trial, rather than a jury trial. The five-day trial ended April 8, with the defendant electing not to take the stand in her own defense.
In his verdict, Stokes first went over the trial witnesses and their testimony.
“Based on the evidence presented at trial, and after consideration of the parties’ closing arguments, the court makes the following findings of fact,” he said, outlining the family situation Kendall Chick and her step-cousins had been in. Then, he got into the events on the day Chick died. Stokes said that based on the evidence, including the difficulty emergency personnel had with intubating Chick, and the temperature of her body, it seemed as though Chick had been dead for several hours before 9-1-1 was called; and later in his verdict report, Stokes said the incident with Chick in the children’s bathroom, where she was supposedly in time out for messing her pants, and therefore her grandfather was not allowed access to her, was an elaborate staged event to make Hood believe Chick was alive when she had in fact died much earlier in the day.
“The court is highly suspicious that Kendall was, in fact, dead much earlier in the day on Dec. 8, 2017, and that the scene at 19 Crickets Lane was contrived and staged by the defendant,” Stokes said, pointing out that medical personnel and Hood noted Chick was cold to the touch and that stiffness that might have been rigor mortis was noted by the emergency room doctor. The state’s medical examiner said the onset of rigor mortis in a small child is between four to six hours after death. Stokes said that, together with other evidence – an attempt to clean up the children’s bathroom, a call to her mother before she called Hood, and ignoring the blood spatter and other evidence of violence in her own home – supported the court’s conclusion Gatto knew she was responsible for Kendall’s injuries and death.
Stokes went over the evidence presented by the police, the medical examiner, the forensic teams who examined the blood spatter at the home, and the defense’s own medical expert, whose views were not inconsistent with the conclusions drawn by the state medical examiner.
Hood testified for the state, and although he had been aware of the bruises and injuries to Chick, but Stokes said Gatto was telling Hood about the falls the child was taking, and they discussed taking her to the doctor, but Gatto was reluctant to because she would have to explain the bruises.
Stokes pointed out that Gatto was viewed by others as a loving, caring caregiver, some of whom testified on her behalf.
Stokes said that based on the evidence, and Gatto’s own admission, she was the sole caregiver for Chick and her son’s two children. “The court finds that Ms. Gatto’s assertion that Kendall’s injuries were either self-inflicted or the result of a series of accidents or both, is inherently incredible,” Stokes said. “The notion that Kendall, a small child who had just turned 4, repeatedly and on almost a daily basis, violently struck her face, head, arms, legs, and torso with such force and velocity so as to produce the injuries seen ... and depicted in the photographs ... is utterly unworthy of belief.”
He went on to say, “The photographs of Kendall’s injuries are profoundly disturbing. Kendall’s face and head looked as though she had been repeatedly pummeled.” He also referred to the treatment as “torture.”
“Almost anyone looking at Kendall while she was alive would immediately recognize that she was a battered child, unless they were totally ignorant, in the deepest denial, or were covering up for the abuse.”
He was also unsympathetic to the “circular and nonsensical statement that the reason she did not and could not take Kendall to a doctor was because she would have to explain the bruises on her defies belief and illustrates the fact that Ms. Gatto knew that her explanation was not plausible and would not be believed. She knew it looked like child abuse because it was child abuse.”
As to whether she manifested a depraved indifference to the value of human life, Stokes said that for a woman of Gatto’s intelligence and experience in raising children, who had worked as a CNA for 20 years, “it strains credulity to suggest that she truly believed Kendal’s bruising and bloodletting were the accidental results of an uncoordinated 4-year-old at play.” He said the fatal injury was the “culmination of a long and continuous pattern of physical abuse perpetuated against a child who had just turned 4 years of age ... viewed in their entirety ... the court is satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant’s death-producing conduct qualified as conduct with a very high degree of risk of causing serious bodily injury or death.”
Stokes said a sentencing hearing would be held in Wiscasset at 9 a.m. June 25.
Cohen said Gatto was profoundly disappointed in the verdict. “We will look at our options for appeal,” he said.
Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber said justice was served for a small child who could not defend herself. “We will be asking for far more than the minimum,” he said.
Depraved indifference murder is a Class A crime that carries a sentence of 25 years to life.