VAN WERT — Much of the testimony heard Tuesday in the aggravated murder trial of Christopher Peters focused not on the defendant but rather on the mother of an infant whose body was found Nov. 15 at a motel/apartment complex on the outskirts of Delphos.
Peters, 27, of Delphos, is charged with aggravated murder in the death of 15-month-old Hayden Ridinger on Nov. 15 at The Old Lincoln Inn, 24249 Lincoln Highway. If convicted, Peters could be executed.
The mother of the victim, 24-year-old Valerie Dean, faces charges of involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment in connection with the death of her son. Her trial is scheduled for later this year.
Current and former residents of The Old Lincoln Inn, along with the manager of the motel, took the witness stand Tuesday in the trial’s first day of testimony. Sandra Conner said she had spoken only briefly with Valerie Dean and her young son on a handful of occasions and had no interaction with Peters during the almost three months the couple resided at the motel.
Connor called the couple’s relationship “strange,” and said Dean “seemed like she was never happy; she never smiled.” Upon questioning from the defense, Conner said she did not like Peters.
On the morning of Nov. 15, the manager testified, Dean had come to the motel office saying her child was choking. Conner said she went to the couple’s apartment and found Hayden lying in his crib.
“I put my hand on his chest, and he was real cold,” Conner testified. “He wasn’t breathing. He was real hard and cold.”
Conner also said Dean asked her to call Peters and tell him the baby was dead. Conner said she did just that, and “he [Peters] didn’t say a thing.”
Upon cross-examination by defense attorney Bill Kluge, Conner said that in her initial statement to police she had told investigators that Valerie Dean “acted like she was crying, but was not actually crying” immediately after the death of her child.
At Kluge’s urging, Conner also related an incident where police officers were called to assist a member of the Putnam County Child and Family Services during a routine visit.
“Chris answered the door and then shut it in their face,” Conner testified.
Andrew Cavanaugh and his wife, Aubrey, were neighbors at the motel with Peters and Dean for several months. Andrew Cavanaugh testified he heard “several loud thumps, like someone picking up a couch and dropping it,” before midnight on the evening of Nov. 14. He told jurors that sometime after midnight he heard a truck start outside the apartment. He said he knew the truck “was the neighbor guy’s because of the loud muffler.” Cavanaugh said the truck was gone when he left for work the following morning. Upon cross-examination, he said he did not see Peters leave in the truck.
Aubury Cavanaugh also testified that she heard a truck leaving the complex sometime after midnight on the morning of Nov. 15. She also recalled being awakened at about 11 a.m. the following morning “by screaming outside my apartment.” She went to the door and saw Conner and Dean outside the apartment. Cavanaugh testified that Dean “was screaming and it sounded like she was crying, but I didn’t see any tears in her eyes.”
She repeated that assertion under cross-examination, telling defense attorneys that Dean’s demeanor “looked like an act to me. There was no emotion in her face. It was blank.”
As the morning session got underway, attorneys gave jurors a preview of what they believe the evidence of the case will show.
Kluge said during his opening statements that jurors would hear testimony from Dean during the trial, and they will hear several contrasting versions of the events that took place on the day Hayden Ridinger was found dead.
Jurors would also hear, Kluge said, from “dueling coroners” who would offer differing opinions surrounding the cause of the infant’s death.
Van Wert County Prosecutor Eva Yarger said the evidence would prove that Peters “violently” beat the young boy, causing multiple broken ribs and internal injuries, which ultimately led to his death.
Yarger told jurors the defendant was caring for the infant while Valerie Dean worked third shift at the Whirlpool factory in Findlay. Upon returning home the morning of Nov. 15, the prosecutor said, Dean did not check on her son’s whereabouts. It was only later that the infant was found dead in his crib, with Peters having left the apartment.
“You will hear evidence that the defendant was the sole caretaker of Hayden from 8 p.m. on Nov. 14 until the time he [Peters] left the apartment,” Yarger said. “The state will prove the defendant violently beat Hayden to death and then fled.”
Dr. Scott Jarvis, Van Wert County coroner, also took the stand Tuesday and said he was called to the Delphos motel on Nov. 15. He testified the infant had been dead “for longer than six or seven hours but less than 24.”
The Lucas County Coroner’s report attributed Hayden Ridinger’s death to blunt-force trauma. Kluge said it was the opinion of a second coroner that the infant’s death was caused by an overdose of diphenhydramine, sold over the counter as Benadryl.
A detective with the Bureau of Criminal Investigation testified that numerous child medicines were found in the apartment after the infant’s death.
Testimony will resume at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.