FULL TEXT: A Sun Valley woman was accused Friday of killing her three infant sons, but homicide wasn’t suspected until the last child died three years ago.
At an afternoon news conference, Washoe County District Attorney Richard Gammick said Denise Dianna Buchanan, 31, was charged in a criminal complaint with three counts of murder by asphyxiation and child abuse.
The death of 4-month-old Jeremiah Andrew Leal in 1989 was attributed to sudden infant death syndrome. In 1991, 3-month-old John Francisco Leal died, but an autopsy didn’t reveal a cause of death. When 1-year-old Jacob Jedediah Leal died in 1994, Washoe County Coroner Vern McCarty called the death suspicious, particularly in light of the fate of his brothers.
Since then, the investigation included pathologists around the country, three of whom called all three deaths homicides, Gammick said, adding no exhumations are planned.
He said the police agencies handling the case didn’t consider Buchanan to be a threat to her other children because of their ages or to anyone else in the community. He also said until recently his office had been too busy with other major cases to move against Buchanan.
Gammick declined to discuss a motive, adding “she faces a possible death sentence.”
The two surviving children, Joseph Leal, 10, and Joshua Leal, 8, have been placed with Washoe County Social Services.
Gammick said Frank Leal, the father of the five children, has not been charged. Police said Leal said he was asleep during the first two deaths and at work during the third, all confirmed in the questioning of Buchanan.
Reno police questioned Buchanan, the father and the two sons Wednesday and Thursday, Friday at 2:12 p. m., the criminal complaint was filed, and the woman was arrested at about 3:30 p. m.
Gammick said investigators didn’t interview family members until reports from medical experts and other evidence was gathered.
After the 1994 death was ruled a homicide, Buchanan denied being involved, suggesting it was possible her other two children, her dog or a stranger might have killed them, a police affidavit says.
Joseph and Joshua also were questioned Wednesday by Sparks Detective Frank Torres and Dr. Joann Lippert, a pediatric psychologist. Joshua said on multiple occasions he saw or heard his mother slapping and hitting Jacob when he would cry, the affidavit says.
Details of the deaths were included in court documents:
• On Nov. 7, 1989, Reno police responded to 510 Grove St. on a report of a dead infant. The mother related she had put Jeremiah into a crib and discovered him dead 11 to 12 hours later.
After an autopsy, Dr. D. S. Young concluded the child died of suddent infant death syndrome.
• On April 3, 1991, police went to 550 Grove St. on a report of a child having possible cardiac arrest. REMSA paramedics tried resuscitation and took John Leal to Washoe Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
His mother reported being awakened by the sound of an apnea monitor alarm from the baby’s crib. The child’s father initiated CPR while the mother called 911.
Police said the father said John had had 10 to 15 prior such incidents, but always had resumed breathing. An autopsy by Dr. Ellen G. I. Clark did not determine a cause of death.
• On July 16, 1994, REMSA and the Sparks Fire Department were sent to 2515 4th St. on a report of a child, who had stopped breathing. Paramedic Brian Taylor found Buchanan administering CPR to Jacob.
Paramedics took over, but could not revive him. His mother told police he had been awake two hours before.
She said she turned off his apnea monitor and gave him some medications, but forgot to turn the monitor back on. About two hours later, she awoke to find him not breathing.
An autopsy Dr. Samuel D. Parks determined the death was a homicide, but the cause was unknown. McCarty told Reno and Sparks police on July 26, 1994, there was a very high suspicion the two earlier deaths also homicides.
Police seized medical records of the five children July 28, 1994. When revived by Clark, she told police they all were consistent with asphyxia by suffocation.
Independently, forensic pathologist Susan J. Roe in St. Paul, Minn., and pediatric forensic pathologist Janice Ophoven in Woodbury, Minn., agreed, police say.
[Phil Barber, “Sun Valley woman arrested in deaths of 3 infant sons,” Reno Gazette-Journal (Nv.), Dec. 6, 1997, p. 1]
FULL TEXT: A mother accused of murdering her children showed little emotion when told two of her sons were dead, grand jury testimony states.
Denise Dianna Buchanan, 31, will be arraigned Wednesday on charges she murdered three of her five sons before age 1.
The Washoe County jury on Jan. 28 indicted Buchanan on charges of murder by asphyxiation and child abuse in the 1989 death of 4-month-old Jeremiah Andrew Leal, the 1991 death of 3-month-old John Francisco Leal and the 1994 death of Jacob Jedediah Leal just five days before his first birthday.
Sparks police officer Gwene Schriber responded to Buchanan’s 4th Street home on July 16, 1994, on a report of a child in distress. When a paramedic said he could not revive Jacob, Buchanan only said words to the effect of, “You can’t bring him back?” Schriber said.
“Well, she seemed rather calm regarding the status of her child,” he recalled. “She wasn’t visibly crying or upset to the point I would be. Being a father of four, I would have been really upset, myself, and she wasn’t acting like that.”
That contrasted with Frank Leal, Jeremiah’s father and then a University of Nevada police officer. Schrieber described him as “completely distraught.”
Reno Officer Ty Scerine noticed Buchanan did not seem severely distressed April 3, 1991, with the death of 3-month-old son John.
Investigators turned to two Minneapolis-area forensic pathologists for help in determining the circumstances of death for the three infants. One, Dr. Janice Ophoven, is a nationally recognized expert in Munchausen’s-by-Proxy Syndrome, in which parents injure their children to get attention.
Both pathologists believe all three Leal children died in homicides, likely by suffocation.
“It is impossible to tell from the autopsy exactly what happened. But it’s way too huge of a coincidence for three children to have died.” From sudden infant death dyndrome, said Dr. Susan Roe, an assistant medical examiner from St. Paul, Minn.
Dr. Ellen Clark, Washoe County’s medical expert on cases involving crimes against children, said she could not attribute the children’s deaths to infection, toxic exposure, illness or other injury.
“As we know, statistically and by studies, that random, serial, sudden deaths do not occur in the same family,” Clark told the grand jury, adding she believes all three infants were smothered.
Buchanan told Reno Detective David Jenkins she wanted onbly two children, but Leal wanted six, so they compromised and agreed to have three. Buchanan said the pregnancies for her first two sons who died were unexpected, he said.
Buchanan also said she drew closer to her husband each time, at least temporarily, after each child’s death, Jenkins said.
[Steve Timko, “Mother’s eyes were dry when her children died,” Reno Gazette-Journal (Nv.), p. C1]
FULL TEXT: Reno – A woman convicted of killing two of her sons before their first birthday
A woman convicted of killing two of her sons before their first birthday has been sentenced to two life prison terms with the possibility of parole.
Washoe District Judge Peter Breen handed down the sentence Friday to Denise Diana Buchanan, 33, of Sun Valley, who will be eligible for parole in 20 years.
"I can't understand crimes like this ... There is a dark cloud that hangs over a case like this," Breen said.
A jury last spring convicted Buchanan of two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of sons John and Jacob Leal, but acquitted her in the death of a third son.
In a mostly circumstantial case, prosecutors suggested the boys were suffocated. But Buchanan's public defender, Jennifer Lunt, argued all three boys had kidney problems that could have accounted for the deaths.
Pathologists were unable to conclude the cause of death in any of the three cases partly because tissue samples were destroyed before they were tested, Lunt added. The boy's father, Francisco Leal, joined prosecutors in asking for the maximum penalty of two consecutive life prison sentences without parole.
"I will forever wonder what my children would have looked like," he told Breen. "I hope God can forgive her because I sure as hell can't."
[“Mother sentenced,” Elko Daily Free Press (Nv.), Aug. 23, 1999, p. 14]
Nov. 9, 1989 – Jeremiah Andrew Leal (4 mo), dies.
Apr. 3, 1991 – John Francisco Leal (3 mo), dies.
Jul. 16, 1994 – Jacob Jedediah Leal (11 mo, 3 weeks), dies.
Dec. 5, 1997 – Denise Dianna Buchanan (31) arrested. Charged with 3 murders; Remains in jail until sentencing. Two living sons, aged 8 and 10.
Jan. 28, 1998 – indicted, Washoe County, Nevada.
Mar. 16, 1999 – trial begins.
Apr. 13, 1999 – Convicted of 2 murders; acquitted of the murder of her son Jeremiah.
Aug. 20, 1999 – Sentenced to two consecutive terms of life in prison with the possibility of parole.
For more cases of this type, see Serial Baby-Killer Moms.