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What happened to Gabriel?

Robert "Dave" Wilkes is currently in prison for killing his 3-month-old son. He swears he didn't do it. New evidence may prove his innocence.

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Nine medical experts testified against Wilkes during the trial. Rich Kaplan, medical director for the Center For Safe and Healthy Children at the University of Minnesota, testified that he and several other doctors involved in Gabriel's case had thoroughly examined Gabriel's medical records and ruled out other potential causes of his symptoms.

"I was impressed with both hospitals not jumping right on the abuse bandwagon, but doing careful examination to make sure there wasn't anything else," Kaplan testified.

When questioned about the fact Gabriel had no other visible signs of injury, aside from a small bruise on his back, Kaplan said that's not uncommon with non-accidental head trauma, "because babies' bones bend a lot before they break."

Kaplan went on to say that because Gabriel had taken a bottle before leaving the babysitter's house, the injuries must have happened in Wilkes' care.

"I think it would be almost inconceivableafter he sustained such terrible brain injuriesthat he could be able to have the neurological wherewithal to suck and swallow in a coordinated fashion," Kaplan said.

Robert “Dave” Wilkes hugs Montana Innocence Project attorney Brendan McQuillan during a visit at Crossroads Correctional Facility in Shelby. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Robert “Dave” Wilkes hugs Montana Innocence Project attorney Brendan McQuillan during a visit at Crossroads Correctional Facility in Shelby.

When reached by the Independent, Kaplan explained that the sudden onset of Gabriel's symptoms indicate that he was badly injured just before the little boy got sick.

"This kid was really out of it the minute he was assaulted," Kaplan says.

Kaplan also told the Independent that he doesn't believe Wilkes intended to hurt Gabriel. Typically in abuse cases like this one, parents get frustrated. "Most of these folks just lose it," he says.

But Wilkes maintains he never lost it. Yes, things were hectic. He had full custody of his son and was learning parenting basics on the fly. Sonja Wilson says her previous partner had abused her daughter, and that prompted the Montana Child and Family Services Division to intervene. Because of Wilson's ongoing legal problems, she lived apart from Wilkes and Gabriel, leaving Wilkes as a single parent. Wilson continues to stand by Wilkes' account and supports his case.

Moving to a new apartment complicated things that day, but not to the point of setting Wilkes off. In fact, he has always maintained that he didn't shake, drop or slam his son. He knew something must have happened to Gabriel, so he wasn't surprised when police questioned him.

"I was like, 'Okay, I understand that. I'm his father. I [was] there," Wilkes says. "It's not like a ghost came in and did something."

Only recently has a new explanation emerged of what that "something" could have been.



•••

In fall 1995, Audrey Edmunds was a housewife living in a large suburban ranch home north of Madison, Wis. She was raising her two young children and pregnant with a third. Because she liked caring for kids, she started babysitting for her neighbors.

On the morning of Oct. 16, Cindy Beard brought her 6-month-old daughter Natalie to Edmunds' house for childcare. Beard told Edmunds that Natalie hadn't slept well the night before and didn't finish her morning bottle. Edmunds tried to feed Natalie while keeping an eye on her two kids and another child in her care that Monday morning.

"She was very fussy, which was not uncommon," Edmunds recalls. "She never took a bottle real well. It took her quite a while and she had trouble sucking."

Edmunds needed to ready the three other children for their morning walk to preschool, where one of the youngsters would be dropped off, and she set Natalie in the master bedroom with a bottle. When Edmunds picked Natalie back up a few minutes later, the little girl's head tilted to the side and formula came out of Natalie's nose. Edmunds thought Natalie was choking. When Edmunds patted her on the back, Natalie didn't respond.

Edmunds called 911. The operator told her how to do CPR.

"I'm frantic," Edmunds says. "I'm feeling terrible that I caused her to choke, because I left her with a propped up bottle."

Formula continued to come out of Natalie's mouth while Edmunds performed CPR. Once EMTs arrived, Natalie was flown to the hospital and Edmunds waited to hear news from the girl's parents. That evening, she learned that Natalie had died.

Innocence Project Executive Director Jessie McQuillan says newly discovered evidence shows that Wilkes didn’t kill his son. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Innocence Project Executive Director Jessie McQuillan says newly discovered evidence shows that Wilkes didn’t kill his son.

An autopsy showed Natalie exhibited hallmark non-accidental head trauma symptoms. "Everybody was going back to the 1971 triad," Edmunds says, referring to when the combination of injuries first emerged as an explanation of SBS.

In November 1996, Edmunds was convicted of first-degree reckless homicide. She was sentenced to 18 years in custody, with the first eight years in a maximum-security prison. Her children at the time of her conviction were 9 months old, 2 and 5. For about five of her years in prison, her kids came to visit nearly every weekend. After Edmunds' husband divorced her, the visits became less frequent.

Edmunds lost an initial appeal in 1999, but in 2003 the Wisconsin Innocence Project took her case. By then, scientists had begun to cast doubt on the SBS diagnosis. During a 2007 evidentiary hearing to debate whether Edmunds should have a new trial, the forensic pathologist who testified against her during the first homicide trail said that, contrary to his initial opinion, Natalie's injuries could have been sustained prior to her time in Edmunds' care.

In 2008, the Wisconsin Fourth District Court of Appeals cited a shift of thought in mainstream medicine on SBS when it overturned Edmunds' conviction. The prosecution opted to not try her again.

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