Georgia seeks justice for infant slain in 1992

Georgia seeks justice for infant slain in 1992

December 11th, 2011 by Joan Garrett McClane and Joy Lukachick Smith in News

Dale Lee Higenbottom

WHAT'S NEXT


Dale Higgenbottom's trial could be scheduled in the next Catoosa County jury trial calendar, which begins in March.

Early next year, a North Georgia jury will hear details about a night 19 years ago when an infant suffered a fatal skull fracture at the hands of someone in his family's home.

When Christopher Breazeale died in 1992, the case was classified as an accident and left closed for 15 years, but now prosecutors say the medical examiner was wrong. Someone murdered the 15-day-old boy that night, they say.

And a secret that was buried with Christopher -- until now -- may have been the motive behind the killing.

Tracey Breazeale, Christopher's mother, said she never saw anything happen. However, she told police at the time that the infant's 4-year-old, developmentally disabled sister, Amy, must have tried to hold the baby but dropped him on the concrete floor of the family's apartment in a Ringgold, Ga., public housing project.

Lonnie Breazeale, the baby's father, was at work when the injuries occurred. But he told police it was possible; his daughter was strong and had an unruly temper.

Dale Higgenbottom, a 15-year-old boy and family friend, had spent the night. He said he didn't see anything either.

So investigators agreed. It was an accident. The case was closed. The papers were signed. And, after the sadness, life went on.

Amy was sent to a home for the mentally disabled in Alabama. Lonnie and Tracey Breazeale divorced, and later they both remarried.

Higgenbottom grew up, got married, worked at a sign company and had a son.

But one child abuse investigator always felt that something about the explanation wasn't right, and she never forgot.

Years later, those doubts came bubbling to the surface. In 2007, Higgenbottom was charged with murdering Christopher.

He was arrested but released on bond a short time later and has been fighting the case in the four years since.

Higgenbottom's family says his life has been ruined by the charges, which they call unfounded and cruel after all this time. Christopher's mother, Tracey Breazeale, says she will never believe that Higgenbottom could have been responsible.

Higgenbottom declined to talk about the case and so did his lawyer, public defender David Dunn.

"They're doing something they don't have no business doing ... he's a good, kind-hearted person," said Virginia Roach, Higgenbottom's sister. "He wouldn't have hurt him [Christopher] in any way whatsoever."

One of Higgenbottom's last hopes to avoid a trial disappeared Nov. 29 when the Georgia Supreme Court denied his appeal.


In the spring of 2007, not long after Tracey Breazeale had remarried, two men in suits knocked on the front door of her small home at the top of a steep dirt road in Ringgold.

The men asked her to come outside and then asked her to come to the police station because they needed to talk to her about how she could help prevent child abuse.

Once they got her to the station, they broke the news: Christopher's case was being reopened, 15 years after his death, and this time they were calling it a murder.

She was told that Vicki Scoggins, a state child abuse investigator assigned at the time of Christopher's death, now was working in the district attorney's office as a victim witness coordinator.

Scoggins pushed to get the case re-examined. Dr. Kris Sperry, Georgia Bureau of Investigation's chief medical examiner, reviewed the autopsy report and decided that he had made a mistake when he signed and approved it in the early '90s.

"The manner of death of this child should have been classified as 'homicide,'" he wrote in a letter to the district attorney's office.

The medical examiner who had performed the actual autopsy, Dr. Floyd James, since had died and couldn't testify about his conclusions.

So the officers asked Tracey Breazeale if there was anything she wanted to tell them. Had she ever been mean to her kids? Had she ever beaten her kids or let anyone else beat them? They asked about a time that a neighbor said she had seen Higgenbottom spank her oldest son for riding his bike in the road. The Department of Family and Children Services had been called out.

They asked her if Higgenbottom could have killed her son.

"There's no way he done that to the baby," she said she told the police officers. "My daughter done it. ... She's very big. She could get in the bassinet and get him out."

But investigators said they didn't believe Amy was big enough to lift a 7-pound baby and drop him with the amount of force that killed him. They followed with a question that threw her off.

Had she been romantic with Higgenbottom, even though she had been 22 and married at the time and he was only 15?

Hadn't Christopher been Higgenbottom's son?

No, she said.

She lied.


On the night before he died, Christopher had fussed all night, Tracey Breazeale said.

Higgenbottom and Tracey Breazeale watched television together while she rocked the sick baby. Lonnie Breazeale slept in the bedroom nearby, she said.

When it was almost morning, Tracey Breazeale laid the baby down and went to bed, she said. Not long after, Lonnie Breazeale left for his grocery store job at 5:40 a.m.

At 11 a.m., Tracey Breazeale woke up to her son Brandon holding Christopher. Part of the baby's face, near his forehead, was sunken inward.

"Momma, Amy had the baby," Tracey Breazeale said he told her. She called authorities and emergency crews took the baby. Eight hours later he was declared dead at T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital.

Johnny Gass, a first responder to the scene who is now a Catoosa County magistrate, said he carried the baby to the ambulance. He didn't sense any foul play, he said in an interview Friday.

The autopsy report showed that Christopher died of a skull fracture and blood clots on the left side of his brain. But older bruises on the right and left side of his forehead and on his ears also were noted, documents show.

Initially, doctors told Scoggins the injuries couldn't have been inflicted by a 4-year-old girl. She agreed.

But when the autopsy came back with the finding that the death was accidental, they had to close the case, she said Friday in an interview. The family blamed Amy, but the girl's age made it hard to test their story.

"It really bothered me that the other child was accused," Scoggins said. "She would go through life with everyone treating her as if she caused that death. No one, other than the family, thought that."

Investigations were conducted differently in 1992. Authorities didn't have the knowledge they have today, she said. So, more than a decade later, she asked the district attorney to reopen the case.


Tracey Breazeale was unhappy in her marriage with three young children. Amy was temperamental and demanding. Lonnie Breazeale was always gone, working, and she liked the attention of the teenager who lived a few apartments over, she said.

The affair with Higgenbottom went on for 11 months, and Lonnie Breazeale never knew. He didn't ask questions about why Higgenbottom would stay so late and need to sleep over. He didn't hesitate to leave them home alone when he went to work. He took Higgenbottom fishing. He called him a friend.

"Christopher could be his," Tracey Breazeale said in an August interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press. It was the first time she had acknowledged publicly that Higgenbottom might have been Christopher's father. "I don't want it to be, but it could be."

And that was Higgenbottom's motive, she said investigators told her.

"That's why they are accusing Dale. They are saying he was young and didn't want to settle down," she said.

Tracey Breazeale was always afraid of what people would think if they knew about the affair, which legally could have constituted statutory rape or child molestation.

She didn't want people to doubt what kind of a woman she was or what kind of a man Higgenbottom was.

In a closet, she keeps a shoe box that holds two of Christopher's baby blankets. There is a picture of him wearing a shirt with the words "A Beary Special Baby" written on it, and a pair of shoes. The family made a drawing of the picture for her oldest son to copy for a tattoo.

"One day you're this happy person with this newborn, and then you turn around two weeks later, and the newborn is gone," she said. "I blame myself all the time, I really do. I know I didn't do it, but I blame myself for it."


Higgenbottom was taken in for questioning in the summer of 2007. Cooped up in a room for hours, he was grilled about Christopher.

When investigators finally let him go, Higgenbottom went to his sister's house, walked through the door and fell on the floor.

His sister, Virginia Roach, said he told her they had showed him photos of Christopher's bruised face and head.

"He came home, and he couldn't eat or sleep for weeks. He was so tore up," Roach said. "Then they came back two or four times to take a polygraph test."

That August their brother was arrested, charged with malice murder, three counts of felony murder, two counts of aggravated battery and one count of cruelty to children.

His boss put up the $100,000 bond and got him out of jail in early September.

The case has dragged on ever since. He filed appeals all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court, claiming that the case violated his right to a speedy trial.

Now that the high court has rejected his appeal, Higgenbottom's murder trial looms.

Alan Norton, a prosecutor from the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit, said prosecutors are going to have to build their case by explaining what new evidence justifies bringing charges 19 years after the fact.

But he wouldn't say what new evidence they have.

Court documents filed by Higgenbottom's attorney say the state didn't preserve vital evidence -- X-ray photographs, original autopsy photographs and physical specimens -- and that the case is too cold to prosecute.

They also want to know why, if a caseworker had such strong suspicions about Christopher's death, the state waited 192 months to do anything about it.

Everyone is waiting for answers.

"We're all torn up from it," Roach said. "I wish they'd leave him alone."