On August 4, 2016, Ava Marie Littell, daughter of 23-year-old Zachary Lee Littell and 23-year-old Abigail Neiger-Bickham, died tragically at the age of eight months.
Ava’s maternal grandmother, Jennifer Neiger, told reporters the baby died of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), which is possible, even though most SIDS deaths occur in infants between one and four months of age, and 90% of these tragic, unexplained deaths occur before babies are six months old. Still, SIDS could be the cause, because a child can die of SIDS any time within her first year.
When an autopsy was performed on Ava, the medical examiner noted that some recent lethargy was reported in the history. A diagram included in the report described a “purple-red” bruise on the back of the baby’s head. The report also made note of scalp contusions, describing them as “of varying ages but one was acute, occurring during the period of time when the infant was said to be less active. The contusions were large and posterior, not in an area likely to be associated with activities of an 8-month old infant. No explanation for the injuries was offered other than head-banging while learning to crawl and her activity was also described as ‘scooting’ rather than hand-and-knees crawling.”
These photos of pages from Ava’s autopsy were taken by NewsChannel 12.
Despite these findings, Ava’s cause of death was deemed undetermined, and no charges were pressed. According to Onslow County Sheriff Hans Miller, “If science doesn’t provide the evidence — no evidence, no conviction.” He told a reporter that the case was investigated to the best of the department’s abilities, but because of the medical examiner’s ruling of “undetermined,” their hands were tied as far as pursuing charges. “For any homicide investigation… what the medical examiner, the forensic pathologist determines is the basis for further investigation and for further charges.” He continued, “It has to be defendable in court… Once a case is dismissed, you can never go back.”
Sheriff Miller did, however, confirm that the investigation into Ava’s death remains active.
Ava’s untimely death seemed much more suspicious, however, after Harper Renee Littell, the second infant daughter of the same couple, died 17 months later. This time, the autopsy revealed a clear cause of death, and, according to police, there was one person responsible: Harper’s father, Zachary.
As it turns out, Zachary has a history of violent behavior. In 2012, he was arrested for indecent exposure; the victim in that case, a neighbor of Zachary’s, filed a restraining order stating he approached her front porch and dropped his pants. In May 2015, he was arrested for assaulting Abigail, who was pregnant with Ava at the time; Abigail later dropped the charges against him. During that arrest, he was also charged with resisting a public officer.
Let’s back up a second, though, and get into the details of little Harper’s death.
On January 3, 2018, police and emergency medical personnel responded to the Jacksonville, North Carolina home of Zachary (then 25 years old) and Abigail (then age 24) at 104 Denise Drive, from which they had received a report of an infant not breathing. EMS arrived first and was treating the child by the time deputies arrived on the scene. Harper, who was born on November 15, 2017, was transported to Onslow Memorial Hospital in Jacksonville, but from there, she was transferred almost immediately to Vidant Medical Center in Greenville. Medical personnel took note of swollen areas on both sides of Harper’s head and bruises around her lips and on the back of her head. On January 5, she was removed from life support, and she lost her life at only seven weeks old.
So what the hell happened to little Harper?
According to police, Zachary told them that when he left Harper unattended, she fell out of a portable baby bathtub. However, the medical examiner thought Harper’s injuries told a very different story.
Harper’s autopsy was performed by Pitt County Medical Examiner Dr. Mary Gilliland, the same pathologist who performed Ava’s autopsy in 2016. The autopsy report showed bleeding in the space between Harper’s brain and meninges (the connective tissue covering the brain), as well as skull fractures and brain edema (swelling). Infants have been observed, according to the autopsy, to fall from changing tables and other surfaces up to 36 inches from the floor without suffering such severe injuries. Dr. Gilliland’s report read, “Based on scene circumstances and autopsy findings, it is my opinion that the cause of death in this case is blunt force injuries of the head.” Harper’s manner of death was ruled a homicide.
Abigail’s mother, Jennifer, told reporters that Abigail was at work when Harper was injured, and that in fact, it was Abigail’s first day back from maternity leave. What an utterly heartbreaking detail. I can’t imagine the pain Abigail lives with every day of her life after losing not one, but two baby girls. Her son, Jaxson, is now six years old; he was two and a half when Ava died and four when Harper died, so I have to wonder what, if anything, he remembers about them.
On Wednesday, January 24, 2018, Zachary was arrested by the Onslow County Sheriff’s Office Special Victims Unit and charged with one open count of murder in the death of his second daughter, Harper Renee Littell. He was booked into Onslow County Sheriff’s Detention Center, where he has remained in custody ever since.
Zachary, now 27, currently awaits his trial, which is scheduled to begin on May 25, 2020.
As always, I will be keeping my eye on this case and posting updates as I find them. Click here for my continuing coverage of this case.
Sources: WCTI NewsChannel 12, The News & Observer, Onslow County Sheriff’s Office, Facebook, WITN, Spectrum News, JDNews