From time to time, Suffer the Little Children will feature a story from the less recent past. Years may have gone by, but these kids still deserve to be remembered and to have their stories told. These posts can be found under the “Forget Me Not” category.
The first such story I will cover is the heart-wrenching case of 22-month-old Blaise Spoerl.
Operator: Summerville 911.
Caller: Yes, I need an ambulance right away. 402 Dovetail Drive.
Operator: OK, what’s going on?
Caller: He’s bleeding. His face is bleeding. He’s not moving. He’s hard as a rock. He’s fuckin’ dead.
Operator: Who is it?
Caller: It’s my step-son. He’s two years old. He’s almost two years old. 402 Dovetail Drive.
Operator: Sir, did he fall? Did he fall?
Caller: He’s in his crib. He’s in his crib. He’s got blood all over his face.
Those chilling words began the investigation by police in Summerville, South Carolina into the brutal death of 22-month-old Blaise Preston Spoerl, who lived at 402 Dovetail Circle in Summerville with his mother, Jennifer Elizabeth Spoerl (age 28); his 8-year-old sister, Serena; Jenn’s boyfriend, Justin Ryan Hillerby (age 27); and their two roommates, Eric Alan Riggins (26) and Brandi Lynne Mihill (24).
It was Monday, September 15, 2008 at approximately 10:40 AM when Justin made the 911 call transcribed above to report that his girlfriend’s toddler son was dead in his crib, covered in blood, cold and stiff, and well beyond rescue. When police arrived at the scene, they found Jenn outside, crying hysterically, flanked by Justin on one side and her father, Leonard Spoerl, on the other.
From the very start of the investigation, it was clear to detectives that Blaise’s death was suspicious, to say the least. Justin’s ever-evolving story had a lot to do with that. When they initially interviewed him, he suggested the toddler’s injuries occurred when he “might have” fallen down the previous day during the family’s visit to the nearby Weatherstone community swimming pool. Justin told police that later that evening, after Jenn left to spend the evening out with friends, he put Blaise in his high chair to feed him dinner, but the baby seemed listless and fell asleep while sitting in the high chair, so Justin put him to bed. Flash forward to the next morning, when they found Blaise dead in his crib. Seems simple, right?
Other accounts of the family’s trip to the pool were less innocuous than Justin made it seem. According to court documents, Jenn and Justin were accompanied by friends, and the adults were drinking and listening to music while essentially ignoring the children, including 8-year-old Serena and little Blaise. Witnesses reported Blaise, who wasn’t wearing a life jacket or any kind of flotation device, falling repeatedly into the pool, requiring other swimmers to rescue him. During one incident, a 16-year-old boy pulled Blaise out of the pool after he fell in; several witnesses overheard Justin tell the young man, “You should have just left him in there.” Afterward, Justin was also overheard calling Blaise a “pussy” and telling him to “suck it up” and that “no one cares about you.” Witnesses also reported overhearing Jenn and Justin having an argument while poolside.
Not quite the idyllic family outing Justin had reported, was it?
It turns out Justin had quite the arrest record, starting back in 1999, although it is unclear whether Jenn knew about it or not. His previous charges included disorderly conduct, driving under the influence, public drunkenness, marijuana possession, and receiving stolen goods, according to the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division. The disposition of those cases is unknown.
Jenn told police Blaise fell into the water while she was busy packing a cooler with beer, drinks, and Jell-O. She later told the Post and Courier, “It was a normal day. We spent the day at the pool. We ate dinner, put him to bed, and when we woke up, he had already passed.” She told the newspaper she wondered if he might have had water in his lungs. Interesting; there was no mention in there of what she was actually doing that night while Justin was home, “watching” the kids.
According to trial testimony, after the group spent several hours at the pool, they returned home, where Justin received a call from a friend inviting him out for the evening. Jenn intercepted, insisting it was her turn to go out, since Justin had gone out the night before. Jenn already had plans to go out drinking with friends that evening, so go out she did, leaving her two children home with Justin, who proceeded to get drunk.
The couple’s roommate, Brandi, told police that when she and another roommate arrived home that evening to see Blaise crying in the corner of the living room, they asked what was wrong with him. Justin said the toddler was in “time out” for knocking over his beer. Justin later repeated that story to police. He also added a few details, telling officers that at some point during the evening, he hit Blaise in the head with his knee “hard enough” that it knocked the child headfirst to the floor. While Blaise lay on the floor, moaning in pain, Justin told him to “walk it off.”
Justin also told police that later, he found Blaise stumbling around the house “like a zombie” and put him in his high chair with some pizza to eat. However, he explained, Blaise couldn’t seem to control his head; it flopped back and forth as if he had no muscle control. Justin told police he took Blaise out of the high chair and carried the boy to bed, slamming Blaise’s head – whether intentionally or not – against a door frame and then on his crib before tucking Blaise in for the night. It seemed Mom’s Resident Penis™ didn’t realize he was leaving the toddler alone, injured and bleeding, to die in his crib.
Jenn arrived home at about 1:40 AM, intoxicated, and apparently let herself into her roommates’ bedroom with a key in order to start a drunken argument about the rent being late. She soon went to bed herself without checking on Blaise. That part really haunts me; if she had looked in on the baby, is it possible they could have saved him? If he had lived, he would have turned 13 on November 11, 2019. Instead, he will forever remain a baby who only celebrated a single birthday during the span of his tragically short life.
The next morning, after Serena had left for school, Jenn finally stumbled into Blaise’s room around 10:30 AM, realizing the baby had failed to awaken to the sounds of the house coming to life around him. Unfortunately, what Jenn found in the crib was every mother’s worst nightmare; instead of a cooing toddler with rosy cheeks and mussed hair and warm, grabbing hands, Blaise lay motionless and silent on his back, his face bruised and crusted with blood, his tiny body stiff, his skin cold and colorless, a pool of blood near his body. The rambunctious little blond boy with the big blue eyes and the contagious smile would never again reach for his mommy to lift him out of his crib; he would never again play with his sister or open a present or accompany his family to the pool. Blaise Preston Spoerl was pronounced dead on Monday, September 15, 2008.
According to the police report, Leonard Spoerl was cutting his grass when his wife, Sharon, told him their daughter, Jennifer, had just called, screaming incoherently. Leonard immediately drove over to Jenn’s house to find out what was wrong; when he walked into the house, Jenn screamed, “He’s dead!” When Leonard asked who she meant, Jenn replied, “Blaise!” Leonard entered the baby’s room, and when he touched his grandson, he knew immediately that Blaise was dead. I can’t imagine how much that moment must haunt him.
The same day Blaise died, the Berkeley County Department of Social Services picked up his older sister, Serena, at Sangaree Intermediate School and took her into emergency protective custody.
Serena had to grow up without her sidekick and best friend. If you ever wondered if life is fair, there’s your proof that it’s not. (Photos courtesy of MySpace)
Justin Hillerby, who gave the police several progressively detailed stories about the events of the evening of September 14, was arrested on September 17 on one count of homicide by child abuse and booked into the Berkeley County jail. At his four-minute-long bond hearing on Thursday, September 18, Jenn sat several rows back, displaying no visible emotion. Justin had the colossal nerve to ask the judge if he could attend Blaise’s funeral, scheduled for the coming weekend. Chief Municipal Judge Tom Finucan, who denied Justin bail, replied, “No, sir; I don’t think you’ll be bonded by then.”
Blaise was buried on Saturday, September 20, 2008 in Summerville Cemetery after an 11:00 AM funeral. His obituary provided a long list of surviving family members, including his mother, Jennifer Spoerl; his sister, Serena Spoerl; his grandparents, Leonard and Sharon Spoerl; his uncles Christian (and wife Katie), Alan (and wife Rene), and Patrick (and wife Jennifer); as well as several cousins.
On September 24, Jennifer Elizabeth Spoerl was arrested on one count of unlawful conduct towards a child. She could have faced 10 years in prison. Her arrest affidavit said she “did place the victim at unreasonable risk of harm.” She was released on a $20,000 surety bond. That wasn’t Jenn’s only legal trouble, however; at the time of her son’s death, Jenn was already facing a simple assault charge over a fight she had with a woman named Melissa Georgoulis. Melissa, then age 31, had a son with Justin, and he was reportedly splitting his time between the two women, spending one night with one and the next night with the other. Back on May 29, 2008, Melissa and Justin were having a drink together at Dorchester Lane when Jenn stormed in, threw a drink on Justin, and punched Melissa in the nose.
Two days after Blaise’s death, Melissa filed another complaint with the Summerville police, saying Jenn made harassing calls to her on that day. Her toddler son had just died, her boyfriend was accused of his murder, it was still unclear if she would face charges, and Jenn kept herself busy by pestering her piece of shit boyfriend’s side-piece by phone.
Hey, everyone grieves differently.
Melissa described Justin to the Post and Courier as violent when he drinks. She also said Justin was with her the night of September 13, which was the night before the fateful family pool outing. “[Jenn] says the media is making him look bad and the police are making him look bad,” Melissa said. “Well, you know what? He is bad.”
I’ll say, especially after reading the results of Blaise’s autopsy. According to Berkeley County Coroner Glenn Rhoad, Blaise’s manner of death was homicide, and the cause was blunt force trauma to the head. The poor little guy suffered 23 blows to the head and face. That’s no accident, folks.
The case went to trial in February of 2010, seventeen months after Blaise’s death. Defense attorney Michael Bosnak told the jury that the case was built on false confessions, none of which was recorded (conveniently). “There’s not one bit of physical evidence in this case that says Justin Hillerby did anything to this child,” he insisted, referencing the fact that there was no blood evidence or DNA found implicating Justin. He hinted at the fact that there were three other adults living in the home who had the opportunity to hurt Blaise. “The child was beaten,” Bosnak said. “This was no accident. Somebody beat this child.”
Prosecutors countered that Justin’s own words at the scene, in statements he gave to police, and during collect phone calls from jail to Jennifer proved Justin alone was responsible for Blaise’s death. During one such call on September 26, 2008, Justin said to Jenn, “Maybe I smacked him. When he hit the floor is I guess when it started. I didn’t notice. I was drunk.”
Assistant Solicitor Anne Williams told the court that Justin told police his roommates had nothing to do with Blaise’s death. She mentioned a tape of another phone call when Jenn told Justin she was being arrested, to which Justin responded, “For what? You didn’t do anything.”
Sergeant Ray Dixson, polygraph examiner for Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office, testified that Justin agreed to take a polygraph but canceled. “He said he didn’t want to take the test because he knew what happened,” Sergeant Dixson said on the stand, adding that Justin told him he “might have shaken [Blaise] a little.”
Coroner Glenn Rhoad, who performed Blaise’s autopsy, testified about the 23 points of impact on Blaise’s skull and the severe brain injury these caused.
During the trial, Justin testified, “I did not hit Blaise. When I put him to bed, he was fine.” When asked if Blaise had blood on his face when Justin put him to bed, Justin replied that he didn’t notice because he was drunk. Justin walked through one of the many iterations of his story, explaining how Blaise was behaving “like a zombie” and was unable to lift his head, walk, talk, keep his eyes open, or maintain muscle control. With this, he unknowingly cemented his own guilt, as he was describing to the letter the signs of a massive brain injury like the one Blaise suffered.
On February 25, 2010, the jury deliberated for all of two hours before returning with the unanimous verdict: guilty of homicide by child abuse.
Immediately after the trial ended, the sentencing hearing commenced. Anne Williams asked Circuit Judge Kristi Harrington to impose the maximum penalty on the sorry piece of trash sitting in the defendant’s chair, mentioning a phone call between Justin and Jenn in which Justin said he would spend the rest of his life “making this up” to Jenn. As if anything he could possibly do would make up for the murder of her child!
During the sentencing, Blaise’s grandfather and Jennifer’s father, Leonard Spoerl, spoke about how he and Sharon moved from New Jersey to South Carolina, expecting to retire and spend a lot of time with their children and grandchildren. (According to a friend of Jennifer’s, although she was old enough to live on her own, she had no choice but to move along with her parents; after three DUI convictions within a year, as well as a charge of assaulting an officer, Jenn wouldn’t get her driver’s license back for over a decade.)
Justin’s attorney asked the judge not to give him the maximum penalty so he could someday be reunited with his own son. Justin’s mother, who was visiting from Guantanamo Bay, where she was stationed due to her position with Homeland Security, pleaded with the judge to take pity on her son, saying she knew he hadn’t committed the crime.
For his part, Justin maintained his innocence at the sentencing hearing. “I didn’t do it,” he told Judge Harrington. “I don’t have that mentality.”
The judge disagreed, sentencing Justin to life in prison without parole. As the judge read the sentence, Blaise’s grandmother, Sharon Spoerl, shouted a triumphant, “Yes!” Her outburst startled the members of the jury who had chosen to remain for the sentencing, according to a blogger who served on the jury.
On their way out of the courtroom, members of the Spoerl family walked past some members of the jury and personally thanked them.
Justin Hillerby, now 38 years old, is currently serving his life sentence at the Broad River Correctional Institute in Columbia, South Carolina. He has spent some of his time as an inmate working as a construction trainee, a food service aide, and wardkeeper assistant. He has had various disciplinary sanctions over the years for infractions such as possessing a marijuana vape pen, several attempts to possess a cell phone, and possession of unspecified contraband. He appealed his conviction and sentence in 2013, but his appeal was summarily denied. This waste of human skin is exactly where he should be: wasting away behind bars for the rest of his pathetic life.
Jennifer Spoerl, now 39 years old, still lives in Summerville. Her now 19-year-old daughter, Serena, has reportedly cut her mother out of her life.
Jenn’s criminal case regarding Blaise’s death is marked as disposed, according to Berkeley County court records; I was unable to uncover whether the case was dismissed, a plea was entered, or how the case was otherwise finished.
Jenn now has another young son, who bears an extraordinary resemblance to Blaise. Since he never got to meet his older brother, who would be 13 if he were alive today, I hope Jenn and her family keep Blaise’s memory alive for him.
I’ve felt compelled to tell Blaise’s thoroughly tragic story for many years, so I’m thankful now to have the appropriate platform. In truth, Blaise’s story is not only one of the cases that ultimately led to this blog’s creation, but also one of the main reasons for my deep-seated desire to give voices to the children I feature here.
Rest in peace, little Blaise. You deserved so much more.
Sources: Post and Courier, Berkeley Observer, WLTX19, Legacy.com, Find a Grave, 5News.com, The Dreamin’ Demon, This is My Blog Attempt, SC Inmate Search, Facebook, official documents, friends of Jennifer Spoerl