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Relatives say they warned social workers repeatedly over the course of several months that Aubrey Littlejohn was being neglected and abused.

Called by her middle name by family, 15-month-old Kina-Marie died on a mattress on the floor of a singlewide trailer sometime in the middle of the night on Jan. 10. She was dressed in only a T-shirt despite statements made to law enforcement that the trailer had no heat. It is unclear whether an adult was home.

Social workers in Swain County had been warned by relatives that Kina Marie was in danger but failed to remove her from the home, according to law enforcement records.

“Witnesses interviewed have stated that they called the Department of Social Services and made reports detailing abuse and neglect of the child and received no response from any departmental employee,” according to a search warrant executed against DSS offices.

Relatives told investigators “they had witnessed physical abuse and neglect inflicted on the child and observed no food, a lack of heat and other inadequacies in the home environment.”

The baby had been in the care of a great-aunt, Lady Bird Powell, 38, since last spring. Powell did not have legal custody, however. Other relatives asked Powell for the child, and even the child’s mother tried to get her back, but Powell refused to give her up.

So relatives turned to DSS for help. At least three relatives asked DSS to take the baby away from Powell, and had been to Swain DSS in person.

Kina Marie’s mother, Jasmine Littlejohn, 20, had to part with her daughter last April after being sentenced to a mandatory 90-day drug rehab. Meanwhile, Powell’s 18-year-old son, Hawk Rattler, had died of a drug overdose in March, according to a death certificate. Powell offered to keep Kina Marie while Littlejohn was away in rehab, claiming it would help her cope with her own son’s death, according to relatives.

Kina Marie was six months old when her mother turned her over to Powell. When Littlejohn got out of rehab, Powell refused to give Kina Marie back, relatives said.

Littlejohn was soon back behind bars, however, on federal drug charges for conspiracy to distribute marijuana and is being held as a federal prisoner in the Cherokee County jail.

Whether Powell was getting aid for Kina Marie, such as food stamps or monetary support, is not certain. SBI agents have requested all records of financial support or benefits Powell was getting for Kina Marie from DSS. Relatives say Powell was getting Kina Marie’s food stamps, but that information is not public.

 

No place for a child

In perhaps one of the most perplexing elements of the case, Powell’s own children were taken away by DSS but Kina Marie was left behind. According to relatives, two of Powell’s own children were removed from her home in August while Kina Marie, who was just a baby, stayed in her care. In November, a nephew living with Powell was also removed from the home, but once again Kina Marie was left there, according to relatives.

DSS records regarding the children and their removal from the home aren’t public.

Dispatch records show that Swain County deputies were asked to escort a social worker to Powell’s home on Nov. 8, but no one came to the door. They went back the following day and were at the home for over an hour, according to dispatch logs.

Relatives said they were concerned that Kina Marie wasn’t growing well and was too small for her age, relatives said. She couldn’t do the things she should have been able to. Relatives suspect she wasn’t being fed properly. She also spent long hours many days strapped into a car seat — whether in the car or inside the house — so she couldn’t move or crawl around, according to relatives and law enforcement documents.

DSS records of one complaint reads as follows: “Reporter states she is very concerned for the baby. Reporter states that the baby is one year old and seems significantly delayed. Reporter states she is always in a car seat and is left in the car alone, even in the heat, while they run errands and drive around all day.”

But there were even more troubling signs. Kina Marie was seen with bruises on her face one day in September. When relatives called DSS to once again report their suspicions of abuse, it finally triggered a home visit by a social worker named Craig Smith.

Powell told Smith that Kina-Marie fell down a set of five stairs. Powell gave Smith two different stories, however, according to his report on the incident.

Powell first said the Kina Marie was sitting in a car seat at the top of the steps. She wasn’t buckled in and fell out when Powell jerked up the car seat. But Powell also said Kina Marie was kicking around in the car seat and made it fall over.

“Ladybird did not take the baby to the doctor because she stated she did not want DSS to be involved,” Smith’s report on the incident says. Smith then told Powell to take her to the doctor. But Powell never did, and Smith never followed up to see whether she had.

Cherokee Indian Hospital has no records of Kina Marie ever being seen by a doctor there, according to law enforcement documents. Cherokee Indian Hospital is where most members of the tribe go for medical care. Whether she was taken to a doctor elsewhere for regular check-ups and vaccinations is not known.

At some point, Kina Marie’s arm was broken. Medical examiners performing an autopsy after her death discovered it, according to a search warrant. The autopsy report is not yet complete.

Following Kina Marie’s death, investigators searched Powell’s trailer and found evidence of drug use. Drug paraphernalia, including pipes, pill grinders, straws and empty bottles were confiscated in the search, along with several items covered in a white powdery residue.

During attempts to revive Kina Marie at the emergency room the night she died, doctors gave her medication to counter possible narcotic exposure based on “previous DSS reports concerning the child’s living conditions,” according to law enforcement records.

According to Veronica Callahan, Powell’s next-door neighbor, there were often lots of vehicles coming and going from the trailer at all hours of the night.

Callahan also said unsupervised children were often running around in the yard and street in front of the trailer. In the fall, she noticed children were sleeping in a tent in the backyard of the trailer. She said Powell would sometimes lock the children out of the trailer.

Sheriff deputies had been to Powell’s trailer on three calls in a six-month period, according to dispatch records. One was for a report of domestic violence in June. In October, deputies responded to reports of a drunk person causing a disturbance. In November, the Swain County sheriff’s office were called to the residence after a report that three boys were missing. The boys were later found under a nearby bridge.

Powell’s criminal record includes misdemeanor child abuse for allowing 5-year-old and 9-year-old child to ride in a car with a 14-year-old behind the wheel. The 14-year-old wrecked, and Powell was charged for endangering their safety. She also has assault charges.

 

The final hours

The day Kina Marie died, she had been left strapped in a car seat for 12 hours, according to a law enforcement investigation.

“During that time period Aubrey was not removed from the car seat, given food or a drink except for some bites from a hotdog and sips of a soda that Ladybird Powell was eating around 5 p.m. Aubrey’s diaper was not changed during this period,” investigators were told by a witness who was with Kina Marie and Ladybird that day.

Around 10 p.m. she was taken from the car seat and put to bed on a mattress wearing only a T-shirt and diaper.

Powell discovered Kina Marie’s body around 3 a.m., according to dispatch records. The Cherokee Police Department was put on alert that a white truck with its flashers on was speeding toward the Cherokee hospital with a baby who was blue and not breathing. Meanwhile, the dispatcher gave Powell instructions on how to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while driving in the truck.

Powell was distraught by Kina Marie’s death, according to a recording of the 911 call Powell made after discovering Kina Marie’s body. Powell was hysterical, screaming and weeping as she held Kina Marie in her arms.

“My baby’s not breathing, oh my God, she’s not breathing,” Powell cried over and over into the phone. Powell stayed on the line with the 911 dispatcher while her husband, James Murphy, drove them to the emergency room at Cherokee Indian Hospital.

They arrived at the emergency room by 3:30 a.m., where medical staff had to forcibly pry Kina Marie out of Powell’s arms.

Kina Marie’s body was a dusky blue color, and her core body temperature was only 84 degrees.

“Infant was limp and very cold to the touch,” according to law enforcement records.

Doctors attempted to revive Kina Marie but were unsuccessful. She was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at the hospital.

Cherokee police officers felt the mysterious death should be investigated, but since Powell lived off the reservation the case would fall to the Swain County Sheriff’s office. Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran and Detective Carolyn Posey were roused from bed and arrived at the hospital in Cherokee around 5 a.m.

An investigation by the Swain County sheriff’s office into Kina Marie’s death is still pending, which will determine what if any charges are pressed against the baby’s caregivers.

Waynesville Attorney David Wijewickrama has been retained by Kina Marie’s mother to pursue a civil case against DSS for failure to intervene.

“I am absolutely disgusted and appalled with any social worker that would have left her alone in that trailer with the people who abused her and eventually killed her,” Wijewickrama said.

Wijewickrama said DSS should have heeded complaints of relatives and removed Kina Marie from Powell’s care.

“If a social worker wants to take a child they can take it just like that,” Wijewickrama said. “The statute is so broadly written it gives enormous power to law enforcement and DSS workers to do whatever they want, if they even think they need do. They have authority right then and there. Get the kid in the car, and go.”

Wijewickrama expressed “rage and fury” over the alleged DSS cover-up aimed at erasing evidence they knew of the abuse and failed to act.

“I’m mad. I’m very mad,” Wijewickrama said.

Wijewickrama said criminal charges in Kina Marie’s death should have been pressed by now.

“I am absolutely stunned that based on the contents of those warrants that no one has been arrested,” Wijewickrama said.

Staff writer Quintin Ellison contributed to this report.

The mood is grim. Few people in this tight community want to talk to an outsider about the death of 15-month-old Aubrey Littlejohn.

Here on the Cherokee Indian Reservation, kinship ties are strong and families are extended and extensive. It doesn’t matter that they might not have known or ever even seen the toddler: in this tribe of just more than 14,000 members, there is outrage. Anger. Hurt. Aubrey was one of their own, another branch of the close-knit tribal family tree.

“It’s just uncalled for,” said Lisa Owen, who works in a Cherokee Harley Davidson store. “As a parent myself, I think the well-being of the kids should be first and foremost on anyone’s mind. They’re our future, and if we don’t take care of them, nobody will.”

The Swain County Department of Social Services failed to remove the child from the home despite numerous complaints by caregivers that she was in an unsafe home and being neglected by her caregiver. (see related story)

The allegations have spawned outrage among members of the tribe.

“DSS should’ve stepped in and took care of that baby,” said Scotty Gunter, a clerk at a local auto parts store. “She would probably still be alive if they had.”

His coworker Willene Gross agreed.

“I feel like that baby’s death could’ve been prevented,” said Gross. “They [DSS] need to do more investigating into stuff like that.”

Swain County DSS Director Tammy Cagle said she and her staff are deeply saddened by Aubrey’s death.

Regina Rosario, the head of the Cherokee child-advocacy group Heart-to-Heart, said that she’s dismayed, but not entirely surprised.

“I knew one day it would come down to this, you know, one of ours dying, and you see now that it’s a mess,” said Rosario of the DSS system. “It’s gotten a little better but there’s still things that I think that they should be on top of.”

Tribal Council Member Terri Howard also expressed her sadness over the baby’s death, saying that she hoped social services and tribal government both would use this as an opportunity to reexamine their roles and responsibilities, and possibly make some changes.

“I am very saddened that this little girl lost her life,” said Howard. “It’s a tragedy that it had to come to this.”

As the investigation into Aubrey’s death and the alleged coverup at Swain County DSS continues, more discussions about how the system could be improved are likely to be stirred on the reservation and in surrounding counties. Although the issue has not formally been placed on this agenda for a tribal council meeting this Thursday, Rosario has pledged to bring up the issue in public comment, and Howard believes that others will be there to voice their outrage, too.

Relatives of a Cherokee child who died in January are publicly calling for the suspension of the Swain County Department of Social Services’ director and program manager, as well as other employees named in a State Bureau of Investigation probe into an alleged cover-up at the agency.

Nearly two-dozen family members of Aubrey Kina Marie Littlejohn came to the Swain County Commissioners meeting Monday (Feb. 28) to make their case. Speakers told commissioners that public confidence in DSS has been severely shaken. They said suspending those in charge, including Director Tammy Cagle and Program Manager T.L. Jones, will help repair the agency’s credibility in the community.

“People do feel a little tense not knowing what is going to happen with these same people still sitting in the positions that they are in,” said Ruth McCoy, a great aunt to Aubrey.

Though commissioners have no authority to suspend DSS employees directly, they could implore the DSS board to take action.

Three of the five Swain County commissioners openly agreed to do so, and a fourth seemed to indicate possible support as well.

Only Commissioner Steve Moon, who is the uncle of DSS Director Tammy Cagle, said he disagreed with suspending the employees. Moon argued with McCoy, who was speaking on behalf of the family, who are members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Several DSS employees attended the commissioners’ meeting, including Cagle and Jones. The cramped quarters — only two tightly packed rows of folding chairs — created standing room only.

DSS officials seemed to know that questions regarding their employment would be broached. DSS Attorney Justin Greene addressed commissioners at the outset of the meeting, preemptively putting them on notice that the authority to make personnel decisions rests “exclusively” with the DSS board of directors and not the county commissioners.

Commissioner David Monteith was the first to weigh in after McCoy sat down.

“I myself would like to suggest to the commissioner board that these other people who have been allocated in this be dismissed with pay until charges are either brought against or cleared. I think it would be better for the whole county if this would happen,” Monteith said.

Monteith suggested the commissioners write a letter to the DSS board with a recommendation to that effect.

A DSS worker who came to the meeting offered a rebuttal from the audience.

“Excuse me, can I ask something?” she said. “How will the agency run?”

Monteith replied that replacement staff could be sent in from the state level. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, the umbrella agency over county DSS units, has offered to provide support and resources should Swain County need help, Monteith said.

DSS Board Chairman Jim Gribble countered that their board didn’t have the authority to meddle in personnel when it comes to rank-and-file employees.

“The only position the board can appoint is the director. We could appoint a temporary director,” Gribble said.

“I think that would be a start,” McCoy answered.

“Close down the DSS? Is that a start?” Moon asked.

McCoy said the state would send personnel to help run the agency if needed.

“It won’t bring Aubrey back,” McCoy said. “But you are going to see there are going to be more people come forward.”

“No, it won’t bring her back,” Moon said.

It soon became clear Moon was in the minority, however.

Commissioner Chairman Phillip Carson said he supported sending a letter to the DSS board calling for the suspension of employees involved in the SBI investigation.

“In my opinion that would be the fair thing to do until the investigation is over with,” Carson said.

Commissioner Donnie Dixon agreed.

Gribble pointed out that the DSS board won’t meet until the end of March.

“Would they consider a special session?” asked Commissioner Robert White.

Carson turned to Gribble and reiterated the question.

“Would you have a special session?” Carson asked.

Gribble pointed out the DSS board has already made a unanimous decision on how to proceed, and for now that means waiting on the outcome of the investigation before making any personnel changes.

“We felt like the ongoing investigation would yield more evidence on personnel matters than we could obtain by having our own personnel investigation, so we chose not to do a personnel investigation,” Gribble said.

He suggested the commissioners and DSS board meet to talk about the issue behind closed doors.

McCoy said if that happens, Moon should abstain from the discussion and a vote on the matter since DSS Director Tammy Cagle is his niece.

That’s when yet another DSS employee spoke from the audience.

“It is my understanding that our director is not directly involved in the investigation,” the DSS worker said in defense of Cagle. “You would suspend that person, who gives the whole agency direction?”

Carson said he was not passing judgment on guilt or innocence, but was trying to protect the integrity of the investigation.

“It needs to be investigated with no complications,” Carson said. “There is a procedure to investigations and sometimes it is just better to set everyone involved aside.”

Monteith asked whether any DSS employee has been suspended so far. Several DSS workers who came to the meeting began nodding and saying “yes,” but DSS Attorney Justin Greene jumped up and said they could not comment on an employee’s personnel status.  However, the employment status, including a suspension, of a state or county employee is in fact public record under the N.C. Public Records Law, according to N.C. Press Association Attorney Amanda Martin.

Several sources who did not want to be identified have told The Smoky Mountain News that Craig Smith, the case worker assigned to Aubrey’s case, has been suspended. However, Smith claimed to investigators he was acting on orders when he fabricated DSS records (see related article.)

 

Citizens ask for action against DSS

DSS Director Tammy Cagle and Program Manager T.L. Jones have not spoken to reporters since the investigation became public. Cagle did read a brief written statement at the commission meeting Monday.

“I want to ensure the citizens of Swain County that the staff of Swain County Social Services has been faithful and diligent in our duties to protect children and we will continue to do so,” Cagle said.

Last week, Greene made a similar statement to media.

“We hope this doesn’t dissuade the public from seeking services or making reports to protect the adults and children of this county,” said Greene.

But Angie Rasulo of Swain County said the allegations don’t exactly inspire confidence in the public.

“How are the people going to feel safe?” Rasulo asked.

Rasulo had an appointment at DSS the day it was raided by the SBI. She was told to come back another day. Rasulo shared what she said was a common sentiment in Swain County, that DSS is not responsive to the community. She hopes the agency sees a clean sweep.

“It’s terrible that a girl had to die to make a change,” Rasulo said. “I hope they are held accountable. They need to clean house.”

Gribble said Swain DSS has asked the state to review all pending child protective services cases to make sure they are being handled properly.

Aubrey Littlejohn’s family members weren’t convinced, however.

“How many other families are going to want to go to DSS? People will think ‘Why should we bother because they aren’t going to do anything,’” Leighann McCoy said. “How can you let them get away with this?”

The Swain County Department of Social Services falsified records relating to the abuse and neglect of a 15-month-old baby who later died, according to an investigation by the Swain County Sheriff’s Office and the State Bureau of Investigation.

The specific charge being investigated is “obstruction of justice being infamous, done in secrecy and malice, and/or with deceit and intent to defraud.”

The social worker who handled the child’s case, Craig Smith, altered his reports, fabricating a hospital visit and doctor’s exam that never occurred, according to law enforcement statements. Smith claims he did so at the direction of his immediate superior, Candace Lassiter, according to a search warrant executed by the SBI at the DSS office in Bryson City.

The search warrant also suggests that the agency concealed records in its possession rather than turning them over to investigators.

DSS Director Tammy Cagle and Program Manager T.L. Jones met with Smith after he had falsified the reports but before they had been turned over to investigators, according to the warrant. Smith said Cagle told him at the meeting “we have to get everything in order and everything straight.”

The SBI seized computers and records from Swain County DSS offices last Tuesday (Feb. 22). Workers were put on lock down during the raid. People with appointments to see social workers or apply for benefits had to come back another day.

The Swain County Sheriff’s Office unraveled the alleged DSS cover-up while investigating the Jan. 10 death of Aubrey Kina Marie Littlejohn. Kina Marie was living with a great aunt, Lady Bird Powell, at the time.

Abuse and neglect are considered contributing factors, according to law enforcement records, but the investigation is still pending and no charges have been filed yet. The autopsy report is not yet final.

The investigation into Swain DSS was launched after Swain County Detective Carolyn Posey uncovered discrepancies in DSS records and found holes in the accounts from DSS social workers. Posey had initially been assigned to investigate Aubrey’s death and determine what, if any, charges should be filed.

Over the course of the investigation, Posey encountered delays getting DSS records. When she finally got the reports she found there were missing pages and other things that didn’t add up.

The child and caregiver are members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, but lived in Swain County. The tribe hired a private investigator, Danny Cheatham, to assist Posey in the case.

Posey and Cheatham interviewed several relatives and neighbors who told them they witnessed abuse and neglect of Aubrey while in Powell’s care. Relatives said they had repeatedly informed DSS of the situation, made reports and requested intervention but got no response.

But numerous DSS employees — from the rank and file to the director and manager — told Posey a different story, according to the search warrant.

“Investigators Posey and Cheetham have interviewed numerous persons who indicated that they witnessed physical abuse and neglect inflicted on the child and observed no food, a lack of heat and other inadequacies in the home environment. This information is in direct contrast to the information provided by the Department of Social Services’ employees: Misty Tabor, Craig Smith, Candace Lassiter, Angela Biggs, T.L. Jones and Tammy Cagle,” the warrant states.

Cagle is the director of DSS and Jones is the program manager.

Cagle and Jones told Posey they had turned over all their reports and files on Aubrey. But Posey believed the agency was withholding records and reports, according to the search warrant.

Once Posey and Cheatham discovered what appeared to be cover-up by Swain DSS, they alerted District Attorney Mike Bonfoey, who in turn called the State Bureau of Investigation.

 

Unraveling tale

Posey encountered significant and unexplained delays getting the DSS records for Aubrey. Posey began asking for the records immediately following the child’s death, but three weeks later had still not received them.

Posey then went to DSS and met with Program Manager T.L. Jones and DSS Director Tammy Cagle to find out what the hold up was.

But even then another two weeks passed before she got the records — a delay of five weeks after her initial request. By now, Posey had grown suspicious. That suspicion mounted as Posey realized the records were incomplete.

“Documents were missing and forms with sequential page numbers were not complete,” the search warrant states.

But it was a dubious account of a doctor’s checkup that proved the biggest red flag to Posey.

Powell was supposed to have Aubrey examined by a doctor following a complaint from relatives who saw the baby with bruises. When visited by social worker Craig Smith, Powell told him the bruises were the result of a fall down the stairs.

Smith told Powell to take the baby to the doctor for a checkup, but she never did. Smith failed to follow up with Powell on the outcome of the doctor’s visit.

Following Aubrey’s death, Smith claims his supervisor told him to go back and “fudge” the reports, according to the search warrant. Smith wrote a fake report recounting a conversation with a doctor who had done a checkup.

Here’s what the fabricated report said about that conversation:

“Smith asked (Dr. Toedt) how the visit went and she stated that she checked the child and didn’t find anything wrong with the child and stated the child appeared to be normal to her. Smith asked her if she could send him something stating what she had just told him. Dr. Toadt stated that wouldn’t be a problem and that she would type something up for him and fax it to him.”

Posey found the account troubling. For starters, Smith spelled the doctor’s name wrong throughout the report.

But as a licensed nurse herself, Posey knew that federal law prohibits doctors from giving out personal health information about patients over the phone. So she decided to call the doctor herself.

“Detective Posey found that there was no medical record documenting that Dr. Toedt had ever seen Aubrey Littlejohn,” the search warrant states. “Dr. Toedt told Detective Posey that she had never had a phone conversation with Craig Smith, and she had never seen or examined Aubrey Littlejohn.”

The very next day, Thursday, Feb. 17, Posey and Cheetham went to see Smith. When they asked him about his visit to Powell’s trailer, he told them the house was clean, that the floors had been mopped and even “smelled of Pine Sol cleaning solution.” He said Powell was feeding Aubrey crackers and juice, and that the home was “stocked with food.”

Smith told the investigators that reports of abuse were “unsubstantiated” and the case had been closed on Oct. 10.

When asked about the doctor’s visit, Smith repeated his story from the fake report. Posey and Cheatham then confronted Smith with what they knew, and Smith fessed up.

Smith admitted to fabricating the doctor’s visit and altering reports in the case file, but said that he did so at the direction of his immediate supervisor, Candice Lassiter. Smith said Lassiter came to him the week after Aubrey’s death and told him to change the records, including faking a doctor’s visit, according to the search warrant.

Smith also said he met with DSS Director Tammy Cagle and Program Manager T.L. Jones during the course of the law enforcement investigation.

“Cagle told Smith that we have to get everything in order and everything straight,” the search warrant says. “This was after Smith had altered and falsified his original narrative and after he had submitted the altered and falsified narrative to Lassiter.”

In the meeting, Cagle asked Smith why he hadn’t followed up on the doctor’s visit, according to Smith. Smith said he was then told to leave the meeting and his bosses stayed in the room.

By now, it was early February. Posey still hadn’t received the records from DSS.

Meanwhile, Cagle told Smith and Lassiter to go out and find Powell so they could question her about whether she ever took Aubrey to the doctor, according to the search warrant. Smith and Lassiter went to Powell’s trailer and to her sister’s house but had no luck. They came back and told Cagle they couldn’t find Powell, according to Smith’s statement in the warrant.

The following Monday, the SBI secured a search warrant from Superior Court Judge Brad Letts. Agents showed up at DSS shortly after the start of the workday the next morning.

 

Computer forensics

The search warrant gave SBI agents sweeping authority to seize computers, hard drives, servers and data storage devices, including thumb drives and memory sticks in the personal possession of employees. The search warrant also stipulates that DSS workers turn over passwords required to open files or get into e-mail accounts.

Documents to be seized included case files, call logs, child services reports, time sheets, mileage records and even desktop calendars of employees.

In the search warrant, SBI Agent S. Ashe explained why computers had to be seized rather than inspected on site.

“Searching electronic or computer devices for criminal evidence can be a highly technical process requiring expert skill and a properly controlled environment,” Ashe wrote.

Even if DSS employees deleted incriminating files, it might be possible to recover them.

“Files, or at least traces of that file, can be recovered by forensic analysis techniques even after the file has been deleted by the user,” Ashe wrote.

Computer experts can recover “hidden, erased, compressed and encrypted files,” Ashe wrote, but sifting through the massive quantity of data on computers to find what investigators are looking for is a lengthy process.

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