Caron Swayney knew better than to torture herself, but still she occasionally found herself drawn to the trailer park where the cold, limp body of her 15-month-old niece was discovered dead in the middle of the night last January.
“I would go down there and just sit in the driveway and just look at that trailer and cry,” Swayney said. “It just seems like it is never going to end.”
The year since the death of Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn has been trying and emotional for her extended Cherokee family. When Swayney participated in a ceremonial sweat lodge at the start of the new year, she had one wish.
“I asked everyone to pray for the family that this year would start off better than what it did last year and that we would get the answers we had been waiting for for a year,” said Swayney, Aubrey’s great-aunt. “We kept wondering when something was going to happen.”
Last week, something finally did.
Ladybird Powell, who was caring for Aubrey at the time of her death, was arrested on numerous charges last Friday in connection with Aubrey’s death, including second-degree murder and felony child abuse. Powell is being held on $1 million bond.
“This has been one of the hardest cases that we have had to investigate, primarily because of the age of the child. As a parent, it is hard to imagine any child being taken away at such an early age,” Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran said in a statement.
An autopsy revealed numerous recent bruises on Aubrey’s body and past evidence of a fracture. It found the nature of Aubrey’s death was consistent with hypothermia but could not conclusively determine that it was indeed the cause of death.
Family members say Ladybird’s trailer did not have heat. When Aubrey’s lifeless body was brought into the emergency room the night of her death, her core body temperature was a low 84 degrees, and she was dressed in only a T-shirt and dirty diaper.
Witnesses have said Aubrey was not properly cared for by Ladybird and that on the day of her death she had been strapped in a car seat for 12 hours and hardly fed.
Aubrey’s mother, Jasmine Littlejohn, had asked Ladybird to care for Aubrey temporarily while Jasmine served time in jail. When Jasmine got out of jail and tried to get her daughter back, Powell refused unless Jasmine paid her several thousand dollars, according to family.
Kidnapping and extortion are among the charges filed against Powell. She also faces drug charges, including possession of methamphetamines, for drugs and paraphernalia confiscated from the trailer the night of Aubrey’s death.
The family was relieved to get word of the charges last week, particularly Aubrey’s mother, Jasmine.
“She knows it won’t bring Aubrey back, but like everybody else, she wants the people held responsible for her child’s death,” said Henrietta Littlejohn, Aubrey’s grandmother.
Cochran said that while it has taken a year to build the case, it has been a top priority of the sheriff’s department.
“There has been a great expression of concern from Aubrey’s family members, and we want everyone in Swain County to know that we have never stopped working on this case,” Cochran said, crediting the work of Detective Carolyn Posey in particular.
The family knows the charges are just the first step, however, in what could be a difficult and protracted court battle, one that will mean reliving baby Aubrey’s death over and over. Henrietta is trying to brace her daughter, Jasmine, for what’s to come.
“It could get nasty, and it could get ugly, so she is going to have to prepare herself. We all are,” said Henrietta Littlejohn.
David Wijewickrama, an attorney who has been acting as an advocate for Aubrey’s family in seeking justice, said he was pleased by the charges.
“I want to applaud the district attorney’s office for pursuing the case with diligence and not letting it slip through the cracks,” Wijewickrama said.
Charges expected this week in social service’s alleged cover-up
While the caretaker of 15-month-old Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn has been charged in connection with her death last year, the case is not exactly closed.
Still pending is whether Swain County social workers will face charges for an alleged cover-up following the baby’s death. The State Bureau of Investigation conducted a 10-month probe into whether social workers falsified records in an attempt to cover up potential negligence on their part.
Aubrey’s family say they warned social workers numerous times that Aubrey was not safe in the home of Ladybird Powell. Social workers even removed other children from the home but left Aubrey there.
Charges stemming from the SBI investigation into the Department of Social Services are expected this week. See www.smokymountainnews.com for updates in the case.