Sunday, January 10, 2010

Twice-convicted abuser leaves nightmare in his wake]

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Isaiah Jones, listens to the sound coming a toys at his home. Seven years have passed since the beating that left Isaiah brain damaged, blinded and paralyzed on his left side. At 8, he cannot walk and probably never will. (Hyunsoo Leo Kim | The Virginian-Pilot)

By Michelle Washington
The Virginian-Pilot
© January 10, 2010

Isaiah Jones asks for hugs and kisses, giggles with delight when he receives them.

He slides his right hand over a face to "beep" the nose. He sits quietly next to his grandmother, lets her take off the leg braces he has worn at school all day, cuddles her as she gently massages his feet.

He sings, his face beaming with the music that seems to play constantly in his head:

"If you're happy and you know it clap your hands!"

Isaiah claps, emphatically.

Seven years have passed since his father, Walter Z. Speller, so severely beat Isaiah that it left the then-14-month-old boy brain damaged, blinded and paralyzed on his left side. Speller has long since served the two-year sentence a Virginia Beach jury recommended after convicting him of child abuse.

After his release, Speller met another woman, had another son.

He beat that child, Ohene Speller, injuring his brain and paralyzing him. Ohene's half sister, Laniah, suffered similar abuse and brain damage.

Speller pleaded guilty in Norfolk Circuit Court in September to two counts of aggravated malicious wounding for Ohene and Laniah's injuries.

Isaiah's mother, Khalisha Jones, wept when she heard.

"I knew he was going to do it again," she said.

Speller, held in the Norfolk City Jail, declined to be interviewed for this story. At his sentencing, scheduled for February, Speller faces between 12-1/2 and 21 years in prison under the terms of his plea agreement.

His children will pay for his actions for the rest of their lives.

Isaiah's sunny disposition belies the hardship of the years since his injury. A long, U-shaped scar on his scalp marks the site where doctors cut him open to relieve the pressure of blood and swelling in his brain. He has undergone five surgeries to repair damage from the abuse. At 8 years old he cannot walk and may never. He uses a wheelchair and wears braces on his legs and left arm, which is curled against his body. He undergoes therapy twice a week to help him control the movement his body does have.

He talks.

"I love you, Mommy."

"I love you, Gramma."

Mostly, he sings.

"If you're happy and you know it, stamp your feet!"

Khalisha Jones met Walter Speller when she was 16 years old and he was 20. He lived with his family just down the street.

"When we first met he was real cool," she said. "I started having a crush on him."

Her snapshots show a tall young man with long dreadlocks and a blazing white smile. He told Jones she was beautiful.

Before long she was pregnant. When she told Speller, Jones said, he told her to keep the pregnancy quiet because of their age difference. Speller disappeared until Isaiah was 5 months old. Around that time, Speller was convicted of misdemeanor receiving stolen goods in Virginia Beach.

I'm ready to be a father now, he told Jones and her mother, Angela Jones, when he returned.

Jones said she quickly grew to fear Speller. He hit her, she said. He forced her to drop out of school. She said Speller held her and her son prisoner in his house, ordering her to remain in a chair while he was gone, telling her she was not allowed to touch Isaiah although he cried in a car seat in front of her. He threatened to harm Isaiah if she disobeyed, Jones said.

Eventually Jones returned to her mother's house, but Speller continued to see Isaiah under court-ordered visitation after mediation, Jones said. She said Speller explained away the bumps and bruises on Isaiah's body: He fell. He got a bruise when I scrubbed his face with a washcloth.

Jones said she was at a church youth group meeting on Dec. 22, 2002, when she got a phone call. Isaiah was in the hospital.

Doctors did not expect him to survive.

Isaiah lay with tubes and wires all over his body, his head swollen like a watermelon. His legs and arms were rigid, unmoving. A ventilator breathed for him.

He was 14 months old.

During Speller's trial in Virginia Beach in December 2003, he testified that he had gone to a Christmas party thrown by his employers at a car dealership the night of Dec. 21, 2002. He took Isaiah into his room when he got home after midnight. Speller said that Isaiah seemed different when he awoke around 10 a.m. the next day, was breathing funny, and wouldn't eat his cereal or hold up his head. Isaiah seemed like he wasn't there.

"I'm crying out my eyeballs," Speller told the jury. "I'm hurting. You know, this is my only son that I got, and I don't know what's going on with him."

He also testified that he was the only person with Isaiah that night.

The jury convicted Speller but sentenced him to only two years. Jurors who served on that panel said their sentence was a compromise: When they first voted, they had been divided as to Speller's innocence or guilt.

Juror Elaine Hruska said she believed Speller's testimony, thought he was sincere.

"I just wasn't sure," Hruska said. "I'd like to think you can tell when people are lying."

The jury deliberated late into the night, taking several votes along the way, until they unanimously agreed: Speller was guilty.

Then they heard more evidence as to what sentence Speller should serve. They saw pictures of Isaiah, a video of his therapy sessions with his mother.

Hruska and another juror said reaching a verdict had left them physically and mentally exhausted. So when they returned to the jury room to decide Speller's sentence - the law mandated a minimum of two years, a maximum of 10 - they imposed the minimum.

"It was an agreement because some of us were holding out," Hruska said.

Pictures of Ohene Speller in the hospital mirror Isaiah's.

The wires attached to his little body. Eyes shut as if in sleep. The medical equipment behind his head.

His mother's story echoes Jones'.

During Speller's trial in Norfolk in September, his girlfriend, Elsie Campblin, testified that she left Speller repeatedly because he beat her, only to return to him a short while later amid apologies and declarations of love.

Court records show that Campblin and Speller's mother brought domestic violence charges against him. In April 2008, Speller's mother, Alice Calloway, sought an emergency protective order against him in Virginia Beach, saying that her son hit her while she was trying to keep him from assaulting Campblin. Police charged Speller that day with assaulting his mother and Campblin. Both the charges were later withdrawn.

Campblin left a battered women's shelter in May 2008 to join Speller and their infant son, Ohene, at a Norfolk hotel room. About a week later, she regained custody of her daughter by another man, 3-year-old Laniah.

Campblin testified that the hotel room she and the children shared with Speller amounted to a torture chamber. She said she was imprisoned, unable to leave without Speller's permission, unable to call for help. Speller routinely beat the children as she watched. She said she did nothing to intervene because she feared for her own safety, and that her children's beatings would be worse.

Speller attacked Laniah because she wet the bed.

He told her "she was nasty and only dogs do that," Campblin testified.

He forced the girl to stand in front of him and held her face in the vise of his hands. Speller kept his nails long so they dug into the tender skin under Laniah's ears and around her neck. He slapped her face. When she fell, Speller forced Laniah to get up.

"He just kept hitting her and hitting her," Campblin testified.

Speller dragged the child into the bathroom.

"I heard him telling her not to move and to stop screaming because she was crying," Campblin testified. "Then I heard him telling her to lay down, and he turned the water on her."

Another time, Speller beat the child with a belt. He forced the girl to strip and lie on her stomach on a bed, and he thrashed her. Then he turned Laniah over, Campblin said, and whipped her front with the belt, too.

Photos submitted as evidence show bruises and welts covering Laniah's body. One picture shows a mark in the shape of a belt buckle branded into Laniah's skin. A forensic pediatrician skilled in assessing cases of child abuse testified that the girl had been repeatedly and severely beaten. No part of her body remained unbruised. Laniah suffered brain damage as a result.

Speller treated his biological son no better.

One day, Campblin testified, Speller bit his baby's face so hard his teeth left indentations and the boy's face turned black and blue. Speller brought the wailing boy to Campblin and told her to put cocoa butter on the wound.

"Did Walter tell you why he bit Ohene?" prosecutor Krista Fulton asked.

"He told me because he could do it; that's his son," Campblin replied.

A couple days later, Ohene Speller seemed sick. He had been vomiting and didn't want to eat his baby cereal.

Walter Speller took the spoon from Campblin and shoved it into the 8-month-old boy's mouth. That made Ohene cry all the harder.

"Walter got upset because he said he was acting like a little girl, acting like a bitch," Campblin testified.

Campblin watched as Speller grabbed Ohene by the arm, yanked him out of his car seat, and smacked him in the back of the head. Speller threw the baby down on the bed. When Ohene continued to cry, Speller picked him up again and hit the child twice more in the head.

"He stopped crying because he started throwing up," Campblin testified.

The baby's body went rigid, and he grew red as he labored to breathe.

"He was just, like, lifeless in my arms," Campblin said.

Campblin told Speller they needed to go to the hospital. But he delayed.

"He wanted to know what I was going to tell the doctors about the bite mark he had on his face," Campblin said.

Campblin promised Speller she would tell doctors that Laniah accidentally bit Ohene. Speller drove them to the hospital, but he dropped them at the front door rather than the emergency department. He drove off, Laniah still in the car, while Campblin tried to find help for her son.

It was July 17, 2008. Doctors treated Ohene for seizures and bleeding in his brain. The next day, when Laniah came to visit her brother, hospital staff noticed the bruises covering her body and began to treat her, too.

Campblin admitted to hospital workers that Speller had beaten the children.

A police evidence photo of Campblin shows bruises on her face and neck.

It would be six months before Speller was arrested. A police photo of Speller shows him with close-cropped hair and a bushy goatee. He wears tattoos on his face: a cross on his forehead between his eyes, and black teardrops, one under his right eye, two under his left.

When prosecutor Fulton finished presenting evidence at his trial, Speller's lawyer, Sonny Stallings, told the judge his client had two options: testify and let jurors decide his case, or plead guilty under an agreement offered by Fulton that would limit Speller's prison term to a minimum of 12-1/2 years in prison and a maximum of 21 years.

If Speller testified, jurors would hear evidence of his prior convictions before deciding his guilt or innocence. The minimum time he would face if sentenced by a jury was 40 years; the maximum, two life terms.

Speller asked Judge Mary Jane Hall for time to think.

"That's 12 to 21 years for something I didn't do," Speller said. "You know, come in here, saying OK, yes I did do it... that's going to scar me for a long time."

He pleaded guilty the next day.

Ohene and Laniah now live with foster parents. Laniah, now 5, has had eye surgery and sees therapists and a psychiatrist. She sometimes wakes at night, screaming. Ohene, like Isaiah, is paralyzed on his left side. Now 2 years old, he can crawl but cannot walk. Like Isaiah, he has only limited use of his left arm.

He can talk.

"He will say please, thank you," his foster mother testified. "He likes to say brother."

The foster parents did not respond to phone calls to request an interview.

Speller and Campblin have had another son together. Campblin was pregnant with him when she brought Ohene to the hospital that day in July 2008. That child remains in his mother's care.

Isaiah's life now may hint at what lies in his half sibling's future.

At home, Isaiah's mom or grandmother carries him up the stairs into their apartment. Musical toys fill his room. The women work to keep Isaiah's singing at a level that won't bother the neighbors.

Jones still cries when she looks at pictures of Isaiah before he was hurt. Jones wishes she had never told Speller she was pregnant with Isaiah, wishes he had never met his son.

She has come to terms with the fact that Isaiah will never regain his sight. But she still hopes that he can relearn how to walk.

"One day he's going to surprise me," Jones said. "He surprises everybody."

Isaiah flings the cane away the first time his physical therapist guides his right hand to its handle. He holds it a few seconds longer the next time.

Mary Kaye Tyson holds Isaiah with a thick fabric band wrapped around his chest, supporting most of his weight while Isaiah finds his feet. Isaiah's mom and grandmother watch, memorizing the movements to work with Isaiah at home.

"Put your hand up here and get on the bench, please," Tyson asks. "Pull yourself up."

Isaiah reaches for the bench with his right hand, struggles a moment, seems to deflate.

"I can't do it," he says.

"Yes, you can!" three women reply, nearly in unison.

Isaiah blows raspberries, shouts bits of songs, slaps hands with his mom. Tyson broaches the day's big exercise:

"Do you want to walk on the treadmill?"

The women hold Isaiah upright while Tyson straps Isaiah into a harness that holds him above the conveyor belt. It beeps and begins to move.

"Big step, Isaiah," Tyson says. Isaiah steps with his right foot, tries to move his left, drags it over the belt.

His face shows the strain.

Jones stands nearby. Isaiah sings his version of an old Joe Cocker song.

"You are so handsome to me," Isaiah begins.

Jones joins in, and they sing together for a moment, just a mom and her son taking a walk.

"You're everything I hope for. You're everything I need. You are so handsome to me."

Michelle Washington, (757)446-2287, michelle.washington

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