A Colebrook mother and father have pleaded guilty to lesser charges of endangering their infant daughter in exchange for a plea deal that lets them avoid prison on much stiffer felony charges for assault by strangulation that were dropped by prosecutors.
According to the indictments handed up by a grand jury in January and the affidavit for arrest, the case involved Erika Weatherwax, 26, holding her then-three-month-old daughter while her intimate partner and the child’s father, Gerald F. Hope, sprayed milk directly into the baby’s mouth while the baby was flat on her back, crying and choking.
Weatherwax recorded the incident on a cell phone video that was later found by a caseworker.
The infant was also discovered to have suffered a bone fracture in her arm after an appointment with a pediatrician at Indian Stream Health Center in Colebrook on April 30.
Hope, 37, was sentenced Wednesday at Coos Superior Court and Weatherwax was sentenced at the court on Thursday, both on two Class A misdemeanor counts of endangering the welfare of a child.
Each will each serve three months of a 24-month total sentence in the House of Corrections, with Hope at the Coos County HOC in West Stewartstown and Weatherwax in the women’s wing of the Grafton County HOC in North Haverhill.
Each is prohibited from having any direct or indirect contact with their daughter unless authorized by a court order or by the New Hampshire Division of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF).
In January, Hope and Weatherwax were each indicted on a Class B felony count of second-degree domestic violence assault by strangulation, a charge that carries a maximum prison sentence of 3 1/2 to 7 years.
According to their case summaries, they also faced a second Class B felony count of second-degree domestic violence assault by strangulation as well as Class A misdemeanor charges of domestic violence reckless conduct that were brought by Colebrook police in May 2020.
Before it was dropped by Coos prosecutors, Hope faced an additional Colebrook police charge, a Class A felony count of domestic violence first-degree assault for causing serious bodily injury, which carried a maximum prison sentence of 7 1/2 to 15 years.
During Weatherwax’s plea and sentencing on Thursday, Assistant Coos County Scott Whitaker provided the court with the offer of proof.
On April 30, Dr. Elizabeth Sweeney at Indian Stream Health Center in Colebrook examined the infant during a routine medical appointment and observed swelling on her right arm, which emergency room X-rays determined to be a fracture, said Whitaker.
Sweeney contacted DCYF and arranged transport to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, in Lebanon, for further examination.
Further investigation revealed that Weatherwax observed the swelling on the infant two weeks before the April 30 appointment and chose not to bring the infant to her originally scheduled appointment on April 22, and did not schedule a new appointment until pressured to do so by another person, said Whitaker.
“This all resulted in the infant not receiving timely medical attention,” he said. “As DCYF was investigating the cause of the fractured arm, a caseworker received a video recording on a cell phone. The video was recorded by [Weatherwax]. The video showed [Weatherwax] holding [the infant] down on a table by her legs while Mr. Gerald Hope … held a bottle of milk in the area approximately 12 to 18 inches from [the infant’s] mouth. The tip of the bottle nipple was cut to allow more milk to flow from it. Mr. Hope was seen spraying a continued stream of milk into [the infant’s] mouth while [the infant] was helpless to stop it. [Weatherwax] did nothing to stop this incident.”
The baby was seen in distress and was making distressed sounds when she had enough air to make them, said Whitaker.
Weatherwax, who was represented by defense counsel Joseph Garrison, pleaded guilty to the first charge of endangering the welfare of a child while owing her daughter a duty of care, protection and support when she purposely held her baby and recorded the milk being sprayed into her mouth.
She pleaded guilty to the second charge of endangering the welfare of a child when she neglected her duty to care by failing to bring her daughter to her three-month medical appointment despite recognizing the swollen arm.
Weatherwax is to serve three months of a 12-month jail sentence beginning May 3, with nine months suspended on the condition of good behavior.
The second 12-month sentence, to run concurrently with the first, is entirely suspended on the condition of three years of good behavior and complying with all DCYF recommendations and requirements regarding her daughter.
Hope received the same jail sentence, a total of 24 months with three months to serve and the remainder suspended and will report to the Coos HOC on Monday to serve.
According to the affidavit for arrest, the allegations of abuse came to the attention of Colebrook police on May 1 when the police department received a call from DCYF, which was informed by Indian Stream Health Center regarding concerns about a suspicious injury and medical neglect by parents, who delayed treatment to the arm that resulted in pain to the baby.
Other bone fractures were found at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, said police.
Voluntary interviews were then conducted with Weatherwax and Hope.
During an interview, Weatherwax allegedly said she did not know how her daughter received the injuries and did not know if Hope caused them, but did speak on how Hope would grab his daughter’s arms when feeding her and place them behind her back.
“I asked Erika if she thought these were appropriate ways of handling a three-month-old and she said ‘no,’” Colebrook Police Officer Cole Noyes wrote in the affidavit for arrest.
In the first interview, Hope allegedly said he did not know how his daughter came to have the injuries.
In a second interview, Noyes said, “Gerald did admit to placing her arms behind her back and wrote out a statement saying, ‘When feeding [the infant] I had put her arms behind her. She would put her fingers into her mouth. I was trying to feed her. I did that 1 to 3 times. It is possible one time I did it too rough.’”
“Gerald also claimed that [the baby’s] arm was sticking through the side of the crib one morning, but medical experts state that would not be enough force or trauma,” wrote Noyes. “Gerald also stated the cut on her upper lip was from her bottle, which again was disputed.”