Boy’s unexplained death reveals mom’s lies

Boy’s unexplained death reveals mom’s lies

By Shawn Cohen & Peter D. Kramer | The (Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal News

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — Lacey Spears was first and foremost a mom, doting to the point of obsessionover her blond, blue-eyed son, Garnett, in sickness and in health.

There was plenty of sickness.

In the first year of his short life, Spears told friends on social media, Garnett was in the hospital 23 times, once for five weeks.

Her online circle cried with her at news of another hospitalization, rejoiced with her as they saw the sickly boy grow, offered prayers and support. They followed on Facebook as Spears moved in 2010 from her hometown Decatur, Ala., to Clearwater, Fla., where she and “G” — as he was known — lived with Spears’ grandmother for a brief, idyllic time. In 2012, she moved Garnett north, to the secluded Fellowship Community in Chestnut Ridge, N.Y., saying she hoped the close-to-the-earth living would be the answer to the boy’s chronic health issues. She wrote a blog, “Garnett’s Journey,” subtitled “Healing takes courage, and we all have courage, even if we have to dig a little to find it.” On it, she chronicled hospital stays and the loss of her soulmate, Garnett’s daddy, Blake.

On Jan. 19, 5-year-old Garnett was airlifted from Nyack Hospital to Westchester Medical Center, where doctors found extreme levels of sodium in the boy’s system, even as Spears shared photos of him on life support. He died Jan. 23. Before he died, Westchester County, N.Y., police, the district attorney and Ramapo, N.Y., police began an investigation.

The focus of the probe is Spears, who police suspect may have fed potentially life-threatening amounts of salt to her son in a case of Munchausen by proxy, a psychiatric disorder that leads a parent to sicken a child to seek sympathy or attention.

As Garnett lay dying in Westchester Medical Center, Spears phoned a friend at the Fellowship and asked her to get rid of one of the bags she used to feed Garnett through a tube in his abdomen. Police later seized the bag, which sources say contained a high concentration of sodium.

The medical examiner has yet to rule on the cause of Garnett’s death. If Spears is charged, it would be one of the first such trials in the age of social media, a tool that gave Spears a broad and eager audience for her parenting travails: She was a fixture on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter.

Spears has denied doing anything to harm her son, and her lawyer, David Sachs, has declined to comment.

The (Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal News spent nine days in Alabama and Florida talking with people who know Spears, trying to unravel the mystery of what happened to Garnett. What becomes clear in these conversations is that Spears’ world centered entirely on the boy. Some saw her as a great mom, attentive and caring. She worshiped Garnett, wouldn’t let him out of her sight.

But when she trusted someone to hear her story, they’d often hear a tale that wouldn’t bear scrutiny.

Spears, it turns out, has a problem with the truth.

‘He completes me’

The little blond boy beams in dozens of photos on Lacey Spears’ MySpace page: in the bath, at the park, sitting on the counter with a bright red pacifier in his mouth.

The photos are titled “My World My Everything” and “He Completes Me.” In one, titled “A Mother’s Love Is Unexplainable,” she kisses the boy.

When people told her how cute he was, and asked if he was her child, Spears said yes.

There’s just one problem with this maternal picture: It isn’t true.

The toddler in the photos is Jonathon Strain, the boy Spears called “JonJon,” whom she watched for nearly two years before Garnett was born in December 2008.

A friend saw one MySpace photo and asked Autumn Hunt, JonJon’s mother, if the boy in Spears’ photo was Hunt’s son.

“I went and looked. And it was a picture of Jonathon,” Hunt said. “In a comment under the picture, someone wrote, ‘He’s so cute, is he yours?’ And Lacey replied, ‘Yes, he is. That’s the love of my life. He was born Feb. 14.’ ”

When Hunt confronted Spears, she admitted it and apologized, saying: “I love JonJon, I would never do anything to hurt him.”

“It was just a little off-putting to have her do that. It wasn’t OK,” said Hunt, who began making other arrangements for JonJon’s care. “I found it odd. We were both posting pictures of the same baby. Decatur’s not that big of a town.”

The youngest of three children born to Terry and Tina Spears, Lacey was born Oct. 16, 1987, and was raised in a single-story ranch home.

Locals in Decatur, in north central Alabama in the heart of the Bible Belt, boast that the city of 55,000 used to be in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most churches per capita of any place on the globe. If New York has a Starbucks on every corner, every Decatur corner seems to have a church.

When she was in high school, Spears did what her brother, Daniel, sister, Rebecca, and mother had done: She worked at Jack’s burger place, where she was a cashier alongside Autumn Hunt.

“If you needed help, you’d call on Lacey,” Hunt said. “If you needed a ride, somebody to cover your shift, she’d do it for you.”

When Hunt needed a babysitter for newborn Jonathon, she turned to Spears, who had graduated from Decatur High School in 2006, left Jack’s and started working in day care. She worked at Kid’s Club day-care center until it closed in 2008, then moved on to Child Care Network in Decatur.

Kathy Hammack, who worked with Spears at both centers, said she was great with children, routinely caring for five babies at a time. She’d often open the place at 5:30 a.m. and still be happy to fill in for others and close up around 6 p.m.

Spears would spend weekdays with JonJon at day care and frequently take him home with her after work and keep him some weekends, putting him to bed in a crib that she had a neighbor assemble.

“She would take him home with her from day care,” Hunt said. “And on weekends when she had him, if I decided to stay out of town Sunday night, she’d say, ‘Fine, I can take him to work with me.’ ”

Spears and Hunt spent plenty of time together, too. “A lot of people thought we were sisters,” Hunt said.

If they had been sisters, that would have made Spears Jonathon’s aunt. But Spears and JonJon spent so much time together that people believed Spears was his mother, a belief Spears did little to correct, and actively sought to promote, said friends.

Asked why Spears would care for JonJon without pay from the time he was an infant, Hunt — who had her daughter, Leah, when she was just 15 — surmised it may have been a young Spears’ way of getting attention.

“Being a teen mom, everybody’s your friend,” Hunt said. “When Jonathon was born, people I didn’t even know were coming to the hospital and to the house to see me. Having a child made you the center of attention for a short period of time. That very well could have been the case with her and Jonathon, and her and G.”

It wasn’t until after Garnett’s death that Hunt heard that Spears years earlier took JonJon to Parkview Baptist Church, posing as his mom, and received charity baby supplies.

“I don’t know for sure whether she got assistance from the church,” she said. “I do know I’ve never had to provide her with diapers or wipes.”

Senior Pastor Todd Evans presides at Parkview Baptist, where about 450 people attend services regularly. He vaguely recalls Spears coming to the church on Sundays during that period with a baby, alone, which seemed odd to him because mothers rarely come without a husband or other family.

“She was almost like an isolated person who came in,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t remember who might be getting charity supplies such as diapers.

Hunt said that knowing there’s an investigation into Spears’ parenting has caused her to re-examine things that she didn’t give a second thought when JonJon was in her friend’s care.

One is that JonJon would routinely get severe ear infections during the year-plus period Spears was his caretaker, and stopped getting them shortly after.

“His ears would actually leak pus,” Hunt said of Jonathon. “He developed a hole in his ear drum. After he turned 2, there was no longer any issue with ear problems.”

Hunt said she trusted Spears completely and “never suspected Lacey would do anything to intentionally harm my child.” Doctors, she said, never made her feel repeated ear infections were all that unusual.

Garnett also would repeatedly suffer ear infections so severe he would end up in the hospital. Police are aware of both boys’ medical conditions and are looking into it.

Hunt has a hard time thinking ill of her friend, and wondered aloud: “How do you cause an ear infection?”



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