Larsen denies charges in babysitter trial

Kingston Whig-Standard

By Sue Yanagisawa
Local News - Thursday, October 07, 2004 @ 07:00

The court was presented with a radically different view of Cheryl Larsen testifying yesterday at her manslaughter trial than the one witnessed last week in a videotaped interview with Det. Sgt Carolyn Rice.

In contrast to the distraught, sobbing woman on the tapes, Larsen appeared in person to be unwaveringly confident and relaxed as she was subjected to about five hours of questioning by one of her lawyers, Clyde Smith, and then by Crown attorney Bruce Griffith.

Griffith wasn’t quite done with his cross-examination when Justice Helen MacLeod closed court for the day. Larsen returns to the witness stand this morning.

The 33-year-old mother of three was babysitting 22-month-old Brody Albert on Dec. 6, 2002, when, according to her, he fell down her carpeted basement stairs to her carpeted basement floor. She called 911 for help, and when the tape of her call was played in open court last week, the moans of a small child were clearly audible – Brody’s last sounds. By the time paramedics reached Larsen’s Pembridge Crescent home, the toddler was unconscious.

He never woke up and died in Kingston General Hospital two days later from a brain injury his doctors and several pathologists diagnosed as shaken baby syndrome.

Larsen agreed to a videotaped interview with police the day after Brody went into hospital and sobbed and cried her way through 3˝ hours of tape before Det. Sgt. Rice finally told her she was going to be charged with aggravated assault. She spent that Saturday night in police custody.

The following afternoon, Dec. 8, 2002, Brody died.

Rice had Larsen brought up from the police cells to tell her that she was now going to be charged with the boy’s death – again on videotape – which provoked the first tears the

detective saw Larsen shed.

Both Larsen and her husband, Maj. Mark Larsen, have told the court that she spent nine days in custody after that, but was finally released on $60,000 bail, with her husband and two family friends acting as sureties.

In the witness box yesterday, Larsen was well-groomed, dressed in a form-fitting brown pantsuit, pink shirt and heels – a contrast to the wrung-out woman in sweatpants and stocking feet captured by the camera that December weekend two years ago.

She smiled easily and not infrequently as Smith asked her questions. She never once lost her calm while answering Griffith. There were no tears or emotional episodes.

“It was a typical morning,” she told the court. “Brody was dropped off at 10 after, quarter after eight.”

She said she wrapped a birthday present her oldest son, then 7, was to take to school for a party immediately afterward.

She said she watched from her house as her seven-year-old and six-year-old sons boarded their bus for school and then took Brody in the house and put him on the toilet. He was potty-training and she testified that she left the room briefly, returning to ask him “Did you go?” and he said, yes “pee.”

Larsen testified she was trying to teach the toddler to dress and undress himself, so she encouraged him to put on his own pullups, but he was trying to do it standing up and was having difficulty. She’d just told him to sit down and do it. He was still trying, she said, when she heard the computer signal for Internet messaging in the basement.

Larsen and her husband use the on-line messaging system to stay in touch when he’s away from home on his frequent work-related trips. The court previously heard that he was just finishing an eight-week training course in Winnipeg and was due to return to Kingston later that night.

She told the court, “I scooped up Brody and I grabbed the diaper and I said, ‘Let’s do this downstairs.’ ”

She recalled sitting him on the floor to put on his pullup while she went online with her husband.

A detective with the OPP’s electronic crime section later dug into the hard drive of the Larsen’s computer and retrieved two chunks of text that he reconstructed into a string of on-line conversation from that morning.

The transcript, which has been entered as an exhibit at Larsen’s trial, includes what appear to be complaints about Brody’s toilet training progress, her husband commiserating with her and both of them passing some uncharitable comment on the boy.

Larsen and her husband have both testified, however, that the transcript of that conversation is incomplete.

“There’s content missing,” she later told Griffith, and said some of the dialogue in the string is out of order.

At some point, while she was still online with her husband, Larsen told Smith, Brody got his pullup on properly. The basement was chilly, so she sent him back upstairs to the main floor bathroom, where she’d left his blue corduroy pants, to retrieve them.

She said she heard his voice and leaned out from the computer to ask “What is it? And he said either, ‘I got it’ or ‘I did it,’ ” – one of the phrases he’d mastered – “and I saw blue” at the top of the stairs.

“I said, ‘Great’ because he got his pants. He did what he was supposed to do and I said, ‘Let’s put them on.’ ”

During subsequent questioning by her lawyer, she said that as Brody descended the stairs she turned back to the computer to read more of the course report her husband had sent her – which is missing from the reconstruction of the online conversation.

Then, she heard a noise.

“I was startled and then I heard a second noise and Brody was at the bottom of the stairs,” she said.

It was the first time the court has heard about two noises on the stairs.

In later questioning, Smith asked Larsen about the second noise and she recalled “hearing a funny noise among the boxes” near the laundry room, which she suggested was one of her two cats scurrying.

“The cats are always going up and down the stairway,” she told Smith.

“We didn’t think much about the cats’ location on the stairs until after the accident.”

One of her aunts later told her she should get rid of them, she said, because one of them, asleep at the top of the stairs, had almost tripped her when she was going down to the laundry.

Griffith asked her if she was suggesting Brody’s injuries were the fault of her cat.

“No, I’m not suggesting that at all, but I do recall hearing some noise with the cat,” she said. “The cat was scurrying into the other room.”

When asked directly by Smith if she violently shook Brody Albert that morning, Larsen flatly denied it.

After Brody’s exclamation at the top of the stairs “sometime after that I heard his fall,” she testified, “and I picked him up off the floor and I patted him on the back and I said, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK, honey.”

She told the court, “I expected him to cry.”

When he didn’t, she held him out away from her and “I asked him verbally if he was OK and I moved him forward and backward.”

Larsen said: “Clearly something was wrong, because he should have been crying [and] I thought at the time there was something funny about his eyes. They weren’t totally open and they weren’t totally closed.”

She told the court that she laid him on the floor and checked his airway, looked for any sign of bleeding and felt his head.

“There was a small soft spot, but I didn’t think anything of it,” she recalled, because she didn’t feel any bump.

She said she then cradled him in her arms and took him upstairs where she laid him on the carpeted floor and put water on his face before calling 911.

Griffith questioned her about her interview the next day with Det. Rice and her admission that she did shake Brody.

Under questioning by Smith, Larsen said she was unaware that she was a suspect when she agreed to talk to Rice.

“I was just going down to answer questions,” she said. “I thought that was pretty normal.

Griffith suggested she must have known when Rice asked her pointedly whether there was something she wasn’t admitting and questioned her about whether she’d dropped Brody or shaken him.

Larsen, who said she provided care for five children under the age of three at one time about seven years ago, insisted she wasn’t aware of what the detective was getting at, even at the end of their interview.

“I didn’t realize at that time that I was suspected of shaking Brody,” she said.

She said she’s heard of shaken baby syndrome, but never had any reason to read up on it.

At one point in the interview with Rice, after the detective told Larsen that Brody couldn’t have been hurt that badly by falling down stairs and suggested to Larsen that she’d shaken him, Larsen said: “I know, I know. I shook him too hard, but I didn’t mean to.”

When Griffith directed her to that part of the tape, however, Larsen said she realized by then that Rice was “convinced at that point that I had shaken him.”

She told the court she was extremely emotional and “I know how I do things and I would not call what I did a shake.”

She told the Crown: “Those are my words after being interrogated for three hours.”

Even after Rice suggested she was leaving something out and kept asking her to go over the same points again and again, Larsen said “actually, I didn’t realize she didn’t believe me.

“I thought there was something I had missed.”

Griffith suggested she must have realized she was putting herself in jeopardy with her answers.

“No. I was searching for answers,” she told him.

The trial continues today at 10 a.m. at the Frontenac County Court House.