Sergeant Brenda Nichols had already worked 14 hours, investigated the death of one baby, juggled three priority cases, and reviewed dozens of others. She had been home a half hour when her phone rang again with an urgent message about another child.

Nichols grabbed her black police jacket and returned to the cold night. She steered her department-issued Chevy Impala back to Interstate 35 and headed north to Dallas.

On nights like these, the head of the Dallas Police Department’s Child Abuse Squad felt the crushing weight of her job. The stories of cruelty and violence never stopped. Friends worried that the work had become too much. How many dead children could one woman take?

From the quiet interior of her car, the lighted skyline of Dallas came into view. On the 11th floor of Children’s Medical Center, another baby was dying. A boy, 11 months old, wrapped in a blanket printed with dragonflies.

A small troupe of detectives, doctors, nurses, and caseworkers was assembling. Nichols steeled herself for the work that lay ahead, reminding herself, as she had so many times before, You wanted this job.

•••

Before going to the hospital, Nichols needed to make a stop. She pulled up to an old Victorian house on Swiss Avenue, the headquarters of the Child Abuse Squad for 20 years. Nichols, 51, supervised a unit of 11 detectives who investigated the sexual and physical abuse of children within the 385-square-mile city limits. They handled cases of abuse committed by caretakers, people who knew the children. Thousands of reports came in by phone, email, and fax every year. On some days, the reports were so severe and so abundant that Nichols and her team worked while the sun rose, set, and rose again. So it would be on this day, December 7, 2011.

It was just after 9 pm when Nichols walked through the darkened hallways toward a narrow corridor of gray cubicles on the second floor. The squad room was a frenzied command center abruptly abandoned. Thick stacks of reports, papers, and files covered the detectives’ desks. The air still smelled of lunch, warmed-up cans of Progresso soup and hot dogs from 7-Eleven. Scattered about were household objects with gruesome tales: a HoMedics foot spa bath, suspected of being used to inflict second-degree burns on a 2-year-old.

Nichols approached the desk of her most senior detective, Glen Slade, who was on call that night for after-hours emergencies. Slade, at 53 years old, had been with the squad for 11 years, one of the few detectives with more time there than Nichols. When he joined, he began recording every child abuse case he was assigned in a blue notebook that he kept in his bottom desk drawer. It now numbered more than 2,000.

Slade had watched many detectives in the unit come and go, too disturbed by the cases to stick around for more than a couple years. He felt he had learned to turn it off when he left the office; problem was, sometimes he turned everything else off, too. Those closest to Slade had accused him of being distant, cold. He attended a counseling seminar with his wife to help him cope. He found it so helpful that he started counseling others.

Wearing a golf shirt and reading glasses, Slade leaned back in his chair and slammed down the telephone. “I’ve been working like a dog, but nobody’s been helping me,” he said. “They’ve got all that information up there, and they won’t give it to me over the phone.”

“Well, they’re very upset,” Nichols said. “They’re beside themselves with this kid. All the nursing staff, the doctors, everybody is beside themselves.”

“Then why aren’t they helping me?” Slade asked. He had been trying to gather the basic details of the case, where it happened, the time, the child’s condition. But nurses wouldn’t give information by phone. A fresh legal pad on his desk bore only the child’s name: Joniah Baker.

“Well, they’re trying, okay?” Nichols said. “Just calm down. They’re working on this kid like crazy.”

Slade picked up his leather jacket and followed Nichols outside to meet another detective, Johnsey Vann. The 33-year-old had been home for a half hour when he’d gotten the call to return to work. He left his wife and two young children reading bedtime stories as he collected a change of clothes and a toothbrush. He had to testify in court at 8:15 am, against a father accused of abandoning his 9-month-old beside a trash can. That was less than 12 hours away, and Vann suspected he would be changing clothes in the office bathroom again.

Facing a tight budget year, the police department had cut overtime pay. Instead of receiving a larger paycheck for their after-hours work, detectives would get extra days off. But it was tough to use the time. If the cops didn’t work, the cases didn’t get investigated. For all the time the cops invested, the smaller paychecks were a bruising insult.

Detective Abel Lopez was a father of seven—four biological children and three kids that he and his wife had adopted from Child Protective Services. To make up for the loss of overtime pay, Lopez had picked up two extra security jobs and often didn’t have time to make it home between his double shifts. Instead, he slept in a crowded file room on the third floor of the squad’s office, on a rollaway bed donated by a hotel. He taped a sign to the door that read, “Will shoot first, ask questions later.” On that night, he told Nichols that he would be upstairs and asked her to call him if she needed extra help.

The detectives had grown close, forming their own dysfunctional family with alliances, rivalries, and inside jokes. Most felt isolated from their police brethren, both geographically and emotionally. Instead of working at police headquarters in the Cedars, they worked in the Victorian house, along with CPS, therapists, and a prosecutor, in an atmosphere that was viewed as more welcoming to children. When they gather at parties or bars, cops tell tales, a good-natured competition of one-upmanship, to see who has handled the most outrageous call or who has been the most stupid or brave. But no one wanted to hear the stories of the Child Abuse Squad. Not their colleagues, spouses, friends—not even their own mothers.

Beneath a street light in the parking lot, the detectives gathered around Nichols. She pulled out her iPhone and began to read aloud texts that she had received from a doctor at the hospital:

Blood coming out of his mouth.

Heart keeps stopping.

He’s got subdurals, parietal, occipital, a collapsed right lung.

Healing 8 and 9 ribs, skin injuries old and new.

Blunt force trauma to the chest.

Head likely shaken.

“Eleven months old,” Slade said. All these years, and it still surprised him. They climbed into their cars and headed to Children’s Medical Center.


•••


Hours earlier, around 4 pm, a man and a woman had arrived in the hospital’s emergency room with their son. A triage nurse took the baby from the father’s arms and noticed his skin color, bluish gray. She ran to a critical care room with the baby, shouting, “I need a doctor now!” The urgency in her voice sent every available doctor, nurse, EMT, and medical tech hustling over to help. One doctor stood on a stool and pumped on the baby’s chest; another put a mask over the baby’s face and forced oxygen into his lungs; a respiratory therapist readied equipment for intubation.

Their attempts to establish intravenous access failed. The head physician bored a hole into his bone; they would deliver the fluids there. As they touched the child, they could feel that his body was cold. His temperature registered at 86 degrees.

For the next 40 minutes, the staff continued CPR compressions. They probably wouldn’t have worked so long on an adult. For children, they tended to work longer, harder.

After three hours and 10 minutes, Joniah was still unstable, not moving, not breathing on his own, kept alive by machines. Doctors began an epinephrine drip, hoping to stimulate his heart. Having done all they could, they transferred the child to the nurses in the intensive care unit.

The head ER doctor went to talk to Joniah’s parents. The mother was crying. The father, the doctor thought, appeared stoic, not saying much. She asked the parents what had happened to their son. The parents said he wasn’t acting like himself. Their response raised the doctor’s suspicions, and she asked the hospital’s social worker to call authorities, something she did in about 5 percent of the thousands of cases she handled in the ER every year. Nichols got the call that evening, around 8 pm.


Nichols and her detectives entered the bright fluorescence of the hospital just after 10 pm and took the elevator to the 11th floor. They stepped into the orderly chaos of the trauma intensive care unit. The hospital housed the REACH Clinic, the only medical facility in Dallas focused exclusively on treating abused children. The clinic’s head pediatrician had special board certification in child abuse, a recent medical subspecialty held by about 324 doctors nationally, 18 of whom practiced in Texas.

When_The_Bough_Breaks_03.jpg INNOCENCE LOST: Nichols holds a photo of baby Joniah, one of the hundreds of cases the Child Abuse Squad investigates each year. Photography by Shane Kislack


Nichols walked toward a bank of desks ringed by a circle of trauma rooms. “Police are here,” a nurse called out to the half-dozen others, many wearing Dansko shoes and scrubs, their hair swept back into buns and ponytails. “Cards, please,” a nurse asked, then nodded toward Room 269. “Over there.”

The detectives approached the dimly lit room with a wall of windows overlooking the city lights. In the center was a miniature hospital bed. On it lay baby Joniah, wearing a diaper, his eyes closed. A breathing tube ran down his throat. Another pumped oxygen into his nose. Monitors beeped information about his blood pressure and heart rate. A nurse sat nearby, typing on a keyboard.

The child’s parents held hands on a couch, talking quietly. The father was about 30, had his dark hair in braids, and wore a Green Bay Packers jacket. The mother wore jeans and a black jacket.

“I’ll take Mom, and you take Dad,” Slade said to Vann. They introduced themselves and led the parents to separate interview rooms.

Nichols stayed behind with the baby. She believed it was important to start each case by spending a few moments with the child. She approached the bed, her short gray hair tucked behind her ears, her intense blue eyes focused on Joniah. Nichols stood just 5 feet 6 inches but carried herself as if she were larger, radiating an intensity just barely contained. She wore a silver medallion around her neck, a gift from her instructor at the police academy. It was of St. Michael, the patron saint of police officers, an archangel who battled Satan and won.

A 29-year police veteran, Nichols majored in criminal justice at the University of Southern Mississippi before joining the Dallas Police Department in 1982, back when officers wrote reports on carbon paper. When she told relatives she joined the force, her grandmother said, “Oh, honey, you’re too tenderhearted for that.” Her father said, “With your temper, you’re gonna shoot somebody.”

One of four women in her academy group, Nichols was elected class president and graduated with the second-highest academic score. Her trainers noted that she had the potential to lead, if she could control her mouth. After five years, she was promoted to sergeant and decided that was high enough; she wanted to do police work, not administration. She married an officer in her academy class, and they started trying to have babies, hoping for two, maybe three. For 15 years she tried to get pregnant.

Nichols poured herself into work and was drawn to squads that dealt with children. She was assigned to supervise the Missing Persons Squad, where her team investigated thousands of cases of young runaways. But she wanted to help earlier in the process and lobbied to lead the Child Abuse Squad. After a longtime sergeant retired in 2005, Nichols got the job.

Whenever she had an opening on her squad, she looked for detectives who felt called to help children. Without that conviction, Nichols thought, they could not survive the caseload. In interviews with candidates, she was blunt about the work. “There are times when I sit at my desk and look at this stuff, or I hear a small child pour out what has been done to them, and, literally, my mind rejects what it hears,” Nichols would tell them. “I think my ears are lying to me.”

She sometimes collapsed on her bed after work and cried on the phone to her mother. How was it that so many women were able to have babies and then allowed them to be brutalized, tortured, burned? It wasn’t fair. But over time, Nichols began to see divine purpose in her inability to conceive. If she’d had her own children, she never could have devoted so much of herself to the city’s broken babies.


•••


Nichols felt her anger rising as she stood beside baby Joniah’s bed in the ICU on that December night. A nurse snapped on blue rubber gloves. “Let me show you,” she told Nichols. She gently turned the baby on his side and pointed out two deep, crimson marks on his back. Nichols unzipped the kit she always carried, grabbed a small ruler and digital camera, and snapped pictures for evidence. Two more nurses arrived to help lift Joniah’s limp body, showing Nichols what appeared to be deep scratch marks, old and new, crisscrossing his legs, back, and stomach.

Nichols wanted to say a prayer over the child. But in this case, like so many others, she wasn’t sure what to pray. Should she pray that he live or that he die? Which would be more merciful?


“His left heel is bruised, and it almost looks like a bite mark,” one nurse said.

Nichols moved in for a closer look. “Yeah, definitely. You can see the teeth marks.”

Children often can’t tell detectives what happened to them. But their injuries always tell a story. The essence of a child abuse investigation is determining the plausibility of an adult’s story, given the child’s condition. Could the child have sustained the injuries by falling off a bed, tumbling down stairs, or any number of accidents that parents routinely describe? Or does the story fail to account for the injuries?

As Nichols took pictures, a young resident physician walked into the room. “I was taking care of him,” the doctor said. “I just came up to see how he was doing.”

He borrowed an ophthalmoscope from the nurses, approached Joniah’s bed, and looked into his eyes. “He has retinal hemorrhaging like crazy,” the doctor said. “Dude, that sucks.”

The vessels in Joniah’s eyes had burst, causing blood to pool. This could have been caused by devastating force to the head, such as a car crash or violent shaking.

The doctor offered the scope to Nichols. “Can you see that?” he asked.

“Yes,” Nichols said. “Jesus.”

Standing beside Joniah’s bed, Nichols reached over and gently rubbed the baby’s arm. A devout Baptist, Nichols wanted to say a prayer over the child. But in this case, like so many others, she wasn’t sure what to pray. Should she pray that he live or that he die? Which would be more merciful? She closed her eyes.

Lord, please lay your hands upon this little one. Your will be done.

She wanted the baby to know that he was not alone. It was always a powerful moment for Nichols, when an injured child was securely in the hands of doctors and cops and caseworkers. Sometimes there were so many people moving over the child with such sudden, focused energy that Nichols would just step back and watch as the light pushed back against the dark. To her, the trauma room at Children’s was a charged intersection, where people’s darkest, most brutal impulses collided with the most heroic and brave.

A nurse appeared in the doorway. “Do y’all know about the other girl across the way?” she asked. “She’s head-to-toe covered in bruises.”

Nichols looked at her watch. It was 10:30 pm.

“Ask them what city it happened in,” Nichols said. She waited for the nurse to return, thinking, Please don’t be Dallas.

“It happened in Greenville,” the nurse said.

“Thank God,” Nichols said. “I hate to say it, but that baby’s not mine.”


•••


Every day the list grows name by name, week by week, month by month, until the file cabinets are filled with them. Babies who arrive in emergency rooms with bruises, bite marks, and broken bones. Toddlers who know the awful possibilities of belt buckles, hot irons, pots of boiling water, and cocked fists. Adolescents who fear the sound of a zipper going down in the dark.

“The true measure of a society is how we treat our children,” says Madeline McClure, head of the Dallas-based Texas Association for the Protection of Children. “If we can’t provide them with basic safety, then we have failed. And all the evidence shows that we are failing.”

It’s difficult to get a clear picture of the trends in child abuse. State and national figures show a decline in cases in recent years, yet emergency-room doctors say they are seeing more injured children than ever. The Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center handled a record 2,788 cases in 2013, a nearly 24 percent increase since 2011. Leaders there say the city continues to face a child abuse epidemic.

“I truly don’t believe the public is even close to aware that we have this big of a problem,” says state District Judge William Mazur Jr., who presides over abuse and neglect cases in Dallas. “I have lived in Texas all my life, and Texans would not put up with this if they understood what was happening. It’s an embarrassment. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves.”

Over the past decade, some 20 children a year were killed from abuse or neglect in the city of Dallas. In Texas, which has one of the highest rates of child homicide in the country, roughly 217 children are killed each year.

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.”


An hour later, Baker sat in an interrogation room at Dallas Police Department headquarters in the Cedars.

“You have the right to remain silent,” Slade began, reciting the Miranda warning. “Do you understand your rights? Do you want to talk to me about your son?”

“Yes, sir,” Baker said. “I have nothing to hide.”

A small video camera in the wall sent images to a bank of television screens in a dark room around the corner. Nichols and Vann sat in metal chairs, drinking coffee and watching.

Slade sat in a rolling chair facing Baker, his hands clasped, their knees almost touching. Getting a confession is always a challenge, but it can be especially difficult in child abuse cases. To most anyone, hurting a child is shameful.

Slade began with a routine strategy, trying to give the suspect an out. He would introduce a variety of story lines in which the abuse became, if not justifiable, then at least easier to understand. He began with their most effective narrative: kids are frustrating, and sometimes anger gets the best of you.

“I’m a parent,” Slade said. “I know what it’s like when they’re fussy, and no matter what you do, nothing seems to help. For just one moment you just lose it, just for seconds, and then you realize what you did and you really, really feel bad about it.” Slade leaned forward, speaking quietly. “Your love, your emotions, they’re so strong and so full for that child, and it eats you up inside that you can’t take care of whatever it is that’s bothering them. If that’s what it is, we can understand that. We need you to come clean and tell us the truth.”

“I understand what you’re saying,” Baker said.

“Somebody had to do something to him,” Slade said.

“We didn’t do anything out of the ordinary,” Baker said.

And on it went. Slade suggested, Baker rejected. Slade lobbed an accusation, Baker volleyed it back. Through it all, Baker maintained that he had not hurt his son in any purposeful way.

In the monitoring room, Nichols alternated between sips of Diet Dr Pepper and coffee, her semiautomatic pistol resting on the table. Vann closed his eyes for a minute, then jerked awake.

“You know who has stamina?” Nichols said. “Juries. If I was on the jury and had to listen to this shit, I would tell the bailiff to give me his gun and just let me end it now.” Vann looked over and laughed.

After a while, Slade took a harder approach.

“I’ve had babies fall out of third-story windows on their heads with witnesses around, with zero injuries,” he said. “Children don’t get hurt from falling off beds. It never, ever happens. Children are made to fall like that.”

“I didn’t shake him,” Baker said.

“Falling off the bed did not cause his brain injuries, so get off that!” Slade said, nearly shouting.

“I didn’t shake him,” Baker said.

“Then what did you do?”

“Nothing, sir.”

“What did you do to cause the injuries?”

“This is my first son.”

“It happens most of the time with first children,” Slade said. “So you’re saying his brain swelled up all by itself, and he got all these injuries all by himself.”

“I’m not saying that.”

“You know what happened to him, and you’re not sharing it. I’m going to take this case to the grand jury, and I’m going to explain to them what a monster you are. Your whole body is telling me you did it, and the camera can see it, too.”

The bravado reflected Slade’s frustration. He wasn’t going to get a confession tonight.

At 5:23 am, the detectives cuffed Baker, drove him to the Dallas County jail, and booked him on one count of injury to a child, with $100,000 bail.


•••


Nichols returned to the old Victorian house on Swiss and climbed the stairs to her office. A fax machine clicked to life, rolling out a new case referral from CPS. The sound infused the room with a sense of urgency, as if something were happening at that very moment that needed attention.

Nichols gathered a fresh batch of reports and sat down at her desk. The office reflected her personality, an ever-shifting mix of empathy and anger. One sign beside her computer read, “I bring you the gift of these four words: I believe in you.” Another said: “Stupid Should Hurt.”

She put on her reading glasses and popped a Pepto-Bismol tablet, her 12th in the past 24 hours. Her body ached, and her stomach growled. She realized she hadn’t eaten since yesterday’s lunch at Humperdinks. Now, as the first rays of sunlight pushed through her blinds, she wondered how quickly she could get through the reports and get breakfast.

In moments like this, when she was exhausted and sleep was still hours away, Nichols sometimes dreamed about the other lives she might have led. What if she had majored in oceanography instead of criminal justice? She could have spent her days working with dolphins instead of injured children. Some days, she walked around the squad room, saying, “I hate people.”

When she could, on her way home from work, Nichols would pull into the Pecan Trails Golf Course in Midlothian. She liked coasting along the fairways alone, feeling the wind and the sun. She could quiet her mind by focusing on the mechanics of her swing. Golf was a gentleman’s game, governed by etiquette. People followed the rules.

Most days, Nichols felt as if she were fighting a war that could never be won. No matter how hard the squad worked, they couldn’t lighten the caseload. She spent hours traveling around the city, talking to teachers and neighborhood groups and police cadets, telling them what she and her detectives were up against, teaching them how to recognize children who needed help. She brought along a PowerPoint presentation filled with disturbing photographs of injured children. People cried and turned away, but Nichols kept flashing pictures.

She ended every talk with a parable, words she kept framed in her office. It was the story of a man walking on a beach. He saw a boy tossing starfish into the sea. “What are you doing?” the man asked. The boy explained he was saving them. “Son,” the man replied, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!” The boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and tossed it into the tide. Smiling, he told the man, “I made a difference for that one.”

Nichols focused on the final batch of reports that needed investigating that morning: a baby who had tested positive for marijuana at birth, a grandfather rubbing up against a 5-year-old girl, a 16-year-old strangled by her mother.

Nichols looked down at her notebook, where she kept track of how many cases she assigned to each detective. They all had more cases than they could handle. She tapped her pen against the paper and sighed. Who can I give these to?


At the hospital, Joniah still couldn’t breathe on his own. He showed no signs of brain activity. Working around the tubes and machines, Dr. Matthew Cox, the hospital’s head child abuse pediatrician, took stock of the baby’s injuries. He saw multiple pink gashes across the baby’s legs and stomach and noticed many were paired up and perfectly linear. What doctors thought were scratches were actually burns, Cox believed.

He reviewed Joniah’s CT scans, noting that the most recent brain injury was so catastrophic that the child had probably lost consciousness immediately. Some kids did get seriously injured falling off beds, but that was rare, and they showed up in emergency rooms with a single wound. This baby had two massive brain bleeds, more consistent with a high-speed car crash or punches to the head. Cox felt certain that Joniah had been chronically abused. And with all those bite and burn marks, he had suffered.

These cases still got to Cox. In his first few years on the job, he ate a lot of cake. Then he started running, first 5Ks, then marathons. He also began making stained-glass art. He found it therapeutic to smash sheets of glass into imperfect shards then reassemble them into something beautiful.

Cox called Nichols to tell her about the burns. She and the detectives headed back to the family’s house on Maryland Avenue to find what had caused them. In the back bedroom, Vann’s eyes fell on the space heater beside the queen mattress. An evidence tech loaded it up for testing at the crime lab. Then the detectives headed back to the police station to meet the baby’s mother for an interview. They still had suspicions about Tamika Sanford.


•••


Sanford, 23, walked into the interrogation room, her eyes full of tears. Detective Slade took a seat and read her the Miranda warning. He asked about Baker.

She told him they’d met in 2009, and she’d gotten pregnant after dating for a couple months. They argued sometimes, but Baker had never been violent with her, Sanford said. He kept the baby all day while she worked, then he went out to shoot pool or play darts with friends for most of the night. She knew he smoked marijuana but had never seen him do any other drugs. She knew he had served two and a half years in prison for trafficking drugs before they met. But she had not known about his other convictions—for assault and escape—until the past day or two, when she looked up his record for the first time.

She had noticed scratches on Joniah over the past few months, but Baker always had an explanation. Sometimes her mother questioned the baby’s injuries, Sanford said, worried about what was happening while her daughter was at work. But Sanford dismissed her concerns.

“I wasn’t thinking that he would do anything to my son,” Sanford said.

“What are you thinking now?” Slade asked.

She paused, looked down. “I don’t know, sir. I don’t know,” she said softly.

Slade pressed. “Knowing what you know right now, what is your opinion of Jonathan?”

“I can’t talk to him,” she said. “I’m angry. I don’t know what’s going on.”

“Does it surprise you?” Slade asked.

“Yes,” she said. “Because how do you burn a baby? How do you burn your own baby?”

As the interview continued, Slade pressed Sanford further. “Everyone is looking at you, wondering if you’re a part of this. There’s a big concern whether you knew what was going on.”

Sanford looked him in the eye. “My child lying in a hospital bed, brain dead is not acceptable to me. I’m suffering. My child is my world. No, sir, this is not acceptable to me.”

Slade leaned back in his chair. He believed her. “Have you ever heard the saying ‘Love is blind’? ”

Sanford nodded slowly. “Yes,” she said. “My mother tells me that all the time.”


•••


By that afternoon, it had become clear that Joniah would not recover. Caseworkers allowed his mother to visit one last time. She told Joniah she loved him and said goodbye. Doctors declared Joniah Baker dead at 1:27 pm on December 9, about 48 hours after he’d arrived at the hospital.

His body was transferred to the Dallas County Institute of Forensic Sciences for an autopsy, his case assigned to Dr. Stephanie Burton, who was in her first month as a fully licensed medical examiner. Burton quickly saw that his injuries were more extensive than anyone had realized. She counted 26 burns—on his back, his stomach, his thighs, his calves, even a pair on the back of his head that had been hidden by hair. Many of the burns appeared in pairs.

She measured the distance between the marks: 1 and ¾ inches. At the crime lab, Detective Slade measured the distance between the space heater flanges: 1 and ¾ inches.

When tests came back, the flanges showed traces of DNA from both father and son.

Burton finished her autopsy report. Under Manner of death, she typed Homicide. Detectives upgraded Baker’s charge to capital murder.


Soon detectives sent the case file to the 10th floor of the Frank Crowley Courts Building, where it landed on the desk of veteran child abuse prosecutor Reynie Tinajero. A former marine, 47-year-old Tinajero was deputy chief of the Child Abuse Division, a team of 13 prosecutors who handle abuse cases for the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office. With 13 years of experience, Tinajero was the most senior prosecutor in the unit, the chief’s first pick for the most complex cases. Most child abuse prosecutors last about two years with the unit, but a few, like Tinajero, stick around. To him, kids were the purest victims in the system. Adult victims often make bad choices. Kids don’t choose the people who hurt them.

The Baker case wasn’t the worst Tinajero had seen, but it ranked. It had two strengths: strong physical evidence and a cooperative mother. Too often, mothers were the ones who put their kids in harm’s way. They did not believe their children, and they viewed prosecutors as an enemy. One of Tinajero’s longtime investigators had requested to stop working child death cases a few months earlier. “I just got tired of caring about the dead babies more than their own mothers,” she said.

Joniah’s mother, in contrast, seemed devastated by her baby’s death. Sanford told them about Joniah, how he said “Daddy” first, then “Mama,” how he liked to bang on his toy piano, how he ate everything in sight.

Even though prosecutors saw the mother as an asset, their case still had weaknesses. Without a confession, they would have to use circumstantial evidence to tell Joniah’s story, hoping the jury would connect the dots.

Tinajero began collecting documents for the Baker case in a brown accordion file stuffed among 20 other active child death and serious injury cases that filled the bookshelves in his office. As Joniah’s case slowly headed toward trial, Tinajero began to feel the familiar stress and pressure mounting. All the time and work of the cops and doctors and nurses, all the grief of the baby’s relatives—all of them counting on Tinajero.


•••


For the detectives, the calls kept coming. Nichols didn’t know it then, but she was in the midst of what would become one of the busiest and most violent periods of her career. While investigators operated at a frantic pace, a disturbing quiet settled over the office. It worried Nichols, who suspected everyone was suffering from post-traumatic stress. It would not have surprised her if a supervisor walked into the squad room at any moment and ordered everyone to Psych Services.

Around the office, her detectives looked haggard. “We’re barely keeping our heads above water,” said Detective Lopez, the father of seven. Another detective, Lisette Rivera, said, “I’ll be heavy into a case, and then I’ll get two more on my desk. I can only dedicate so much time to any of them. It’s my biggest fear, that a kid gets hurt because I didn’t act fast enough.”
Nichols’ marriage began to suffer. Her temper flared. One afternoon, she got into a noisy argument with one of her best friends; they didn’t speak for days. Nichols clashed with administrators at the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center. No one doubted her devotion, but her frank words and outrage could wear on supervisors.

She coped the way she always had, by sinking further into her cases. One afternoon she got word about a case in West Oak Cliff. Police had tried to pull over a man as he sped through town, jumped a curb, and blew out a tire. He frantically explained that he had received a disturbing call at work from his wife. Officers escorted the man to his apartment. Inside, they found a woman weeping. She confessed to holding their 1-year-old son underwater in the bathtub.

As Nichols stepped into the apartment, she saw the baby wrapped in a towel, lying on the bed. His eyes were closed. His skin was soft and smooth and perfect. He looked peaceful, as if he were asleep.

In the room full of officers, Nichols fought tears. By this point in her career, she had seen hundreds of dead babies. She wasn’t sure she could see another.


•••


It took two and a half years after his son’s death, but jury selection for Jonathan Baker’s capital murder trial finally began at 9 am on May 27 of this year. That so much time had passed between his arrest and trial was not unusual in the Dallas court system. The delay had been caused in part by scheduling conflicts with the prosecutors’ witnesses, and because of this, Baker had been allowed to bond out of jail. He had moved back into the house on Maryland Avenue and gotten a job at a QuikTrip. He checked in every month with his probation officers, and court supervisors tracked his movements with a GPS ankle monitor.

On that sunny morning in May, eight women and four men sat in a jury box on the sixth floor of the Frank Crowley Courts Building. Among them was a newspaper editor, an unemployed father of three, and a teacher’s assistant. Each of them glanced across the courtroom to study the defendant, his hair in braids, wearing a black button-down shirt and blue jeans, flanked by public defenders.

When_The_Bough_Breaks_01.jpg Jonathen Baker stands trial for the capital murder of his son. Photography by Elizabeth Lavin


Baker’s lead defense attorney, Julie Doucet, stood before the jury in a black suit, her hair pulled back in a barrette, her lips pursed as she paced. A veteran public defender, Doucet was known around the courthouse for being relentless, thorough. If prosecutors wanted to send her client to prison for the rest of his life, Doucet would make them earn it.

Still, going in, the odds were against Doucet. Child homicides tend to incite a lynch-mob mentality among jurors. This was evident before the trial even began, during the voir dire process, as the attorneys questioned the pool of 65 potential jurors. Two men asked why it wasn’t a death penalty case. The judge explained that those cases were lengthy and expensive, and that a committee in the District Attorney’s Office had reviewed the case and made that decision.

When it was her turn to question jurors, Doucet approached them, shaking her head. “You’re ready to execute my client, and you haven’t even heard the evidence yet. As Mr. Baker sits here, he is as innocent as the driven snow. He is as innocent as you are,” she said, pointing her finger at one of the men. “As innocent as you are,” she said, pointing at another.

Now, as the trial unfolded, Doucet methodically attacked the prosecution’s case. Her first target: the medical examiner.

Dr. Burton sat in the witness box wearing black pumps and a purple dress, her red hair parted down the middle. When, Doucet asked, had the doctor been licensed as a medical examiner in Texas?

Burton paused to think, then leaned down to the microphone. “November 2011,” she replied.

And when did she perform the autopsy on Joniah?

“December 2011,” Burton said.

Doucet paced in front of the jury, letting that sink in. This medical examiner had been trusted to perform a complicated analysis on the child only one month after receiving her permanent license.

“How much did Joniah weigh when he came in for the autopsy?” Doucet asked.

Burton flipped through her report. “Twenty-eight pounds,” she replied.

“Do you know how much he weighed when he came in to Children’s Medical Center?”

“No, I do not.”

Doucet provided the answer: 22 pounds. After two days on an IV, Joniah had swelled, increasing his body weight by almost one-third. Then she pressed Burton about those burn marks, the ones that lined up so perfectly with the space heater flanges. Wouldn’t all that fluid have caused his skin to stretch, throwing off those measurements?

Burton paused, thinking again. The jurors watched, waiting.

“They could have spread some,” she agreed.

Doucet turned her focus to the detectives. “Was Detective Slade present when you conducted the autopsy?” she asked.

“Yes,” Burton replied.

Doucet raised her eyebrows in an expression of incredulity. She questioned whether this compromised the integrity of the process. Once a lead detective became convinced a child had died from abuse, didn’t all of the findings become a foregone conclusion, every injury on the child’s body viewed through the lens of abuse?

Burton shook her head. “I conducted the autopsy like I would have if he was not there,” she said.

Doucet turned her attention to the rib fractures. “The prosecutor asked you, ‘Are those consistent with an adult male squeezing a child?’ ”

“Yes,” Burton said.

“What about an adult female?”

“Yes, that could be, too.”

At the prosecutor’s table, Tinajero looked at the jurors, trying to read their reactions.

Finally, Doucet called her star witness, Dr. Janice Ophoven, a pediatric forensic pathologist from Minnesota, who offered a different story about Joniah’s injuries. Doucet placed a growth chart on an overhead projector, beaming the plotted graph on three television screens in the courtroom. Ophoven explained the numbers. They showed that Joniah had been born a healthy baby, in the 97th percentile. He’d continued along this curve until he was about 7 months old, when his weight began to plummet.

“He had a head injury around July that caused basically a time bomb,” Ophoven told the jury. It had been a gradual decline, not a violent attack on one day, she said. Yes, the baby showed signs of abuse. The bite marks and broken ribs were troubling. But the injuries didn’t necessarily occur on a single day in December, the day the baby was alone with his father. Many people were around this baby in his final weeks.

Doucet called her last witness, Yolanda Monroe, Baker’s sister-in-law. Monroe told jurors that the baby’s mother had confessed to her that Joniah had fallen off the bed and tumbled into the space heater about a week before his death, causing the burns on his palm. Her brother-in-law was good with children, she said, and had taken care of her own four kids, all honor students.

“Can you describe for the jury the relationship between Jonathan and Joniah?” Doucet asked.
“Jonathan was like a big kid with Joniah. He would get on the floor and play with him,” Monroe said.

“Were they close?” Doucet asked.

“Yes,” Monroe replied.

“Was Jonathan proud of his son?”

“Yes.”

“Did Joniah seem afraid of Jonathan?”

“No,” Monroe said, shaking her head.

“Is there anything else you would like to tell the jury?”

“I know that he loved his baby,” Monroe said. “He was a good father.”


On the fifth day of trial, Doucet approached the jury box to make her closing argument. The courtroom television screens showed a photograph of Joniah, 7 months old, wearing a white onesie, smiling at the camera.

“The thing that kind of struck me about this case from the very beginning is that this is like some nightmare version of musical chairs,” Doucet told the jury. “The last person standing when Joniah has his cardiac arrest gets charged.”

The courtroom was packed with relatives and attorneys. Sergeant Nichols sat in the second row, her cheeks flushed with anger, her hands tightly clasped. She stared at the public defender as Doucet walked over to Baker and placed her hand gently on his shoulder.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the state is trying to allege that my client, Jonathan Baker, whom I have the privilege of representing, is guilty of intentionally murdering his 11-month-old son. His only son. The son he is very proud of. The son he got down on the floor and played with. Jonathan has already lost his son. Please don’t take his life away.”

Then it was Tinajero’s turn. The prosecutor rose and laid out the dots for the jurors to connect, pacing back and forth, reminding them of all the doctors and their medical evidence that Joniah had been chronically abused. He pointed out that the baby’s weight and health had started to decline at around seven months, about the time his mother had returned to work, leaving father and son home alone together.

Tinajero turned to the defense’s star witness, Dr. Ophoven. He reminded the jury that the doctor had been paid $5,400 for her opinions, on the taxpayers’ dime. All of the prosecution’s experts, the medical examiner, and the doctors at Children’s were on salary and got paid whether the baby was abused or not, he said. But not Ophoven. “In other words, no trial, no fee. You want to talk neutrality?”

Tinajero gazed at the picture of a smiling Joniah on the screens. “That baby couldn’t take the stand and tell you what happened to him,” Tinajero said, his voice rising. “But through all the doctors, the police, and his mama, he did tell you what happened. Through that army of angels, he told you what happened to him.”

Tinajero walked over to Baker, faced him, stared into his eyes.

“Joniah Baker was killed by his dad,” Tinajero said, nearly shouting. “That man!” he said, pointing at Baker. “You find him guilty of capital murder. Because he is.”


•••


Thirty minutes later, Tinajero sat in his office on the 10th floor, his head in his hands, stressed, restless. He had 75 unread emails, but he couldn’t focus. He got lunch. He surfed CNN. He stood up. He sat down. One hour passed into another. The bailiffs promised to call with any news from the jury. Tinajero kept his phone on his desk, glancing at it every so often.
After four hours, he wandered back down to the courtroom on the sixth floor. Shortly after, a red light flickered. Jurors had pressed a button in their deliberation room, signaling that they wanted to talk to a bailiff. The bailiff returned with the news: they had a verdict.

“All rise,” the bailiff said.

Tinajero rose. So did Baker and his two public defenders.

Judge Rick Magnis looked out over the packed courtroom. Baker’s relatives and friends sat on the benches behind him, holding hands. Sanford sat on the other side of the courtroom, a tissue in her hand, a friend rubbing her shoulder. Four sheriff’s deputies sat in the back row, called in for extra security.

Judge Magnis looked down and read the verdict. “We, the jury, find the defendant guilty of capital murder, as charged in the indictment.”

The judge looked over to the defense table as Baker slowly sat down in his chair. “Stand, Mr. Baker,” the judge said. Baker’s attorneys placed their hands beneath his arms and helped him back to his feet. “Mr. Baker, the jury having found you guilty of capital murder, at this time I sentence you to life confinement.”

Behind Baker, his friends and family members murmured loudly and filed out of the courtroom. One flipped over a wooden bench in the lobby. The deputies ordered the family to leave the courthouse, then went back to check on the jurors, escorting them into a private elevator used by judges, making sure they got safely to their cars.

In the courtroom, Tinajero broke into a huge smile and went to Sanford. She grabbed his hand, her eyes full of tears.

Soon Tinajero slipped away from the crowd and rode down the elevator in silence. He stepped out into the sunlight and headed toward his car, looking toward the county jail. Baker would spend the night there, the first of a lifetime of long nights.


•••


Sergeant Nichols wasn’t in court for the verdict but quickly received word by text. She danced around her living room, happy and pumped with adrenaline. Then she sat down in a recliner for a while.

A couple hours later, she got a call from one of the child abuse detectives. They were preparing for another all-nighter, about to arrest a teacher accused of sexually abusing two students. Nichols wouldn’t be with them. They had a new sergeant now. The only thing on Nichols’ agenda was a steak dinner and a full night’s rest.

By this time, the police chief had transferred Nichols out of Child Abuse, back to the Missing Persons Squad. It was a lateral move, part of a supervisor shuffle in the department. But Nichols feared her outspokenness, fueled by stress, may have contributed to it. The transfer stung.

Nichols parked outside the old Victorian house on Swiss for the last time in November 2012. Carrying a cardboard box, she walked upstairs to finish packing her office. Teary-eyed detectives stopped by one after another to say goodbye. Nichols helped them through the day’s cases, such as a 16-year-old girl on life support after an older man plied her with liquor shots. Worried that she might die, detectives wanted doctors to perform a rape kit. Nichols worked the phone, figuring out legalities with doctors and prosecutors.

“Want to approve one last case for me, Sarge?” asked Detective Emilio Henry, popping his head into her office.

“Sure,” Nichols said. “Anything for you.”

While Nichols looked over his search warrant, Henry talked about his latest victim, a girl born to a crack addict then passed around to abusive guardians. The girl looked as if she had been hit by shrapnel, with scars and scratches all over her body. The girl’s new foster mother had told the detective a story about their first Halloween together. The woman asked the girl to pick a costume. The girl thought for a minute, then her eyes lit up. She wanted to be a CPS caseworker.

“Is that the saddest shit you’ve ever heard in your life?” Henry said. “She wanted to dress up as a CPS caseworker, because they were the only people who had been nice to her.”

At 4 pm, Nichols walked out with her last box. She felt numb with loss. She had spent more time in her office than she had at home during the past seven years. She worried about herself, her detectives, about all the children. Would the new sergeant care about them as much as she had?

As Nichols drove home in the fading light, she tried to think about what she might gain by leaving the unit. She thought about all the people who had left before her, how they began to look younger in a matter of weeks. She tried to imagine never again walking onto the 11th floor of Children’s Medical Center. Never again seeing a badly beaten child. No more days and nights filled with all those broken babies.

The calls kept coming. Others would answer them now.