AUGUSTA, Maine — With graphic photos of 4-year-old Kendall Chick’s bruised and battered face and body displayed on a large screen before him, Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber opened the murder trial of Shawna L. Gatto on Monday by repeating the words, “She was fine 10 minutes ago.”
Macomber said Gatto spoke those words repeatedly to Gatto’s fiance, Stephen Hood — Chick’s grandfather — and to first responders and detectives at the Crickets Lane home in Wiscasset the afternoon of Dec. 8, 2017, when Chick died.
Gatto, now 44, is charged with depraved indifference murder in causing Chick’s death that day.
Gatto, who pleaded not guilty, waived her right to a jury trial in August. Her bench trial before Superior Court Justice William R. Stokes began Monday morning.
On a large screen, Macomber displayed multiple photos of Chick’s face, neck and body, with two black eyes and countless bruises.
“As you can see, your honor, little Kendall Chick was not fine 10 minutes ago,” Macomber said.
“Most importantly,” Macomber said chief medical examiner Mark Flomenbaum will testify that “Kendall was the victim of child abuse syndrome,” with 15 to 20 injuries to her head and face, multiple injuries to her neck, 11 distinct injuries to her extremities, brain swelling and old traumatic scalp injury and acute peritonitis, among other maladies.
Macomber said police found a “head-sized defect in the drywall of Chick’s bedroom, with transfer of stain of her blood and one of her hairs embedded in the wall.”
Police also found blood stains on the lower bunk bed in which Chick slept, on the bathtub in which Gatto said she left Chick, on paper towels in a bathroom trash can and on a towel in the kitchen, among other places, according to transcripts of interviews with the defendant by investigators, including Lincoln County sheriff’s Deputy Jared Mitkus. They also found evidence of “ subsequent cleanup.”
Macomber said Monday that Flombenbaum concluded that the cause of Chick’s death was blunt force trauma to the abdomen, with multiple blunt force trauma to the head as contributory.
“In short, your honor, Kendall Chick was beaten to death,” he said.
On Monday afternoon, Macomber played audio and video recordings of interviews with Gatto taken by Mitkus and then-Maine State Police detective Joshua Birmingham.
Mitkus recorded Gatto for 32 minutes while he drove her to the station following the incident and for a short time thereafter.
Gatto, sitting beside lead defense attorney Jeremy Pratt, wiped her eyes during the playback, as she did throughout the day.
“She was fine right before this happened,” Gatto told Mitkus on the recording. “I don’t understand it.”
“She’s … very accident-prone, a very intelligent little girl but then there’s times that … she’s a drug baby,” Gatto said on the recording. “But she’d be walking along and all of a sudden … she’ll go face-first into the floor or fall face-first down the stairs … She’ll trip over air.”
At one point on the recording, Gatto began sobbing, “Oh god.”
Mitkus told Macomber that at that point, Gatto had received a text message from a family member — later identified as her daughter-in-law, Danielle Coffin, who worked at Mid Coast Hospital — saying Chick had died.
During a two-hour interview with Birmingham, which Macomber played Monday afternoon, Gatto said that after Chick asked “in that squeaky, whiny voice” for some chocolate milk, she returned to the bathroom to find Chick slumped over in the bathtub, but conscious.
“She’s a very lazy child,” Gatto said on the recording. “She doesn’t like to go outside. She doesn’t know how to play.”
“She was very manipulative too,” Gatto said of the child. “She retaliated against me in a way … she would pee and poop in her undies …”
A few days prior to her death, Chick “went face-first into the door frame” and “it buttoned her eye right up,” Gatto said. At one point during the interview, Gatto said Chick injured her left eye and later said it was her right eye.
She said Chick had recently attempted to take her bike over a ramp and landed “face first” in gravel, putting her tooth through her lip, and that within the previous week, had attempted to jump onto a mattress “and went head-first into the toy bin.”
“Honestly I couldn’t tell you where the bruises came from,” she said. “She would just go to bed and when she would wake up, she’d have bruises on her.”
Still, she said Chick “loved people, is very loving, huggy-kissy and helpful,” and several times repeated the term, “happy-go-lucky.”
Macomber said witnesses would testify that Gatto and Hood had been reluctant to take the child out in public because of bruises on her body. He said Gatto who had been with Hood for 12 years, was the mother of two young men who had recently moved out of the home on Crickets Lane.
“Shawna and Scott were going to be empty nesters,” Macomber said. But when both sons had children within a few years, “Shawna became a stay-at-home grandmother.”
He said Chick’s parents were both addicted to drugs and the child was removed from their custody and placed with Gatto and Hood by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Then another grandchild was born.
“Two active 2-year-olds and an infant, all day, every day, by herself,” Macomber said.
Macomber said Chick began showing bruises that summer, and that Hood would return from work every day to find a new bruise on his granddaughter. Gatto would say the child fell down, and would tell others she had fallen down, fallen out of bed, or run into a coffee table, Macomber said.
Macomber said only two people could have caused the child’s injuries: Gatto or Hood. He referred to a Dec. 19, 2017, phone call between Gatto, who was in jail, and Hood, in which Hood asked Gatto what happened to the child.
“If Steve Hood was really the one who inflicted these injuries, why wouldn’t Shawna have said, ‘Steve, you know what happened to Kendall — you did it.’” Macomber said. “Instead, she says, ‘I don’t know what happened. She was fine.’”
Macomber played the 911 call placed by Hood upon finding Chick unresponsive that day, in which Gatto repeated, “She was fine like 10 minutes ago.” As Hood attempted CPR, Gatto can be heard saying in the background, “I don’t know — I just came in.”
Two advanced emergency medical technicians and a paramedic who first responded to the scene that afternoon all testified that they found a naked child covered in “different stages of bruising,” with an eye swollen nearly shut, a fresh cut under her chin but with no blood, dried blood inside her nose and a “misshaped” and “squishy” head. They said that while they were told Chick had had “an accident,” they could neither smell nor see feces.
“It appeared to me that any bleeding that had been on this child had been cleaned up prior to our arrival,” EMT Anita Sprague said.
Questioned by Pratt, Wiscasset Ambulance paramedic Stephen Harrison said Chick did regain a heartbeat while at Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick.
Witnesses in the trial have been sequestered from each other and may not be present in the courtroom until after they have testified.
Pratt told Stokes that he would reserve his opening remarks until the prosecution had ended its case.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and would like to talk with an advocate, call 866-834-4357, TRS 800-787-3224. This free, confidential service is available 24/7 and is accessible from anywhere in Maine.