Child's life is ended in moment of anger

Abuse: A 16-month-old Baltimore County girl's murder highlights a nationwide struggle to reduce cases of shaken baby syndrome.

January 19, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

Michele Franz rocked back and forth on the hard courtroom bench, clutching the picture of her dead baby.

Gary Wayne Buehler, the tall 22-year-old she had once fallen for, stood rigid and pale in his olive suit. Fingers clenching and unclenching, he waited with the rest of the courtroom Thursday to learn whether the judge believed his story or thought he was a murderer.

It had been a year and a half since the Johns Hopkins emergency pediatric doctors rushed to save Ciara Nicole Franz and her battered 16-month-old brain. A year and a half since the doctors told Michele it was over, and let her climb into the hospital bed with her unconscious toddler to say goodbye.

For the past 18 months, Franz and her family in southwestern Baltimore County have grieved, struggling to understand how anyone could shake a child to death.

There has been increased publicity about "shaken baby syndrome" over the past decade, with public service campaigns telling parents to "never, never, never shake your baby." But to the frustration of prosecutors, police officers and doctors, the rate of shaken baby deaths does not seem to have decreased. Each year, hundreds of children across the country die or are seriously injured this way.

For prosecutors, this makes the outcome of trials such as Buehler's all the more important. Murder convictions, they believe, will prove that shaken baby fatalities are not just family "accidents," and will send a warning that could prevent other deaths.

"`Shaken baby,' I hate that term," said Baltimore County Assistant State's Attorney Adam Lippe during a break in Buehler's trial last week. "It sounds too gentle. It really is `abusive head trauma.' If you saw somebody doing it to an adult, you'd say, `You're going to kill them.'"

`She was our baby'

Michele Franz was 18 years old and a student at the Community College of Baltimore County's Catonsville campus when she discovered she was pregnant. The father was an on-again, off-again boyfriend 10 years her senior, nobody she could depend upon to be a dad.

For six months, she didn't tell a soul, even though her family noticed the changes to her slender frame.

"What do you say, that daddy's little girl is 18 years old and pregnant?" she said.

But on March 11, 2001, Franz's family crowded into the delivery room and watched Ciara Nicole's birth.

"She was Michele's baby, but she was our baby," said Enoch Derrick, Franz's 21-year-old cousin. "That's how we talked about her."

When Franz went to her job at a title company - she had quit school - Ciara stayed with Franz's grandmother in Halethorpe. Franz's sister, Daniele, would take the little girl shopping, and her younger brother, Nick, acted like a youthful father.

The happy baby with the big brown eyes grew up to be a toddler with a pigeon-toed waddle. That's when Gary Buehler came into her life.

Buehler met Michele Franz through her sister, Daniele, who was friendly with some of his buddies in the eastern part of the county. Franz and Buehler went out to dinner a few times. Soon, Franz said, she introduced Buehler to her then-1-year-old daughter.

Franz and Buehler were falling for each other fast. After about a month and a half, they decided to move into Buehler's mother's mobile home on Olive Lane in Essex. They wanted to be a family.

"You told detectives that Gary loved Ciara and Ciara loved him, is that right?" Public Defender Daniel Zanchettin asked Franz on Tuesday, as she sat slumped in the witness stand in Baltimore County Circuit Court.

Franz paused.

"Yup," she said.

The response was flat, filled with sorrow.

Emergency call

The first 911 call came on July 26, 2002, at 1:25 p.m. Buehler's voice was breathless.

"She's, like, acting weird. She's not breathing."

The line went dead - Buehler would later say he accidentally pulled the phone out of the wall. The second call came minutes later.

"Oh my God, I'm freaking out, I can't take this. Ciara. Ciara! Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God."

When paramedics arrived, they knew the toddler was in grave condition. She was unresponsive and rigid, EMT Edward Campitelli later testified. Her heart rate was low - 89 beats a minute instead of the typical 130. She was breathing only four times a minute.

They called for a helicopter.

The paramedics asked Buehler what had happened. He responded with part of the story he would tell for the next 18 months: He was taking care of Ciara that day while Franz was at work. A little after 1 p.m., the phone rang, and he rushed through the kitchen to answer it. He ran into Ciara, hitting her face with his knee. She fell backward and hit her head.

But at the Johns Hopkins pediatric emergency room, doctors immediately recognized the toddler's injuries. They called police.

No decline in cases

Shaken baby syndrome, a name coined in 1972 to describe the constellation of symptoms associated with shaking, is unfortunately well-known to the Hopkins pediatric emergency doctors.

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