published Saturday, June 28th, 2014

Gag order issued in Catoosa foster child murder case

Clara Louise Edwards is escorted into the Catoosa County Courthouse Friday for a bond hearing in the Jan. 1 death of 2-year-old Saharah Weatherspoon.
Clara Louise Edwards is escorted into the Catoosa County Courthouse Friday for a bond hearing in the Jan. 1 death of 2-year-old Saharah Weatherspoon.
Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

RINGGOLD, Ga. — The former foster mother charged with murder in the death of a toddler in her care was granted bond in a Superior Court hearing Friday and a gag order was issued in the case.

In a hearing Friday before Catoosa County Superior Court Judge Ralph Van Pelt Jr., a bond for Clara Louise Edwards, 59, was set at $75,000. She was ordered to have no contact with anyone in foster care, elderly care or unsupervised contact with any children under age 6.

Edwards' attorney, Dan Ripper, submitted a petition for a gag order to be issued in the case, and Assistant District Attorney Alan Norton told Van Pelt he had no objections to the restriction. Van Pelt said the gag order would apply to law enforcement, officials with the Georgia Department of Family Children Services and others closely related to the case.

Family and supporters at the hearing quietly celebrated a bond being set. Several of them consulted with Ripper during a recess about the bond amount they could raise for Edwards' release.

Edwards was charged with murder May 23 after the Georgia Bureau of Investigation determined the cause of 2-year-old Saharah Weatherspoon's death was craniocerebral trauma and the manner of death was homicide, Catoosa County Sheriff Gary Sisk said the day of the arrest.

Saharah died New Year's Day from injuries she suffered Dec. 29, 2013, in what was described to authorities as a fall down some stairs at Edwards' home in Ringgold. Records show Edwards waited seven hours after the toddler received the fatal injuries to seek medical treatment.

Initial autopsy results raised red flags for investigators when they showed evidence of bruising on Saharah's back, arms, face and torso, and she had "retinal hemorrhages and both new and old brain bleeding," according to a heavily redacted case summary obtained in March by the Times Free Press from the Georgia Department of Family Children Services.

The 12-page document -- with all proper names and potentially identifying pronouns redacted -- gives an account of the fatal injuries that was provided by an unidentified foster parent.

On Dec. 29, 2013, Saharah "fell down the stairs earlier in the day at approximately 2:30 p.m. while attempting to retrieve a ball," the summary states. Saharah "cried a little but appeared fine and ... continued to play and crawled back up the stairs to retrieve the ball after [redacted] threw the ball up the stairs."

But later, Saharah "would not wake up" and unsuccessful attempts were made to rouse her before the toddler was placed in a car and driven around until a decision was made to go to the hospital seven hours after the fall.

The summary states that Saharah's caregiver said the reason no one called 911 was because they "panicked."

She died two days later.

Edwards' supporters on Friday expressed relief a bond was set and concern that both sides of the story have not been made public.

"I'm just concerned that there's been a lot of publicity about the case and I want it to be fair and for everybody to be seeking justice," William Carter said after the hearing Friday.

"Everything that's being said is being said from one side," he said. "I'm just hoping that in the future everybody takes a step back and looks at what the facts are, not innuendo, not what everybody speculates or conjecture."

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or twitter.com/BenBenton or www.facebook.com/ben.benton1 or 423-757-6569.

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about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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