Review of SIDS case leads to a trial

Man accused of killing two babies for payoff

July 19, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

ROCKVILLE -- Garrett Eldred Wilson had a reputation of hurting only himself in a bungled life of crime: a bank robbery that ended with a self-inflicted gunshot wound and a congressional embezzlement scheme in which he faked a pistol-whipping.

But prosecutors in Montgomery and Prince George's counties believe greed pushed him beyond physical pain to do the unthinkable -- smother his two infant children for insurance payoffs worth $190,000.

Wilson goes on trial todayin Montgomery County, charged with first-degree murder in the 1987 death of 5-month-old Garrett Michael Wilson.

State's Attorney Douglas Gansler will try to convince a jury that Wilson killed his son by following a script he perfected six years earlier that resulted in the death of 2-month-old Brandi Jean Wilson.

Wilson is to stand trial in that case in Prince George's Circuit Court on Sept. 14 on an identical charge.

The case of Garrett E. Wilson is the most recent to center on sudden infant death syndrome, a term coined in 1969 to cover unexplained deaths. Two mothers -- one in Philadelphia and one in Indiana -- who used SIDS as a defense were convicted this year of killing their children.

Wilson, 43, has long claimed genetics caused his children to die of SIDS, although each had a different mother. He told his third wife he didn't want to get attached to their son, Garrett Michael, because he was afraid the boy would die.

Autopsies and medical theory in the 1980s supported his claims, and police carried out only cursory reviews of the deaths.

But in court filings, Gansler said he will rely on medical studies that show the chance of two children from the same family being stricken with SIDS is one in 4 million.

And, Gansler noted, the amount of the insurance policies vastly exceeds national averages.

At the urging of prosecutors, Maryland Chief Medical Examiner Dr. John E. Smialek reopened the cases and changed the causes of death to "asphyxia due to airway obstruction, probably by smothering."

The four-week trial will have more than the usual drama.

It pits Gansler, who is trying his first case as the county's top prosecutor, against perhaps Montgomery's best criminal defense lawyer, Barry Helfand, who represented Ruthann Aron, the former U.S. Senate candidate who hired a hit man in an unsuccessful scheme to have her husband killed.

The prosecution's star witness is Dr. Linda Norton, a SIDS and child abuse expert and the pathologist who examined the exhumed body of Lee Harvey Oswald and helped convict Green Beret Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald of killing his family.

Norton was a pivotal figure in two upstate New York cases involving parents convicted of killing their children under the cover of SIDS. The stories became a best seller, "The Death of Innocents."

Like the parents in the New York cases, authorities say Wilson was in the clear after the state medical examiner's office ruled that the babies died of SIDS.

But in 1994, Mary Anastasi Wilson walked into Montgomery County police headquarters and announced the death wasn't mysterious at all.

Stung by the recent discovery that Garrett Wilson had secretly divorced her and married another woman with whom he had a child, Mary Wilson repeated a story no one wanted to hear seven years earlier.

"Missy" Anastasi met her future husband at a Rockville health club in 1985. He was fresh out of federal prison in Kentucky, where he served time for a bank robbery.

Garrett Wilson, a teller at United Bank and Trust in Fort Washington, stuffed $10,338 in a bag and tossed it in a nearby restaurant trash bin. He called police, who found him lying on the lobby floor, bleeding from a .25-caliber bullet wound in his stomach.

Ballistics tests contradicted Wilson's claim of being shot by escaping bank robbers. Wilson, police said, had shot himself. The money was picked up with the trash and never recovered.

Missy married Garrett Wilson in 1986, and a year later their son was born.

Wilson told homicide detectives that in the early morning hours of Aug. 22, 1987, she was lying in bed, listening on a baby monitor as her husband fed their son, rocked him gently and placed him back in his crib. Then she heard "a loud sigh."

Worried, she got out of bed and went to her son's crib. Garrett Michael was on his stomach, foam on his lips. Mary Wilson told investigators she scooped up the limp body and ran back to the master bedroom.

She confronted her husband, who was coming out of the bathroom. "What did you do to him?" she screamed.

Garrett Wilson "looked pale and said nothing," she told police.

Paramedics could not revive the boy, and he was pronounced dead at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital at 7: 14 a.m.

Mary Wilson said she tried to convince relatives and friends that her husband had killed the boy. She told them his relationship with the boy was "distant," and that he had died "on the first and only night" his father fed him.

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