Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Death of child at hands of father, step points out gross pro-father bias in system (Bossier Parish, Louisiana)

Excellent article by Alison Bath on the murder of a 5-year-old girl by her father, WESLEY LOWE, who managed to scam child custody and shut out the mother. We've posted on this case before, but this article provides a lot more detail--so much detail that I'm not going to begin to summarize the systematic system "failures" that set up this child's murder. Suffice it to say that it wasn't just one or two "errors" or failures that lead to this child's death. It was system-wide incompetence and pro-father bias/corruption. And I'd like to say this case is unique, but it isn't. Unfortunately, you can find many, many cases here at Dastardly Dads that follow a similar pattern regarding the police, the courts, and social services.


Death of child points out failures within system
By Alison Bath • alisonbath1@gannett.com • February 8, 2011

Soon after interviewing Jamie Mercer and consulting with the Louisiana Department of Social Services, the Ouachita Parish Sheriff's Office concluded the accusations she was sexually and physically abusing her 5-year-old daughter, Celeste, were unfounded.

Even so, a Bossier Parish hearing officer wanted to see the results of a Social Services investigation before deciding whether Celeste should return to her mother in West Monroe. Until then, Celeste would remain with her father, Wesley Lowe and his then-girlfriend, Catherine "Cat" Murray.

Accordingly, the hearing officer — who recommended granting Lowe's original Sept. 29 application for a temporary restraining order — also endorsed extending the order another four more times, court records show. In all, four Bossier district judges signed five orders between September and December giving Lowe temporary custody of Celeste.

Mercer's attorney, Katy Balsamo, tried to get the order canceled and the case moved to Ouachita Parish, but that effort ultimately fell short. Yet, Mercer was granted supervised visitation with her daughter every other Saturday. She saw Celeste for the only time Oct. 30 at the Louisiana Boardwalk.

Despite a court order, Lowe — who married Murray on Oct. 16 — never let Celeste visit with her mother again.

Finally, Social Services completed their investigation in December and validated the reported abuse. The news was a crushing blow to the 32-year-old Mercer, who never saw the report but was told that the agency had found against her because of consistent statements made by Celeste.

A previous complaint involving her other two children, who lived with their father, hadn't helped. That complaint, the result of a bitter custody battle, was judged unfounded, Mercer said.

"I just sunk," Mercer said about learning of the Social Services decision.

Opportunity lost

That same month, one of Celeste's teachers at the Elm Grove school she attended noticed a bruise on her neck. The teacher reported the injury, and on Dec. 9 the Bossier sheriff's office investigated.

Bossier sheriff's spokesman Ed Baswell said a detective talked with Wesley Lowe, a Social Services worker and the teacher. All pointed the finger at Mercer — not Catherine Murray Lowe, Baswell said.

As a result of those conversations, the detective concluded the abuse occurred in West Monroe and was not within the Bossier sheriff's jurisdiction, Baswell said.

But the detective didn't talk with Celeste. The detective also didn't call Mercer or contact the Ouachita Parish Sheriff's Office. Although the detective was aware a Sept. 29 temporary protective order kept Mercer from her daughter, that knowledge didn't appear to trigger any questions about how Mercer could have abused Celeste.

"We had no reason to believe that any abuse occurred here and the child would not be in danger with the offending parent until court proceedings and the criminal investigations were concluded in Monroe," Baswell said.

But Mercer contends the Bossier sheriff's office did not do a thorough job of investigating the complaint. Had the detective called Mercer, she could have explained that she had not seen her daughter since Oct. 30. And, if the detective had called the Ouachita Parish Sheriff's Office, they could have forwarded a copy of their completed investigation, which found the physical and sexual abuse allegations against Mercer were unfounded.

"They didn't let me down; they let her down," said Mercer. "They could have told me, and I could have gotten her back home."

One last time

By chance, Mercer saw Celeste the day after Christmas. Shopping at a West Monroe Walmart, she ran into her daughter and Catherine Murray Lowe, who by then was using Lowe as her last name. Celeste's eyes widened when she saw her mother. In the excitement of seeing her daughter, Mercer fought to compose herself.

"Once I got ahold of myself, I just started waving," Mercer said.

Mercer wanted to run after them, but the protection order forbade her from going near Celeste so she watched them walk away.

"Celeste's head just stayed on me and her eyes were huge," Mercer said.

It was the last time she would see Celeste alive.

"I started crying. She's like 15 feet from me, and I can't even go get her," Mercer said.

On the morning of Jan. 11, Celeste went to school. A neighbor saw her run to catch the school bus. The child appeared healthy.

But a day later, between 4 and 7 p.m., Celeste suffered severe injuries. Catherine Murray Lowe's children reported seeing their mother follow Celeste into the bathroom of their Elm Grove mobile home. Moments later they heard a loud thump. They found Celeste vomiting and in pain.

Around 7 p.m., Wesley Lowe came home from his job working in the oil fields. Authorities say he saw Celeste's condition but did not take her to a doctor. Instead, he went back to work.

The next morning, Jan. 13, Catherine Murray Lowe took Celeste to her job at a day care center. Workers there saw the child was blue and unable to stand or walk by herself. They asked Catherine Murray Lowe to take her to a doctor.

Catherine Murray Lowe left and drove home — past several medical facilities — to Elm Grove, stopping at a grocery store to buy Gatorade while Celeste stayed in the car.

Finally, at 9:30 a.m., the Lowes brought Celeste's body to a Shreveport hospital.

A mother's worst fear

No one — not the hospital, Social Services or the Bossier sheriff's office — informed Mercer of Celeste's death.

"She had been dead all day long and I didn't know," Mercer said.

Instead, it was Lowe's attorney — thinking everyone had been notified — who told Balsamo's office Celeste was gone.

That disclosure led to a 3:30 p.m. text message sent to Mercer from the radio station where she worked. They wanted her to come back to the office. Perplexed, Mercer called the station and was told her father's wife was waiting for her.

"The feeling of panic set in and I didn't like it very much," said Mercer.

When she arrived at the station, Mercer learned that "something" had happened to Celeste. With few details and thinking her daughter was injured, she left to go home. On the way, Mercer called her attorney's office and after a series of panicked phone calls, ultimately learned from her attorney's assistant where Celeste was.

"She said 'She's at the coroner's office,'" Mercer recalls. "I said 'So, she's dead?' I dropped the phone and screamed and wailed."

When Mercer finally got to see Celeste again, it was at the Mulhearn Funeral Home in West Monroe. Five technicians worked to make sure Celeste would be presentable for a Jan. 20 open-casket funeral.

Mercer leaned over the white coffin and grasped Celeste's tiny little hand, which cupped over hers.

She stroked Celeste's blond hair and smelled it. She touched her cheek, noticing an ugly bruise that make-up couldn't entirely conceal. Another bruise was evident on Celeste's forehead.

She rubbed her daughter's earlobe — something she always did when the two would sit together — and talked to her.

"I told her: 'I was sorry,'" said Mercer, her voice shaking and eyes filling with tears. "I said: 'I'm sorry they hurt you.'"

Mercer remembers spending what felt like "forever" touching and talking to her daughter.
"I just wanted her to wake up," she recalls.

Later, she took out the lip gloss Celeste was fond of and put some on her daughter's lips.
"We had our own little bond," Mercer said.


Mercer says the days since her daughter's death have made her feel crazy. She doesn't sleep well and is often sick to her stomach.

"I feel like I'm in a daze," she said.

She is determined to go on — and to be a good mother to her other children.

She remembers Celeste loved to sing, dance and play dress-up. That her daughter couldn't get enough fried fish and would only eat her apples if they were peeled. And, she takes joy in reminiscing about their evening ritual.

Mercer would read a book to her daughter, tuck her into bed and help her say her prayers. Then she would kiss Celeste good night.

It wouldn't be long before she would hear her daughter call: "Mama, mama, come cover me up."

Mercer would go back into her Celeste's room, pull the covers up and kiss her again.

"She would say: 'I love you,'" Mercer said. "I would say: 'I love you, too.'"