Friday, March 26, 2004

What killed little Brandon?

'She's talking freaky,' the 6-year-old boy said of his mother. A day later, he was found dead

By Sharon Coolidge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Brandon and his mother, Christina Miracle
David Lehn stands in the room that had belonged to his 6-year-old son, Brandon, who was found dead Feb. 6.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/CRAIG RUTTLE

David Lehn was surprised when his son's school called last month asking why his son wasn't in kindergarten.

The minute Lehn hung up, he called his son's mother, Christina Miracle, and asked her the same thing.

Her response: Brandon was fine, just hiding in his tent.

"Get him to school," Lehn said he told Miracle. And then he asked her to put their son on the phone.

Brandon picked up and told his dad he didn't know why he didn't go to school.

"She's talking freaky," the 6-year-old said of his mother.

A day later, Brandon was dead and his mother charged with child endangerment.

Brandon's death and Miracle's inability to tell detectives or family members what happened in the Miami Township apartment she shared with Brandon has left relatives struggling for answers.

Authorities ruled last week that Brandon's Feb. 6 death was caused by homicidal violence. No one has explained how a boy who appeared healthy, happy and well-loved could end up dead.

"I never sensed any danger," Lehn said. "He was all Christina had - me too.''

Assistant Clermont County Prosecutor Daniel Breyer said police are continuing to investigate and he expects to take the case to a grand jury next week.

"Healthy little boys just don't die," he said.

Miracle, 25, has been deemed not competent to face the child-endangerment charge and remains in a mental hospital. Her family said she still doesn't seem to understand that her only son is dead.

"She would never intentionally hurt him and we wouldn't stand by her if she did," said Angie Hockney, Miracle's older sister.

Brandon had a pattern of bruises on his back, and his upper lip and cheek were torn, Breyer said the autopsy showed. Such a lip injury could indicate someone held their hand over a struggling victim's mouth and the victim smothered.

Prosecutors have not charged Miracle in Brandon's death. She pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to the child-endangering charge, according to court records.

"This person is genuinely suffering from a mental illness, who continues to be delusional as we speak," said Miracle's attorney, Scott Croswell. "She suffers from a significant diagnosable mental illness.''

He would not elaborate or say whether she had been taking prescribed medicine.

Hockney said her family not only lost Brandon, but they fear they may have lost the daughter and sister they love.

"She cries all the time. She doesn't want to live," Hockney said. "We're scared she'll never be okay."

Appeared to be good mother

Lehn and Miracle hit it off right away when they met in the summer of 1996. But their relationship soon turned tumultuous. Jealousy interfered. Arguments erupted easily and often.

Miracle was a high-school senior when she found out she was pregnant. She didn't graduate and instead moved in with Lehn, then 20, to care for their son.

But the baby didn't stop the arguing.

By the time Brandon was almost 2 years old, Lehn moved out for the last time. The couple agreed Brandon would live with Miracle and Lehn would take him for most weekends.

Lehn said Miracle appeared to be a good mother, who didn't drink or take drugs. He, along with his parents, saw Brandon often - as did Miracle's family. The boy never complained about being mistreated and Lehn said Miracle was a soft touch with their son.

The only time Lehn grew concerned was in March 2003, when Miracle acted irrational, paranoid that she had been drugged. She was admitted to a psychiatric ward for two days. Brandon stayed with his grandparents.

"She got worse," Hockney said, adding that her sister was re-admitted within days and stayed this time for a week.

Hospital officials told Miracle's family she suffered from major depression and sent her home with medication and orders to see a counselor.

The medicine made Miracle groggy, barely able to walk - let alone care for her son - so she stopped taking it, Hockney said. She went to one counseling session.

"She went right back to normal," Hockney said. "If we knew it could ever happen again, we would have protected her and Brandon."

Lehn knew about Miracle's brief hospitalization, but was never told the details.

He kept a cautious eye on Miracle over the next months, but never glimpsed signs that either Miracle or Brandon were in danger.

Her hospitalization got him thinking about seeking custody. He had a good-paying, stable job, no debt and a two-bedroom apartment. As he thought about asking for custody, he continued to visit Brandon every other weekend.

She seemed out of sorts

Their last visit is etched in his memory. They went shopping and Brandon picked out a dinosaur comforter for his bedroom; they watched Batman cartoons; they ate spaghetti, peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches and pizza.

Miracle seemed out of sorts when Lehn dropped Brandon off that Sunday. But he just thought she was jealous of his new girlfriend.

The next time he talked with Miracle and his son was after the call from Brandon's school.

The next day, officers had been called to the parking lot of the Pebble Brooke Apartments on the drizzly, chilly morning. A woman, they were told, was cradling a child, screaming for help.

Amanda Viox, who lives in a nearby apartment building, said she saw Miracle carry Brandon - dressed in boxer shorts and socks - out of their apartment building. She laid him down on the parking lot pavement, sliding a pillow under his head. Then, she covered him either with a blanket or a towel.

"He was limp," Viox said. "He looked dead. She was screaming, 'Lord Jesus, Lord Jesus.' She was yelling all kinds of things."

After she carried Brandon back into the building, she brought him back outside; this time, she laid him in the back seat of her car. Bystanders administered CPR until emergency workers arrived.

About the same time, Lehn was headed to the bank. From there he planned to file in court for custody of his son, he said.

Then his cell phone rang. It was the police.

"They mentioned Brandon," Lehn said, adding that he asked about a dozen questions: "Is he okay?" "Is he alive?"

When the officer didn't answer, Lehn knew something horrible had happened and he rushed to the Miami Township police station, where officers told him his son was dead, but they didn't know how the boy had died.

Miracle's family had heard there was an accident involving Brandon, but by the time they got to the apartment, both Miracle and Brandon were gone, both taken to hospitals.

Miracle was sedated by the time her family arrived at University Hospital.

"She was out of her mind," Hockney said, talking about God and not making sense.

Lehn was left to plan his son's funeral. He chose the smallest casket available and picked out Brandon's favorite Spiderman shirt and Air Jordan sneakers for the boy to be buried in. The day of the funeral, Lehn tucked his son's baby blanket and a cotton blanket Brandon had still slept with beside the boy's body.

Brandon was buried in a Lehn family plot at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Montgomery next to his great-grandfather, who died in 1967. Lehn can't bring himself to go back to the cemetery.

But his parents, David and Phyllis, visit often.

"I'm afraid to find out what happened," David Lehn Sr. said. "You like to forget, like it's a dream world, you think maybe he died in his sleep.

"I know that's not how it will come out."


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