Murder case advances

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    A murder charge was certified to a higher court Thursday, following a preliminary hearing.

    Michaela Jae Barnard Wester, 19, of Meadows of Dan, was charged with first degree murder in connection with the death of her son, Gunner Massey, who died Jan. 3, 2016.

    According to reports at the time, Wester had called the 911 center and said that her infant son was not breathing. The infant was transported by rescue squad to Pioneer Community Hospital in Stuart, where he was pronounced dead as a result of respiratory arrest, previous reports stated. An autopsy conducted at the medical examiner’s office in Roanoke found nothing suspicious at the time. The investigation was reopened in July after new evidence surfaced, according to authorities, who said Wester allegedly confessed to intentionally suffocating her son.

    On Thursday, Lt. Katherine Layman answered questions posed by Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Vipperman, and later, Wester’s defense attorney Vikram Kapil.

    Layman was the only person to testify, but other potential witnesses were placed under oath before the hearing began, including Patrick County Sheriff’s investigator Terry Mikels.

    Layman testified she wanted to meet with Wester due to statements Wester allegedly made to others.

    The two met and spoke two times in the latter part of July, 2016, once on July 28 and again on July 30. Both conversations took place in Layman’s patrol vehicle, Layman testified. The first was video-taped. The second conversation was both video-taped and an audio recording was made.

    During the initial conversation, Layman said she asked Wester to tell her the circumstances surrounding the infant’s death.

    Layman testified Wester detailed her worries about going to prison and not being able to be a mother to her older child.

    At the time, Layman said Wester “seemed very emotional, fragile. I didn’t push her.” Layman said she told Wester that she was concerned for Wester and Wester’s safety.

    Layman testified the two next met on July 30, 2016, and had another conversation in Layman’s work vehicle. Layman said she told Wester that Wester needed to confirm what had happened, because Layman “needed to get the story right.” However, Wester became emotional, and did not want to discuss the details.

    Layman testified she then asked if she could relate the story she had heard.

    Layman testified she had heard that the infant was put on a bed and covers were placed over him. She testified she heard an older child was put in a high chair, a radio turned up to muffle cries from the baby, and the back door opened. After several minutes, the baby was found to be red and hot, but still alive, Layman testified.

    The final attempt allegedly was when a swaddling blanket then was put in the baby’s mouth, and his nose was pinched shut so that he could not breathe, Layman testified.

    After 911 was called, Layman testified she was told cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) was not administered while the rescue squad was en route to the home. Wester, however, said the baby was placed on a night stand, and CPR was administered, according to Layman.

    Layman testified Wester said she was “overwhelmed, scared, angry and frustrated,” felt she was in a sinking pit, and didn’t know how to be a good mother at age 18.

    During the hearing, Wester sat with her defense team, which included Kapil and Caitlin Reynolds, both of the Public Defender’s Office.

    Kapil said that Wester had an Emergency Custody Order (ECO) due to mental issues on July 25.

    Virginia law outlines a process for emergency custody orders to be issued in certain mental health cases.

    Wester’s order was only three days before Layman first spoke to her. At the time of that initial meeting, Kapil said Wester gave Layman a statement about the circumstances surrounding the infant’s death that “tracked closely” with what Wester had previously told Mikels.

    However, Kapil said Layman told Wester she thought the circumstances Wester allegedly told a friend were true.

    Kapil then asked if Layman noticed during the July 28 meeting that Wester “was very emotional, appeared to be fidgety and she had marks on her face and arm.”

    Layman said Wester was emotional and fidgety, but Layman testified she did not recall any marks.

    Layman also testified Wester was not subjected to a drug test. However, Layman said she asked Wester if she used methamphetamine. Wester “denied that,” Layman said.

    Kapil entered two autopsy reports into evidence — both from the Medical Examiner’s Office in Roanoke. One, he said, was dated Feb. 18, 2016; the other was dated Oct. 13.

    The February report stated the infant’s death was due to an acute respiratory infection — respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which Kapil said resembles a cold. The illness can be fatal in infants and the elderly, he said, and added a post-mortem culture showed evidence of infection. The manner of death was ruled natural in the initial autopsy report, Kapil said.

    Vipperman said the second report included amendments made by the medical examiner after it was learned that suffocation was a factor.

    Kapil said the revised report came three months after Wester allegedly confessed. The cause of death was amended to undetermined, he said. The report stated that suffocation could not be excluded as the manner of death.

    Kapil asked the court to strike the Commonwealth’s evidence, arguing the medical examiner’s report listed the cause of death as undetermined, and that Wester could not be convicted simply on her statement alone or on information that came from another.

    Juvenile & Domestic Relations Court Judge Robert Bushnell said the medical examiner concluded the autopsy findings “are not inconsistent with suffocation.” Because of that, Bushnell said he found probable cause to certify the case.

    It will now be presented to a grand jury.

    “This is something we are going to fight,” Kapil said after the hearing. “Michaela did not kill her child.”

    Wester continues to be held in the Patrick County Jail under no bond.