BELFAST, Maine — One of the youngest homicide victims of 2011 wasn’t shot, stabbed or beaten to death.
Instead, 2-year-old Brantin Webster died after suffering an internal injury while roughhousing with his half-brother at home in Searsmont.
At least that’s what the Maine chief medical examiner ultimately determined in a report issued several months after Brantin died. And while mother Mindi Boon Peavey is still in disbelief that a wrestling move gone wrong could explain the fate of her blue-eyed toddler, she has decided to work to make his short life count.
“You don’t realize what you have until it’s gone,” she said, her pain and sadness still palpable 18 months after her son’s death. “Brantin was my everything. Parents just don’t realize that those lives can be gone so fast.”
Peavey, 34, of Brooks said she is on a mission to educate parents about sibling safety. She also wants to encourage them to spend more quality time with their children and dreams of creating a foundation that will help families have access to fun, safe activities after school and on weekends.
When she sees children playing on their gaming systems and parents talking on their cellphones, it looks like an opportunity lost to her.
“There needs to be more family involvement,” Peavey said. “Why not make those memories?”
And always at the front of her mind are thoughts of Brantin.
“I promised him at his wake, ‘Your memory won’t be forgotten,’” she said. “And it won’t.”
‘Everybody loved him’
Brantin was an active boy who loved to help his mother cook chocolate chip cookies and whoopie pies, run around and jump on the bed. He also loved his older half-siblings, especially his 12-year-old brother.
At Peavey’s request, the BDN is not naming the older brother, who was charged with a misdemeanor crime in relation to Brantin’s homicide.
The two boys would spend time together fishing and playing football and baseball.
Peavey also a 7-year-old and 11-year-old who then lived part-time with their mom.
Police interviews done immediately after Brantin’s death seem to show that the middle children had a tough time with their elder brother. The younger child told a detective that the older brother “hits when he gets mad.”
Days before her toddler died, Peavey was served with a temporary protection from abuse order on behalf of her two middle children.
In it, their father wrote he was “concerned for my children’s safety when they are in their mother’s care. They have a 12-year-old half-brother living at their mother’s house who is over six feet tall and over 200 pounds … He is very physically abusive towards both children, example pushing, punching. My children are both small and he can seriously hurt them.”
A judge granted a permanent protection order which is still in effect.
But Peavey said that she disputes what her ex-husband said about her oldest son. She also said that a custody battle for those two children has nothing to do with her family’s tragedy and stressed that investigating detectives felt that the toddler’s death was accidental.
Her oldest son, who generally spent weekends with his mother and Brantin, would protect his younger brother “like no tomorrow,” Peavey recalled.
But in mid-December 2010, something seemingly small happened that would have tragic consequences.
The two boys were fooling around, as boys do. Peavey was in the kitchen baking and said she had her back turned when she heard a noise that didn’t sound quite right. It brought her out of the kitchen.
“I said, ‘What happened?’” Peavey said.
It was the wrestling move. Her 6-foot-tall son apparently had held Brantin above his head and then brought him “back down firmly onto his knee/thigh,” according to the Aug. 29 report from the deputy chief medical examiner’s office.
The impact would have caused a hyperextension injury to Brantin’s spine, aorta and soft tissue, the report stated.
“This injury would have worsened, or at least not properly healed, over the subsequent weeks,” it read.
But Brantin did not react at the time as if he’d been seriously injured and began to play again shortly thereafter.
“If I had any suspicion that there was anything that had happened to Brantin in this moment, I would have taken him to the ER,” his mom said.
However, over the following weeks, something seemed to change for her happy little boy with the angelic smile. He appeared to fall sick. Brantin — who always had a voracious appetite — lost interest in eating and seemed to have trouble moving around.
His mom figured he might have the flu.
“We all came down with it pretty bad on Christmas Day,” she said.
So Brantin went to the doctor. Nothing seemed too out of the ordinary. Then, on Jan. 10, Peavey came home from work and found her son in trouble.
“He was shaky. Very white,” she recalled.
The family took him to a midcoast hospital’s emergency room, where Brantin was treated for dehydration, kept overnight and discharged the next day, according to Peavey.
“They thought he had the flu,” she said.
For the next few days after his hospital stay, Brantin didn’t get better but he didn’t visibly get worse, either, she said. He complained of pain in his belly and Peavey wondered if he really was sick with the flu.
‘His best friend’
On Jan. 16, Brantin climbed onto a 2-foot-high chair at his home and then fell off, hitting the floor with a thud. He stood up, looked at his stepfather and then collapsed, according to police interviews.
The stepfather called Peavey at work and then called 911. Emergency responders came to take Brantin to a midcoast hospital, where his frantic mother met him.
The impact of his fall had severed the aortic artery in his back, the medical examiner found out later.
Brantin died at the hospital. His big brother carried his body from the hospital to the waiting hearse.
“He said he did that because Brantin was his best friend,” Peavey said.
According to Brantin’s supplemental death certificate, issued in September, the cause of his death could be directly traced to the December injury.
The immediate cause of his death was an acute hemorrhage that came as a result of his severed artery, which occurred because of complications of the blunt injury to his back.
“An otherwise normally inconsequential minor traumatic event (the minor fall from a chair) resulted in massive internal hemorrhage and death,” Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Michael Ferenc wrote in his case summary of Brantin’s death.
Maine State Police investigate the death of any child under 6. Peavey said that detectives who interviewed her and other family members showed compassion and not judgment.
A thick sheaf of papers from the state’s investigation of his death shows lengthy police interviews with just about everyone who had come in contact with Brantin, including relatives, his day care provider, a first responder and medical personnel.
When they interviewed his big brother, the 12-year-old told the detectives about the mid-December wrestling incident.
“He felt we were focusing on him and thought we were blaming him and targeting him for what happened to Brantin,” Detective Chris Tremblay wrote in a summary of the Jan. 27, 2011, interview.
In fact, the state of Maine did charge the older brother in relation to the death, which later was determined to be a homicide.
Peavey said her older son was charged with reckless conduct, a misdemeanor crime.
“Police felt he was responsible for the injury,” she said. “When we were being investigated, it was brought up that there was roughhousing in the home.”
The older brother told police in the Jan. 27 interview that “how Brantin died has been bothering him.”
He told the detective that he didn’t like wrestling but would watch it on TV.
“When asked if he liked to copy the moves, he answered ‘No,’” the interview summary read. “[He] admitted he would pick Brantin up and then take him off his shoulders and put him down on the bed or on the couch, adding he did it easily.”
Peavey stressed that while investigators told her Brantin’s death was classified as a homicide, they believed that it was accidental.
Part of the reason for charging her older son was so that he could receive counseling and help staying in school after Brantin’s death, she said.
Because the boy is a juvenile, Assistant Attorney General Leane Zainea said recently that she can’t comment on the case, which is sealed. Police officials also have declined comment on the matter.
Zainea said if Peavey’s oldest son had been charged with a more serious Class A, B or C crime, those cases are open to the public.
According to Peavey, her son is on a deferred disposition, meaning that he is on probation for the misdemeanor charge. If he has no probation violations, the state will drop the charge and his record will be wiped clean.
Peavey said that her oldest has been hurting a lot since Brantin died.
“He’s got a heart that’s as big as he is,” she said of the boy, who is now a high school student.
There’s a new baby in the house — a smiling, active 1-year-old girl — and her son is very protective of her. He’s also scared.
“He’s afraid to touch her,” Peavey said.
Ways to be safe
Mary Ellin Logue, associate professor of child development and family relations at the University of Maine, said that the family’s tough situation shouldn’t be cause for people to stop playing or roughhousing with their children.
“Dads roughhouse with kids, in a really healthy, playful way. You would hate to see people not play with their children because they’re afraid,” she said. “It’s a tricky one, because this is a terrible tragedy, and I think these things can happen. But by and large, rough and tumble play is play, and not aggression. Most kids know the difference between play and not play.”
Adults can help children pay attention to picking up signals that play has become too rough, especially with their younger siblings. Those signals can be verbal or nonverbal, such as the expression on a child’s face.
“Ultimately, that’s the relationship they’re going to have probably the longest in their lives,” Logue said of siblings. “We need to find ways to help siblings stay connected. I think the most important thing is just to keep helping children learn.”
She gave the example of a kindergarten class she recently observed playing outside.
“They were bumping each other off the pavement and onto the grass, bumping pretty hard,” Logue said.
But instead of dashing in to break up what appeared to be a problem, the teacher checked in with them.
“She said, ‘OK, guys, that looks really rough, what’s going on?’” Logue recounted. “They said, ‘We’re NASCAR drivers!’ Well, you can’t play NASCAR without bumping each other.”
The children negotiated a way to continue playing without hurting each other.
“I think we can all learn from that,” Logue said. “Instead of stopping it, say, ‘That looks very rough. How can we be safe?’”
Peavey said that at her house, wrestling is no longer allowed at all.
“I hate WWE,” she said.
According to Logue, parents do need to be mindful of how their children are playing together.
“You don’t want to wait until they get too far and in too much trouble,” she said. “Things do happen. But don’t discourage kids from playing.”