VAN WERT — The final weeks of young Hayden Ridinger’s brief life were filled with abuse, according to testimony from forensic medical experts Thursday in the aggravated murder trial of Christopher Peters.
The infant’s final hours were likely even more brutal, those experts agreed.
The 15-month-old child died Nov. 15, 2016, following a series of horrendous injuries that ranged from fractured ribs and the collapse of both lungs to a traumatic rupture of the diaphragm, a kidney that had been pushed through the diaphragm by blunt force and bruises to his abdomen that “were consistent with a fist” striking the child.
Some of those injuries were sustained in the hours and minutes before the infant died, the expert witnesses said, while many of the infant’s ribs were broken — some more than once — as long as two or three weeks before he died.
Peters, 27, of Delphos, is charged with murder in connection with Ridinger’s death. The child’s body was found inside an apartment at The Old Lincoln Inn in Delphos around noon on Nov. 15. The child’s mother, 24-year-old Valerie Dean, faces involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment charges in connection with the infant’s death.
Julie Saul, a consultant to the Lucas County Coroner’s Office in the area of forensic anthropology, told jurors the results of her examination of several ribs removed from the young victim during a post-mortem exam. Upon questioning by Special Prosecutor Juergen Waldick, Saul said she discovered a total of 18 rib fractures — some which she said occurred close to the time of Hayden Ridinger’s death and others which could have occurred up to weeks earlier or more — during her examination.
Saul took the stand as an “expert” witness, despite the objection of defense attorney Bob Grzybowski of that designation. The defense team also objected, successfully, to a proposal by prosecutors to show jurors the actual ribs that had been removed from the infant. Attorney Bill Kluge told Van Wert County Common Pleas Court Judge Martin Burchfield that “the admission of body parts is unprecedented.” The judge agreed.
Defense attorneys earlier in the trial had alleged that Ridinger died due to elevated levels of diphenhydramine — a drug commonly found in over-the-counter medicines such as Benadryl.
Dr. Robert Forney, chief forensic toxicologist with the Lucas County Coroner’s Office, testified that an examination of Ridinger’s body revealed a “toxic” level of the drug but not a “lethal” level of diphenhydramine. Forney differentiated between the two terms for jurors.
He said “toxic” simply means “harmful,” while “lethal” refers to a level of the drug that would cause death.
“It would take more (diphenhydramine) than we found in Hayden’s body to be the cause of death in my opinion,” Forney testified.
Diane Scala-Barnett, chief deputy coroner for the Lucas County Coroner’s Office, gave jurors a detailed and sometimes graphic glimpse into the autopsy she performed on Hayden Ridinger through a series of photos. Barnett pointed out 24 injuries to the infant’s back in addition to numerous broken ribs, bruising and abrasions. Some of the injuries were suffered shortly before death; others were inflicted weeks before, Barnett testified.
“Why did Hayden die?” Waldick asked Barnett. The deputy coroner said the answer was “a three-pronged process.”
“Hayden died due to the many fractured ribs and the collapse of both lungs,” she said. “He also died due to a pulmonary contusion where the kidney was forced into the chest cavity and the lungs filled up with blood.” A contributing factor, she noted, was the presence of a toxic level of diphenhydramine, which helped lead to respiratory failure.
“The cause of death was blunt force injuries to his chest and abdomen due to a beating,” Barnett said.
She set the time of death at between 12 and 18 hours before the infant was found dead at approximately 11 a.m. Nov. 16.
Barnett’s testimony concluded the state’s case in the trial.
The final witness of the day, 91-year-old Dr. Werner Spitz, was called by the defense in an attempt to disprove Barnett’s autopsy findings. Spitz, who under cross-examination admitted he was being paid $5,000 for his testimony, said the infant died due to an overdose of diphenhydramine. He based those finding, he testified, based on a conclusion that the blood sample used in the Lucas County Coroner’s toxicology tests was “tainted.”
During a cross-examination by Waldick that was at times argumentative, Spitz repeated his assertion that “this child did not die from the physical injuries he sustained.”
One witness remains to be called in the trial. Valerie Dean, the infant’s mother, is scheduled to take the stand Friday morning. Her testimony will be followed by closing arguments before jurors begin their deliberations.