So much for "the system" favoring mothers. There was certainly no favoritism for this mom, who lost custody to psycho dad RYAN MCCONNIEL and the equally charming step--only to have her child tortured to death.
Mom files lawsuit over Lauren McConniel's death
10:22 PM, Mar. 12, 2012
Written by DOUGLAS WALKER
MUNCIE -- The mother of Lauren McConniel has marked the second anniversary of her daughter's death by filing a lawsuit against those accused -- and in one case, convicted -- of neglecting and abusing the 5-year-old Muncie girl in her final months.
Also named as defendants in the lawsuit are a southside Muncie church, two of its pastors and its children's director. In the suit, Amber Huggins and her attorney, Ralph Dowling, allege officials at the Southside Church of the Nazarene became aware of Lauren's deteriorating condition, and saw indications she had been abused, but failed to alert authorities.
Lauren died in an Indianapolis hospital on March 9, 2010 -- two years to the day before Dowling filed the suit, on Friday, in Delaware Circuit Court 5.
That is the same court where Lauren's stepmother, Brittany McConniel, was last May convicted of neglect of a dependent resulting in death. She was later sentenced to 50 years in prison by Judge Thomas Cannon Jr.
It's also the court where Lauren's father, Ryan McConniel, has pleaded guilty to a neglect charge that could send him to prison for up to 20 years, and where three of Brittany McConniel's relatives -- her mother, Angela Lee; Lee's husband, Robert E. Lee, and their daughter, Samra Lee -- await trial on similar charges.
The allegations in the lawsuit echo those made during Brittany McConniel's trial, and in court documents that accompanied the charges against her co-defendants. According to the suit:
• Lauren still lived primarily with her mother until August 2009, when her father claimed custody and returned to Indiana with his then-4-year-old daughter. At that time, Lauren was described as "healthy, happy (and) emotionally stable."
• Huggins, who lives in Tennessee, lost custody of Lauren and her older sister in a 2007 court hearing in Arkansas in which the mother was unable to arrange legal representation.
Witnesses have told authorities that Angela and Robert Lee -- who with their daughter lived with Ryan and Brittany McConniel -- concocted the plan to bring Lauren to Indiana in an effort to increase their household income through child-support payments.
Testimony has indicated that over the next seven months, while living with the Lees and McConniels in a South Ebright Street house, Lauren became dangerously emaciated, exhibited self-destructive behavior often associated with molestation victims, and was subjected to sadistic forms of abuse.
Ryan McConniel testified that both his wife and Robert Lee routinely punished Lauren by beating her hands and the soles of her feet and forcing her to exercise to the point of exhaustion.
Lauren's death followed her apparent ingestion of a lethal amount of table salt, which caused seizures and brain injuries from which her malnourished body could not recover.
• The McConniels over the seven months misled Huggins about their whereabouts, and she was unable to see her daughter until Lauren was in a coma and near death.
• The suit alleges Lauren was subjected to sexual abuse. While he faces charges that could send him to prison for decades, Robert Lee has not been charged with sex crimes.
However, Brittany McConniel told authorities Lee repeatedly molested her when she was a girl, and Ryan McConniel said he was concerned about Lee's interactions with his children.
• The suit also alleges what has been suggested at court hearings, but not specifically charged: That one or more of the co-defendants living in the Ebright Street home force-fed Lauren salt in a bid to delay a Child Protective Services official's planned interview with the girl.
As noted in the lawsuit, Brittany McConniel, now 26, is now an inmate at the Rockville Correctional Facility, and Ryan McConniel, Robert Lee and Angela Lee are being held in the Delaware County jail.
Robert Lee, 45, is set to stand trial April 30. His 46-year-old wife's trial is scheduled to begin May 15.
Samra Lee, 21, faces less serious charges and is free on bond. Her trial is set for May 24.
A sentencing hearing for Ryan McConniel, now 35, is scheduled May 14.
Testimony during Brittany McConniel's trial reflected members of the Lee and McConniel families attended Southside Church of the Nazarene during Lauren McConniel's final months.
Huggins' suit alleges that the church's pastor, Andrew Cole, his wife and the church's children's director, Elicia, and youth pastor Timothy Black "observed Lauren's deplorable physical deterioration, severe emaciation and widespread bruising shortly before her death and failed to report them to the proper authorities."
The suit also states that the McConniels never returned to the church after the Coles asked them about Lauren's multiple bruises.
(The Star Press tried to reach Andrew Cole for comment on Monday at his church. An employee said the pastor was not at work.)
Huggins' lawsuit asks that a jury determine damages for various costs related to Lauren's McConniel's neglect, hospitalization and death, and for the "loss of Lauren's love and companionship."