When_The_Bough_Breaks_04.jpg Nichols is now Sergeant Shelton after divorcing her husband in July 2013. Photography by Shane Kislack


There wasn’t much anyone could do for 11-month-old Joniah, who lay in a coma on that winter night. Joniah had old injuries and new, an old rib fracture and a fresh one, an old brain bleed and a recent one. Detectives needed to figure out who had hurt the baby but knew it would be nearly impossible to investigate the old injuries. It would be too hard to draw a direct line between the crime and the perpetrator, unless they got a confession.

Doctors were certain something had happened within the past 24 to 48 hours to cause the baby’s head injuries and cardiac arrest. Even without a confession, detectives could build a circumstantial case: link time of injury with the person who had been taking care of the baby, and they would have their suspect.

Detective Vann sat beside the boy’s father, 30-year-old Jonathan Baker, in a small hospital waiting room and asked him to describe the events of the past few days. That morning had unfolded like any other, Baker said. The family rose early and took Tamika Sanford, his fiancée and the baby’s mother, to the Fairmont hotel, where she worked as a Starbucks barista. Then Dad and baby returned home and went back to sleep. When Baker went into his son’s room around noon, the boy acted strangely, Baker said. He usually stood in the crib and raised his arms, wanting to be picked up. But that morning, Joniah lay in his crib and weakly lifted one arm.

“I said, ‘Are you all right?’ ” Baker recalled.

“Were his fists clinched or anything like that?” Vann asked. “Was he shaking? Was he struggling?”

Baker shook his head. “He was just like, ‘Daddy, get me.’ I thought it was because he just woke up.”

Baker carried Joniah into the bedroom, sat him on the bed, and gave him leftover rice and ground beef for lunch. Baker said his son had a dirty diaper, and he decided to give him a bath. In the tub, Joniah threw a fit, flailing around, knocking his head, Baker said. During the tantrum, Baker said, he accidentally scratched his son’s legs.

He also mentioned that Joniah had fallen off the bed twice in recent weeks, once with his mom present and another time with him. A couple weeks earlier, Baker said, he left his son on the bed, then walked four or five steps to a small refrigerator to get him juice.

“And I heard him hit, boom,” Baker said. “I looked back, and I knew he had hit head first again. He had, like, flipped over.”

If his son had head injuries, Baker said, it was probably from those two falls. “Lord, if I had known he hit that hard, I would have brought him in,” Baker said.

Vann asked for more details, with a digital recorder running on the coffee table. “What kind of floors do y’all have?”

“It’s carpeted, but, man, that carpet’s been in the house for a long time. It’s worn down. It’s an add-on, so it has concrete under that. It’s damn near like stepping on this,” he said, looking down at the hospital floor, then stomping his boot for effect.

Baker said that at about 3:30 that afternoon, after giving Joniah a bath, he put his son in the car to pick up his fiancée from work. On the way, Baker noticed that Joniah had slumped forward in his car seat. He was “breathing kind of funny,” Baker said. The parents sped to Children’s Medical Center.

Vann paused, then looked Baker in the eye. He thought Baker was lying. But for now, he wanted to keep things cordial.

“Mr. Baker,” he began, “I’ve got a couple things I need to go over with you, okay? You’ve told me a lot of stuff, especially about him falling off the bed, different things about the bathtub. What I need to do is take pictures of that stuff. So I have to get your permission to take pictures.”

Baker thought for a minute, then nodded. “That’s fine,” he said.

As the group prepared to leave the hospital, Nichols and her detectives talked quietly in the hallway. Slade had just interviewed the mother, Sanford. She said that Baker had been home alone with the baby all week while she worked. That day, when they’d sped to the hospital, Baker seemed upset, nervous. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to do it,” he said, according to Sanford. She thought he was referring to the scratches on the baby’s legs.

Slade believed they had most of what they needed to arrest Baker for injury to a child. He’d admitted that he had been taking care of Joniah, and he had given an explanation—falling off the bed, a bathtub struggle—that didn’t account for the baby’s head injuries.

With a trial in mind, the detectives wanted to hand prosecutors a confession, one that explained what had happened to the baby. They needed to bond with Baker, become his friend. Baker kissed his fiancée goodbye and walked down the hospital hallway with detectives. As the elevator doors dinged and opened, Nichols pointed to Baker’s jacket.

“Is Green Bay your team?” she asked.

“Um-hmm,” Baker replied.

“Brett Favre is a love of mine,” Nichols said.

The sports talk continued as they headed down the elevator, back into the night.


•••


The caravan arrived at the house on Maryland Avenue in East Oak Cliff just after midnight. Baker rode with the two detectives, and Nichols followed in her Impala. They parked in front of the white wooden house with steel bars covering the windows and front door.

Baker headed up the walk, jangling his keys. He unlocked the door, and it swung open with a loud creak. The detectives stepped into a living room crowded with furniture and toys. An empty Exersaucer faced a television playing the Disney Channel. Baker led detectives through the house, passing Joniah’s room. They peered in to see a wooden crib, baby sheets covered in zebras and elephants. A poster of a sandy beach printed with the “Footprints” poem was tacked to the wall.

The detectives walked into Baker’s back bedroom, with orange shag carpet and scuffed white walls. A queen mattress and box springs lay on the floor beside a space heater. Baker walked over to the bed and began to straighten the faded rosebud sheets.

“Don’t mess with the bed!” Slade said.

Baker dropped the sheet, whipped around.

“This is the bed he fell off of, right?” Nichols asked calmly, moving toward him. “Don’t touch anything, just show me.”

“Yes, I was sitting right here, and he was sitting right there,” Baker said, pointing to the bed. “I got up to go to the refrigerator, and it was like, boom. By the time I opened the door, boom, I looked back, and I was like, fuck!”

The detectives examined the small fridge covered with snacks, a bag of Doritos, Oreo cookies, $2.99 cupcakes with rainbow sprinkles.

“This is crazy,” Baker said. “I need a cigarette or something.” He went to an overflowing ashtray on the bathroom counter and sifted through the butts.

At 12:41 am, a crime scene technician arrived, put on blue rubber gloves, and began collecting evidence in plastic bags. When he came to the space heater, he paused, then continued on.

As the technician worked, Nichols walked through the bedroom, holding a small flashlight. She lingered by a faded piece of paper tacked to the wall above the nightstand. It read:

Certificate of Award, presented by the Windham School District to Jonathan Baker, for successful completion of ON THE JOB TRAINING PROGRAM: MACHINE WASHER

Presented the 17th day of November 2007

Baker had completed the program in prison. At 24, he had been convicted of possession of cocaine and had served about two and a half years.

Nichols moved her light to a photograph hanging on the wall, a picture of Joniah at 5 months old, smiling from inside a frame that said, “My Dad, My Hero.” She lifted the frame and handed it to the evidence technician. It was the kind of thing, Nichols thought, that a prosecutor might put to good use in front of a jury.

Baker’s fiancée arrived home. Caseworkers had barred both parents from Joniah’s hospital room. “They just took pictures of the whole house,” Baker told her as they sat on the couch holding hands. “I don’t know what’s going to happen now.”