A Jasper County jury on Monday found a 26-year-old man guilty on two counts of felony child abuse for using a wooden paddle inappropriately and too forcibly in disciplining two preschool-age boys left in his care.
The trial of Dustin R. Still, 906 S. Sergeant Ave., was conducted in a single day in Jasper County Circuit Court in Joplin.
Still was charged in April 2004 after a day-care provider spotted bruising on the buttocks of Alex Boyd, 3, and Nathaniel Boyd, 2, the two sons of Still's girlfriend at the time, Cheena K. Tinsley, 26, 316 N. Mineral Ave., while helping them with potty training.
The day-care provider alerted Joplin police, and a child-abuse investigation was launched involving the Children's Division of the Missouri Department of Social Services.
"I noticed the bruises while I was getting them on the potty, and it made me sick," day-care provider Beverly Lynette Brock testified Monday.
She said the boys' mother had been dropping them off on weekdays for about two months at the day-care business she operated at that time at 2409 Montana Place. She said she spotted the bruises on April 1, 2004.
That week, she said, the mother had not dropped the boys off on Monday and Tuesday, but had done so on Wednesday and again Thursday, which was April 1. The boys had not needed her assistance the previous day in potty training, so she had not noticed any bruises that day, she said.
But their mother had told Brock on Wednesday of that week that one of the boys had a bruise on his bottom from falling on toys while playing, and that she need not be concerned with it. She told the court that she had no reason at that time to suspect any child abuse, and she did not check the boys.
But Brock said that when she saw the extent and severity of the bruising on April 1, she knew she had to report it as a mandatory child-abuse reporter under state law.
The state called four other witnesses, including Tinsley, to the stand Monday in an effort to show how the investigation had developed Still as a suspect and elicited a confession from him.
Tinsley told the court that she had been late for work and unable to drop the boys off at their day-care provider's place on Monday, March 29. Instead, she had asked Still, her live-in boyfriend and the father of her youngest child, 16-month-old Heather, to watch them since he had recently lost his job at Jasper Foods and was unemployed.
She said she had an appointment after she got off work at McDonald's in Webb City around 2 p.m. that day, and she did not get home until about 5 p.m. She found a note from Still informing her that he had left the boys at her sister's when he had to leave for night school.
She said she did not notice anything wrong with the boys until their bath time that night, when she noticed their buttocks were red with spots of blue forming. She testified that she confronted Still about it when he got home from night school.
"He said they were roughhousing and had their toys all over the place and could have fallen on their toys," Tinsley testified.
She said she wanted to believe Still at the time, and she feared losing custody of her children if the bruises were discovered by someone else. So she told him he would have to watch the boys until the bruises went away or until he got a job, and she told the day-care provider what the provider testified she had said about just the one boy having a bruise.
Public defender Nicki Neil cross-examined Tinsley on a number of points, including her own disciplining of the boys and whether she had been cooperative with the investigation early on.
Tinsley acknowledged on cross-examination that she had spanked the boys herself on the night of Sunday, March 28, 2004. She also acknowledged that she had been having trouble potty-training the boys and had felt frustration from time to time, but she denied spanking them on Monday or Tuesday of the week in question.
Detective Michael Gayman of the Joplin Police Department testified that Still had confessed to striking the boys several times with a wooden paddle that Tinsley kept as a wall decoration in her home and with his hand after becoming upset with them on March 29 for fighting and making too much noise while his daughter was sleeping.
"He said that he had busted their butts with a paddle, a board," Gayman testified.
Gayman said Still told him that he had gone into the boys' bedroom three times to discipline them, and that he swatted them with the paddle four to five times altogether and at least one more time each with his hand.
The defendant did not testify on his own behalf. The defense called Still's current girlfriend, Tracy Aston, as its lone witness in an effort to dispute the state's case.
Aston testified that she had been with Still at Tinsley's home on the day in question and had not seen him spank the boys with the paddle.
Assistant prosecutor Nate Dally asked her on cross-examination why she had not come forward with this information until only recently, and why she had never gone to police since it might clear Still of the charge. She answered that she had not known what was going on in the case until only recently, but that she remembered being with Still on the Monday before April Fool's Day last year.
The jury took less than an hour to find Still guilty on two counts of child abuse. Judge Jon Dermott ordered a pre-sentence investigation and set sentencing for Sept. 2. The defendant is being prosecuted as a persistent offender based on two prior convictions for passing bad checks.
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