Thursday, February 15, 1996
Couldn't anybody save this child? Dad tried

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

This is not about a murdering mother.

It's about the dad.

Back in July people in Dayton, Ohio, were looking for Samantha Ritchie, 4 years old, last seen wearing a pink nightgown. Three feet tall, about 30 pounds.

Her mother, Therressa Jolynn Ritchie, pleaded for the child's return.

Samantha's photograph was all over the newspapers and television. A baby's face. Blond pigtails. Wide mouth in a narrow smile. Almond-shaped brown eyes looking right into the camera. You probably saw the picture. If you did, you know what happened.

Searchers found the little body, pinned by scrap metal and chunks of cement, in a watery pit about a block from her home. Jolynn was convicted Wednesday of the murder.

Police said ''Sam'' stumbled upon her mother having sex with a neighbor. Having already demonstrated the morals of a mink, this neighbor testified that he stood there holding his pants while Jolynn clubbed the child to death.

A pattern of neglect

Another neighbor, a woman, shut her door in this baby's face at 1:30 in the morning. Three years ago, Montgomery County Children Services Board investigated complaints that Jolynn Ritchie's children - Samantha and three older half-brothers - were not being properly supervised.

''They checked it out and determined there was nothing there,'' said a children services spokesperson. ''We never heard anything further.''

Geez. Maybe the kids lost your phone number. Where were the neighbors? And family? The media? Where were any of us? Didn't anybody see anything that would have caused them to get involved?

And where was this child's father?

You don't hear much about him. From the beginning, he stoutly refused to be part of a circus. While some volunteers were ''scheduling interviews'' and his former wife drank with an old boyfriend named Junebug, Denton Ritchie was looking for his daughter.

He collapsed two days after she was reported missing. He had not eaten or slept. Enquirer reporter Julie Irwin heard him tell a friend that maybe when Samantha was found he could finally get custody.

You've heard about deadbeat dads? This guy wasn't one of them. He drives a garbage truck for the city of Dayton and he never missed a $313 monthly support payment for Samantha, his only child.

Already divorced twice, he married Samantha's mother in 1990, about a month before he was sent to the Persian Gulf. A sergeant in the Army Reserve, Denton Ritchie, 34, returned home to find a wife who was using crack cocaine.

He told her he wanted a divorce. And his child.

Who's guilty? Of what?

Montgomery County Domestic Relations Court records show that Denton Ritchie petitioned for custody on May 10, 1995. He claimed his daughter was abducted to Kentucky for two years. Jolynn Ritchie said she moved there to get her life in order.

I don't know. But I do know that about a year before Samantha's murder, her mother tangled with the law and was convicted of assault. I know she lived in unspeakable filth.

I don't know what the problem with Denton Ritchie was. Being a man, I guess. Anyway, the court awarded custody of Samantha to her mother on July 11, 1995. Seven days before she was murdered.

A small man, not much over 5 feet tall, Denton Ritchie was in court every single day of the murder trial. Except when they showed the autopsy pictures.

Tuesday, when attorneys made final arguments in a courtroom awash in leather and long greasy hair, Denton Ritchie's hair was closely cropped and his suit brown wool. Jolynn Ritchie, 25, flirted and joked with deputies before the verdict.

She saw me gaping at her and smiled pleasantly, looking like a chunky kid in detention. No makeup and a pimple northwest of her mouth. Neatly pressed pink blouse under a gray jumper. She didn't cry a single tear or flinch once. Not even when the prosecutor described Samantha's last moments.

Across the room, Denton Ritchie put his head in his hands and cried as though his heart would break.