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While Innocents Slept by Adrian Havill St. Martin’s Press, 250 pages, $23.95 Two years ago, a previously healthy seven-month-old boy named Tyler was found dead in his crib. Like thousands of similar cases each year, Tyler’s loss was attributed to sudden infant death syndrome. SIDS is defined by the American Academy of Pediatrics as “the sudden death of an infant under 1 year of age that remains unexplained after thorough case investigation, including performance of a complete autopsy, examination of the death scene and a review of the clinical history.” The SIDS diagnosis, in other words, is a nondiagnosis, or, to use the AAP’s terms, “a diagnosis of exclusion.” In Tyler’s case, a thorough examination and autopsy yielded no explanation, making SIDS technically the correct conclusion — correct, that is, until Tyler’s father, Ronald Shanabarger, drove himself to the county jail and confessed that he had deliberately suffocated the child. Shanabarger, currently awaiting trial in Johnson County, Ind., is one of several parents whose villainy has received national coverage by news media. In 1999, the same year that Tyler Shanabarger died, Marie Noe became a household name when at the age of 70 she confessed to murdering eight of her infant children between 1949 and 1967. In 1995, Waneta Hoyt was convicted of murdering five of her children. Other notorious cases include Stephen Van Der Sluys, convicted in 1986 of murdering three babies, and, in the same year, Marybeth Tinning, convicted of killing her daughter, her ninth child to die mysteriously. In each of these homicides, medical examiners had originally found the cause of death to be SIDS. The highly publicized cases have generated concern among doctors and law enforcement agencies about the frequency with which infanticide is being misdiagnosed as SIDS. At the same time, SIDS support groups worry that an exaggerated emphasis on aberrant murders may subject innocent parents to unfair suspicion and stigma, magnifying the trauma caused by the loss of a child. For better or worse, the publicity has brought to light recurring elements in cases of actual infanticide, including the existence of life insurance on the deceased infant, a parent’s history of abusing or neglecting children, multiple infant deaths in one family (with new genetic research strongly suggesting that SIDS is not an inherited disease), and a finding of cerebral swelling or other abnormalities in the autopsy. The case of Garrett Wilson, whose murder trial was concluded last year in Montgomery County, Md., presented all these telltale factors: Wilson allegedly neglected his infant children; two of his children died in infancy; he had purchased life insurance on both of these children; and cerebral swelling was reported in one of the autopsies. The case shares another element in common with previous SIDS homicide trials — namely, the publication of a book-length account, which is Adrian Havill’s latest effort, “While Innocents Slept. “ Havill chronicles Garrett Wilson’s life from his birth through the events leading to his arrest for the alleged murder of his infant son. The final chapters dramatically recount the trial and verdict. The story is based on facts obtained by Havill through extensive interviews with the suspect and the suspect’s family, friends, and acquaintances extending back to Wilson’s earliest childhood (and even to his parents’ childhood). Many facts were gleaned from law enforcement records and court transcripts. Havill has done a fine job selecting from a large record the relevant and interesting details, and weaving them together in a compelling narrative. Wilson is a self-taught musician whose talents and charismatic personality combined to make him a successful piano salesman. Yet despite this success, he never earned enough to satisfy the debts he incurred by living habitually beyond his means. The women who became romantically involved with Wilson were invariably insecure and vulnerable, and he took advantage of them in myriad ways, including borrowing from them large sums of money he never repaid. His financial problems led him to acts of extreme dishonesty. In fact, Wilson stole thousands of dollars from his employers. On one occasion, after stealing $40,000, he battered his own head, then presented himself bleeding and bruised to the police. He reported that he had been attacked by thieves and, despite his heroic efforts to stop them, was knocked unconscious and the loot was taken. He was soon arrested and pleaded guilty to embezzlement. A second incident is even more bizarre, and best read in Havill’s own words:
Wilson’s daughter, Brandi, died in her crib at the age of 2 months. Not long afterward, Wilson divorced Brandi’s mother and married Missy Anatassi. They had a baby boy, Garrett, who died at 4 months. Both children were said to have died of SIDS. No criminal investigation was initiated until 10 years after Garrett’s death, when Anatassi aggressively lobbied law enforcement officials to charge Wilson in the death of her son.

Although Havill is deeply immersed in the lamentable sequence of events, he manages to keep his personal views out of the narrative, but not his personality. He thus attains a high level of objectivity, and at the same time avoids the dullness sometimes associated with purely factual accounts. The author’s objectivity and narrative skill serve to keep the reader in suspense until the verdict is rendered in the final chapter. There is compelling evidence that Wilson may have committed the crimes. On the other hand, one must wonder why Anatassi waited 10 years before raising any question about the SIDS diagnosis. It is also curious that long after the death of her son, but before she began to seek a criminal investigation, Anatassi wrote to a Florida court pleading that the judge deny the divorce sought by Wilson. Why, in the words of the defense counsel at the murder trial, would she try “to stop a divorce from the murderer of her baby”? It was only after she learned that Wilson had married another woman that she sought to have him indicted. One of the most striking aspects of “While Innocents Slept” is how closely it resembles the 1997 book “The Death of Innocents,” by Richard Firstman and Jamie Talan, an account of the Waneta Hoyt case. Both books rely on extensive interviews and court records and describe in a remarkably similar style the questioning by detectives, the arraignment, the voir dire, and so forth. This is not to say that Havill’s book is redundant or unnecessary. Rather, the two works complement each other. Both are especially valuable to anyone interested in the legal and medical issues raised by the SIDS and infanticide phenomena. The sustained publicity surrounding infanticide cases has contributed to a higher level of scrutiny of unexplained infant deaths. Just this month, the AAP issued a revised policy statement designed to reduce instances of misdiagnoses in cases where a previously healthy infant dies suddenly and unexpectedly. The statement refers specifically to “The Death of Innocents” as one of several “well validated reports of … infanticide-perpetrated by suffocation and masqueraded as … SIDS.” The new AAP paper recommends, among other changes, that a doctor with expertise in child abuse examine the body of a dead infant before the autopsy. This recommendation has upset some in the SIDS support networks, who believe the procedure will create an atmosphere of suspicion and only augment the suffering of bereaved parents. Whatever the relative utility of the book-length treatments of these cases, the whole genre of the “true crime thriller” must arouse misgivings. These are, after all, real tragedies that have happened to real people, and our own contemporaries. Is it appropriate to read these stories, as Havill advises in his introduction, “like any other mystery thriller”? The nonfictional death of innocents and the outcome of the homicide investigation may evoke many feelings, but the promise of a “thrill” is sadly misplaced. Roger Banks is a writer and lawyer residing in Fairfax, Va. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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