From time to time, Suffer the Little Children will feature a story from the less recent past. Years may have gone by, but these children still deserve to be remembered and their stories told. These posts can be found under the “Forget Me Not” tag.
In today’s Forget Me Not post, I’m going to tell you the story of a five-year-old Indiana girl named Lauren Michele McConniel, who was a happy, healthy, vibrant child until she was placed into the custody of her biological father and her stepmother, who essentially tortured her to death. Three other adults who also lived in the house were convicted of their part in Lauren’s death, as well.
On March 25, 2000, 20-year-old Amber Delene Maddox and 23-year-old Ryan Neil McConniel were married in Grant, Indiana. At the time, Amber had a one-and-a-half-year-old son, Cameron. Less than six months later, Amber and Ryan welcomed their first daughter, Kaylynn Ann, on September 11, 2000.
Cameron was six and Kaylynn was four when their baby sister, Lauren Michele McConniel, was born on October 3, 2004 in Muncie, Indiana.
When Amber and Ryan split up in July of 2006, Ryan moved to Arkansas, from where he filed for divorce in November of 2006. At the time, Amber, along with Kaylynn and Lauren, were living in Tennessee. Amber tried to get legal representation for the divorce proceedings, but she was unable to afford an attorney. Because she was not a resident of the state of Arkansas, Amber was not eligible for legal aid there, and because the divorce was taking place in Arkansas, she could not apply for legal aid in Tennessee, either.
She was forced to represent herself.
In a later telephone interview, Amber told the Star Press, “I did not have the financial resources to have an attorney. Ryan had an attorney and I did not. There was no other reason he got custody. I was not an unfit mother. I never hurt my children.”
The divorce became final in May of 2007. Despite Amber being, by all accounts, an excellent mother, which has never been disputed, Ryan was awarded custody of Kaylynn and Lauren. Adding insult to injury, Amber was ordered to pay Ryan $104 a week in child support. She and Ryan, however, made a verbal agreement that Lauren would stay with her mother, and Amber would not pay child support.
hile Lauren lived with her mom, she was a healthy, chatty, but well-behaved four-year-old girl who met all of her developmental milestones on time, including being fully potty trained.
In October of 2007, Ryan remarried. His bride, 22-year-old Brittany (Lee) McConniel, was the stepdaughter of Ryan’s cousin, Robert E. Lee. Brittany entered the marriage with a one-year-old son, who I’ll call K.L., as he is still a minor. Within a year, the couple also had a daughter together, who I’ll call H.M.
Once Ryan and Brittany were married, Brittany nagged Ryan relentlessly about his verbal agreement with Amber, pushing him to take Lauren and demand child support from his ex-wife. Lauren lived with her spineless father and her wicked stepmother from December of 2007 through June of 2008, went back to her mom in Tennessee for a few months, and then returned to Arkansas from October through December of 2008. When Amber picked Lauren up in December, she saw multiple bruises all over her four-year-old daughter’s body, and she was alarmed to note that Lauren had regressed in toilet training, frequently wetting her pants.
Concerned, Amber made a report to Child Protective Services about her daughter’s injuries and regression. In a later interview, Lauren said, “She had bruises on her. I asked her what happened, and she said she didn’t know. I took pictures of the bruises, but they were old and not good quality pictures. Child Protective Services in White County [Arkansas] said it was not enough.”
When questioned, Ryan and Brittany told CPS investigators that the bruises were caused when Lauren bumped into a trash can. The case was closed.
Soon after the CPS report, Ryan questioned Amber about whether she had called the agency, which she confirmed. He then asked if Amber would like to keep Lauren “like forever.” If only that was the way this story went.
While living with her mother, Lauren stopped having potty accidents.
By this time, Amber had also remarried a man named Jackie Huggins, who brought into the relationship his two sons, J.J. and Zach, and twin daughters Cora and Candace. All together, Amber and Jackie had seven children between them.
Ryan, Brittany, and their children moved to Indiana in March of 2009, where Brittany picked up where she had left off bullying Ryan to enforce the court child support order because, she said, they needed the money; she also told Ryan he was a worthless, good-for-nothing father and that he didn’t love Lauren because he let her stay with her mother.
From Indiana, Brittany called authorities in Tennessee and requested a welfare check on Lauren, saying her husband was the custodial parent and his ex-wife refused to return Lauren. After stooping this low, she managed to stoop lower still in August of 2009 when she convinced Ryan to drive to Tennessee and pick up his daughter without telling Amber ahead of time. With no warning, one day, Ryan and two law enforcement officers showed up on Amber’s doorstep, custody order in hand, and snatched Lauren out from under her nose.
The next time Amber saw her daughter, she would be brain-dead in a hospital bed, just hours from death.
Again adding insult to injury, Ryan went to court to demand back payment of child support from May of 2007 forward. At that time, Amber was given an address in Winchester, Indiana as a contact address for her ex-husband and her daughters. Little did she know, Ryan, Brittany, and their family had left Winchester earlier that summer, moving to the town of Farmland, where the population as of 2010 was 1,333 people. Shortly after Lauren arrived in Indiana, the family picked up again and moved to Muncie, a larger city in Delaware county with a population of approximately 70,000 at that time. Along with Ryan, Brittany, Brittany’s four-and-a-half-year-old son (K.L.), five-year-old Lauren, nine-year-old Kaylynn, and the couple’s sixteen-month-old daughter (H.M.), three others lived in the home at 2304 S. Ebright Street: Ryan’s cousin and Brittany’s stepfather, 43-year-old Robert E. Lee; Robert’s wife and Brittany’s mother, 43-year-old Angela “Angi” Rice Lee; and Brittany’s sister, 19-year-old Samra Lee.
Brittany told Ryan around this time that her stepfather, Robert, had molested her when she was a child. Even so, the couple seemed to have no qualms about living with Robert, along with their four children, three of whom were young girls.
Amber was not notified that her daughters had moved, nor was she provided a new telephone number. She tried to reach Ryan several times by email, pleading with him to tell her where they were living, but the only person she was able to reach was Brittany, who told her they were still living in Winchester. Brittany, who at this point sounds like a cartoon supervillain, demanded that Amber pay the back child support she owed Ryan and to stop trying to contact them.
At one point, Amber was so desperate to get in touch with her daughters that she called a number she had for Ryan’s sister. Ryan later returned the call and told her never to call the number again and that when Kaylynn and Lauren were old enough, they could decide for themselves if they wanted to see their mother.
It would later turn out that the adults in the McConniel/Lee house spent months drilling into Kaylynn and Lauren’s brains that their mother neither wanted nor loved them.
Amber, who loved and missed her girls desperately, threatened contempt charges if Ryan did not allow Kaylynn and Lauren to call her. She received exactly one phone call, this one from a restricted number in December of 2009, during which she spoke with her two daughters for a total of eight minutes. Then, she heard Brittany say, “you’ve talked long enough,” and the call disconnected.
That was the last time she ever spoke with Lauren.
Amber attempted to locate the girls, even driving from Tennessee to Indiana in January of 2010, but when she pulled up at the address she was given in Winchester, accompanied by police, the house had been abandoned for some time.
“I sent numerous emails begging them to give me their address,” Amber told a news station by telephone. “I was told they were living in Winchester. I heard they were living in Farmland. I heard Fort Wayne. I heard Muncie. I heard everything.”
“I was kept from my daughter for six months,” Amber said. “I looked everywhere for them for six months.”
Lauren turned five in October of 2009. During the last months of Lauren’s life, she was relentlessly abused by her stepmother, Brittany, and step-grandfather, Robert. They would hit Lauren on the palms of her hands and the soles of her feet with a stick and then force her to perform jumping jacks for five to fifty minutes at a stretch. At times, they would not allow her to stop until she began throwing up.
Other punishments favored by Brittany and Robert included forcing Lauren to run long distances without stopping; making her hold heavy objects, such as canned vegetables, with arms outstretched for long periods of time without a break; and hitting her on the back of her legs with wet rags to avoid bruising, a tactic Robert later said he had learned on the television crime drama Criminal Minds.
Brittany was sadistic in other ways with her stepdaughter. She force fed Lauren until Lauren would vomit, and then Brittany would beat her for vomiting.
Ryan and Brittany claimed that Lauren began exhibiting behavior and mental issues immediately upon moving into their home in August of 2009, although the issues they reported had never displayed while in Amber’s custody. From Ryan’s probable cause affidavit:
“They reported [Lauren] would talk little, she would climb the wall like a wet cat if they tried to give her a shower. She would pee and poop in her pants so much that they started putting her in diapers even though she had been potty trained for 3 years. She would store food in her cheeks. She would mutilate her dolls. [She] started biting herself and her siblings. She would bite them badly and repeatedly. She then began playing with her stool. She would get stool from her own diapers and put it on her siblings and laugh about this. [Lauren] would smear it in their hair and try to put it on her dad. They reported this is the only time [Lauren] would laugh. Asked if they sought medical attention related for this alarming behavior they reported no.”
The affidavit continued, “The more time [Lauren] spent in the custody of Ryan and Brittany, the more her behaviors became increasingly bizarre. There were reports of rocking and staring at the wall for hours repeating I hate myself. She was reported to eat food out of trash cans. She would eat her own vomit. She would wander the house at night and not sleep. [Lauren] was losing weight due to no appetite. She even began to eat her own feces. She was reported to see little blue bunnies that kept her awake at night telling her to do bad things. This included stabbing daddy. [Lauren] was found with both a butcher knife and scissors during this time. Ryan and Brittany noted that they believed [Lauren] to be a victim of past physical or sexual abuse from Amber but yet did nothing to report this or try to receive help. These reports of Amber abusing [Lauren] were not substantiated.”
Ryan said that one day in December of 2009, he came home from work to find Lauren with her hands full of feces, trying to smear it on him and her siblings.
They also reported that Lauren had taken to choking herself, touching her genitals, and exhibiting sexual behavior, saying she would “stick her Barbie doll way up inside her.”
Ryan’s uncle, Ronald, lived next door to the McConniel home in Muncie. He said that Lauren was very sweet and happy when the family first arrived, but around December of 2009, his great-niece began to swear, her behavior changed noticeably, and she rapidly lost weight. Ryan told his uncle that Lauren had an eating disorder, explaining that there was “a prescription they was supposed to get for her or something.”
Through January, Ronald noticed that Lauren’s behavior and health seemed to be worsening. She wouldn’t run, smile, or hug him, and she seemed unhappy and very thin. To him, it seemed obvious his great-niece needed medical treatment. He said that almost every time he visited the family next door, Lauren was in the basement, where she slept on a mattress, and she would not come upstairs. Once, Ronald said, he went into the basement, where Lauren told him she wasn’t allowed to come upstairs. Brittany told Ronald that a doctor had told them Lauren had mental issues, so she was seeing a therapist.
For whatever reason, it does not appear that Lauren’s great-uncle contacted CPS about his concerns.
On November 19, 2009, Brittany took Lauren to the St. Vincent Randolph Hospital emergency room, saying her stepdaughter had gotten soap in her eye, which was red and painful. At that time, Lauren’s vital signs were normal, she weighed a perfectly acceptable 38 pounds, and no behavior problems or mental issues were noted. The emergency room doctor, Dr. Tom Huntington, wrote Lauren a prescription for antibiotic eye drops and for Benadryl to lessen her discomfort.
After this, Brittany took to giving Lauren Benadryl every night to “help” her sleep.
At this time, as throughout the remainder of Lauren’s life, Brittany and Ryan reported that Dr. Aaron Shoemaker in Winchester, Indiana was Lauren’s primary care doctor, who they said she was seeing for her malnutrition issues. However, Dr. Shoemaker never once saw Lauren.
At the November emergency room visit, no behavioral issues were mentioned.
On December 8, 2009, Lauren was taken to Ball Memorial Hospital, where she was treated in the emergency room by Dr. Tom Mangelt. Brittany told the doctor that Lauren had jumped off a bed and hurt a finger on her right hand. An x-ray was performed on Lauren’s hand, revealing a buckle fracture in her middle finger and additional fractures in four of the fingers on that hand.
“I don’t know why they didn’t report that to [CPS],” said Muncie Police Sergeant Jimmy Gibson, the lead detective on Lauren’s case. “People don’t want to believe that parents would hurt their kids that way. They surely think the parents care, or they wouldn’t bring a kid in with broken fingers.”
During that emergency room visit, Brittany was told to follow up with Dr. Shoemaker or Central Indiana Orthopedics within three days. Lauren never received follow-up care for her hand injuries. Again, none of Lauren’s supposed behavior or mental issues were mentioned.
About a week after that ER visit, Ryan asked Youth Pastor Timothy Black of the Southside Church of the Nazarene to come outside to the family’s van to try to convince Lauren to enter the church for a party. Pastor Black went outside, introduced himself to Lauren, and asked if she would like to come inside with the other kids and have some juice and cookies. However, from the moment he laid eyes on Lauren, he said she merely sat in the car seat, repeating the phrase “fucking bitch” over and over. After about five minutes of cajoling, the pastor gave up, telling Lauren’s father and stepmother they should seek professional help for the little girl very soon.
Later, Lauren came into the church, where she sat at the back, staying as far as she could from everyone else, and stared into space. The pastor thought Lauren was very pale and appeared frail.
At one point, Brittany got it in her head that “Lauren looked like a hermaphrodite,” so on February 4, the couple took Lauren to the Southway Urgent Care clinic. Because Ryan was embarrassed at the idea of his daughter possibly being a hermaphrodite, he told Bill Gosnell, R.N., the nurse who examined Lauren, that his daughter experienced pain and burning when she urinated and that her “vaginal area doesn’t look normal.” He and Brittany told the nurse that Lauren was potty-trained, but she had regressed to the point where she was wearing diapers again. However, none of Lauren’s other supposed behavior problems were brought up.
At this visit, the McConniels played saints, saying they had just obtained custody of Lauren and had essentially rescued her from her mother’s evil, abusive clutches. Ryan and Brittany again told doctors that Lauren was being treated for her obvious malnutrition by Dr. Shoemaker in Winchester.
Sergeant Gibson later said, “When questioned about the girl’s weight, they acted concerned and blamed the natural mom. And they were convincing.”
Testing determined that Lauren did not have a urinary tract infection, and the medical staff who did an external genital exam opined that nothing suggested Lauren was physically anything but a normal female. During the exam, this poor baby curled herself into a fetal position and punched herself over and over in the forehead. Ryan and Brittany told the staff that Lauren would hit herself hard enough to bruise her own face, so they were referred to Meridian Services for behavioral help and once again told to follow up with Dr. Shoemaker.
On February 10, Ryan and Brittany went alone to Meridian Services, where they saw counselor Karen Royer. For the first session, Ryan and Brittany were both present without Lauren and reported that Lauren had lost three pounds over the past two months, defecated in her brother’s bed while he was in it, hit herself, and rocked back and forth for hours while chanting about hating herself. They also mentioned that she was hallucinating “blue bunnies that made her do bad things, eat out of the trash, make herself vomit and eat her vomit, smear and eat her feces and also use the phrase fucking bitch often.” They told Karen that a month and a half before, Lauren had hidden a knife in her diaper, planning to stab Brittany.
The second session took place on February 22, and this time, Lauren was present along with Brittany and Ryan. This time the couple reported that Lauren hid a knife in her diaper to hurt Ryan, and Lauren told Karen she slept on a pallet on the floor, because her bed was dirty from wetting and defecating in it. (Um, they couldn’t change the sheets?!) Lauren also told Karen that her mom, who the five-year-old referred to as “Amber,” made her take cold showers and wear dirty clothes and that when she got in trouble, either her mom would bend Lauren’s fingers back or Amber would stick her own fingers “in” Lauren.
None of these allegations against Amber were ever substantiated. It is most likely Lauren was coached to say these things against her mother.
Still, despite the multiple ER visits, Lauren’s clearly deteriorating health, the allegations against her mother, and the wide variety of highly suspicious injuries covering Lauren’s body, nothing was reported to Child Protective Services until March 1, 2010, when the family had its third session with Karen Royer. During that appointment, Karen noted that Lauren was only awake for about ten minutes and slept for the rest of the session, wearing her coat throughout the entire appointment. Brittany told Karen that Lauren had been hiding food in her diaper and sleeping only three hours a night. She assured Karen that they were giving the malnourished girl Pediasure and Gerber Junior foods whenever possible. When Karen made the report to CPS, she said the little girl was exhausted, frail, and fragile; she said that throughout her many years working with children, she had never heard of behavior as bizarre as was reported for Lauren.
Not only was that belated CPS report too little, too late for Lauren, but the allegations within were pointed at the wrong parent.
Sergeant Gibson later said, “Child Protective Services was contacted by Karen Royer over allegations of sexual abuse that Ryan and Brittany made about the natural mother. The trouble is, Karen Royer believed Ryan and Brittany. They were believable. But I don’t suspect the natural mom at all. The natural mom hadn’t had contact with the child since August, and here this [allegation] was coming up in February and March. When the natural mom had custody of her, her weight was normal and the pictures showed she was healthy and happy.”
Why, you might wonder, did no one else report anything to CPS? Sergeant Gibson theorized that healthcare workers were, essentially, naive when dealing with Ryan and Brittany McConniel, who were well practiced in lying. Sergeant Gibson said, “I think the healthcare providers had been duped in some of this.”
On March 2, Ryan called Brittany from work during his lunch break between 11:00 and 11:30 AM. Brittany told Ryan that Lauren fell at the dentist’s office and was going to have a black eye, to which Ryan responded by asking, “Who hit her?” Brittany got mad, told him no one hit Lauren, and hung up.
At about 1:30 PM, Brittany called Ryan at work and told him Lauren needed to go to the hospital, because she was holding her head and “was screaming of a headache.” Ryan told Brittany to bring Lauren to his place of work, and when they arrived and Lauren was still holding her head and screaming, Ryan went inside and called an ambulance.
Lauren was taken to Ball Memorial Hospital by ambulance. Brittany accompanied Lauren in the ambulance, where one of the paramedics noted Lauren was “emaciated,” “all skin and bones,” and “sunken in her face,” and that the little girl’s grave condition was obvious. She also had an abrasion by her left eye and bruising below her left eye and on the bridge of her nose, although the paramedic said the bruises were not “as fresh as what it should have been for a fall earlier in the day,” which was what they were told had caused Lauren’s headache.
The paramedic later testified warning an emergency room nurse ahead of time about Lauren’s “wasted state” to prepare the nurse for “what she was about to see,” saying Lauren “was very, very, something that you don’t expect to see here in America, as far as nourishment, or physical condition, or anything.”
The nurse at Ball Memorial said Lauren looked “severely emaciated, and pale, and she whined or cried most of the time she was in my care.” The poor little girl looked “awful,” her lips were cracked, and her hair was thin. During the visit, Lauren had an accident in her pants, so Brittany found the nurse, told her Lauren needed to be cleaned up, and left the hospital. The nurse thought Brittany’s behavior was unusual because the woman seemed “disgusted” and “annoyed by Lauren.”
During that visit, Brittany told medical staff she didn’t know if Lauren was actually hurt or just acting out, and she and Ryan mentioned that Lauren fell down a lot, got dizzy, walked into things, hit herself, screamed loudly when not paid attention to, and hadn’t been eating a lot over the past several weeks. Again, they mentioned Dr. Shoemaker, saying he had noted Lauren’s weight two days earlier as 37.4 pounds. The clinical impression noted by staff in the Ball Memorial ER was malnutrition and behavior problems.
Evidently, there was some disagreement amongst the medical staff in the emergency room about whether to conduct blood tests on Lauren, and her blood was not ultimately drawn. If it had been, she would certainly not have been discharged.
After a normal CT scan, Lauren was sent home at around 5:00 PM. Ryan took Brittany and Lauren home before going to his classes at Ivy Tech. At about 7:00 PM, while Ryan was in a computer lab, Brittany contacted him by Facebook, saying Lauren, who was not doing any better, “was suffering a mental breakdown.”
Ryan left school and returned home, leaving a voicemail for Karen Royer before calling “several mental hospitals trying to get Lauren evaluated,” at which point he got an appointment at Valle Vista Health Systems in Greenwood. The drive to Valle Vista took about two hours.
When asked to sign a release of information for Dr. Shoemaker, the couple provided an invalid phone number and address for him, even though their other children had been seen in the past by the same doctor.
At Valle Vista, a counselor named Ellen Harrington diagnosed Lauren with lack of supervision, malnutrition, failure to thrive, and medical neglect and referred her to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.
Sergeant Gibson said, “I believe CPS here contacted CPS in Tennessee, because that’s where the allegations were [against Amber]. Lauren was scheduled to be interviewed by SMART (Sexual Molestation and Abuse Response Team), me, or [Sergeant Linda] Cook on March 3. We were doing it as a courtesy for Tennessee. That’s when she went into Riley. I wish I could have talked to her. I hate it that I didn’t.”
At about 12:55 AM on March 3, Lauren arrived at Riley Hospital for Children, where medical staff noted the little girl was “malnourished, emaciated, dehydrated, and… extremely lethargic.” Almost as soon as Lauren arrived at the hospital, her condition deteriorated further, and she began suffering grand mal seizures, respiratory failure, and shock.
Lauren weighed only 28 pounds, which is what an average two-and-a-half-year-old weighs. Her bones protruded against her skin, and it didn’t escape doctors’ notice that the girl did not appear to have any subcutaneous fat or fat reserves. The mucous membranes in her mouth were dry, and when she cried, she could not produce any tears. Lauren was also covered in visible injuries; her face, arms, and legs were bruised, and there was a cut on one thigh. The tips of her fingers appeared to be chewed off.
The arrest affidavit reads, “Most significantly [Lauren] was found to be hypernatremic upon admission which is an extremely high sodium level or salt in the blood. In this case her level was 187. Anything over 152 is likely to cause seizure and death.”
One of the physicians at Riley, Dr. Andrea Weist, consulted with various other doctors in an attempt to determine why Lauren’s sodium level was so high, calling in a kidney specialist, a metabolism doctor, and an endocrinologist. All of the doctors “believed it was forcible salt intake or somehow taken in a lot of salt.” When questioned about Lauren’s access to salt, Ryan and Brittany insisted there was only one salt shaker in their house, which was kept in a cabinet above the microwave where Lauren couldn’t possibly reach it.
Police later found two partially filled twenty-six ounce containers of salt; one full container of salt; and a large spaghetti sauce jar with holes punched into the lid, also containing salt.
Lauren’s father and stepmother finally admitted to staff at Riley that Lauren had never been seen by Dr. Shoemaker, although they did say she was seen at Meridian Services once a week for the past five weeks, which was an exaggeration as Lauren had only seen the counselor twice.
A psychological evaluation was done at Riley, during which Ryan and Brittany ran through their laundry list of bad behaviors that had supposedly started as soon as Lauren returned to their custody. According to the arrest affidavit, “Ryan and [Brittany] admitted that they sought no medical or psychological attention for these behaviors at the time. The psychological evaluation summarized that based on the history provided by father and stepmother, symptoms reported and observed over past six months are concerning for severe and persistent abuse and neglect. The patient’s severe malnutrition is concerning, especially in light of the fact that no medical treatment was sought until the last month. Behavioral symptoms as severe and progressive as those reported by father and stepmother would’ve also warranted earlier evaluation by physician and mental-health professionals.”
At Riley, Lauren was seen by several medical providers, but her primary physician was Dr. Antoinette Laskey, a specialist in child abuse and, at the time, the head of the Indiana state child fatality review committee.
By March 4, Lauren was completely unresponsive. Her major organs had failed, and she was deemed brain dead.
Ryan apparently couldn’t be bothered to let Amber know what was going on. Instead, a member of Ryan’s extended family notified Amber of Lauren’s plight, so Amber drove once again from Tennessee to Indiana. She arrived at the hospital in time to spend a few precious days with her little girl before Lauren was removed from life support. Neither Ryan nor Brittany was present in Lauren’s room when Amber arrived.
When Amber saw Lauren, she saw that her formerly happy, healthy daughter was now gaunt; she had “no meat on her bones, her cheeks were sunk in, her hair was chopped off… her foot was black, her hands were swollen, and you could see the outlines of her bones.”
Amber stayed in the room until Lauren died. Lauren’s older brother, Cameron, who Lauren called Bubby, came into his sister’s room every night while she was on life support to say good night to Lauren and tell her he loved her.
Lauren Michele McConniel gained her wings on March 9, 2010.
A hospital pastor noted that after Lauren was taken off the ventilator, when Brittany and Ryan left her room and went downstairs, they seemed to exhibit a sense of relief. A nurse also noticed that as Brittany and her family exited the elevator on the first floor of the hospital, they were talking and laughing, which was very different from the quiet, somber mood they displayed on the second floor.
Dr. Antoinette Laskey’s final reports noted that “external administration of salt is indicated and that a child could not eat the quantity of salt voluntarily that would cause the deadly levels presented… [Lauren] had bruises, scrapes, and abrasions over multiple body surfaces. Also multiple blood blisters on fingers into nails… and that the fingers appeared chewed off. Further that [Lauren] was malnourished to the point of wasting. She was the average size of a 30 months old child with no fat stores at all… It is not clear why no care was sought in the face of extreme bizarre behaviors… especially as symptoms worsened over time. Despite all efforts to identify an underlying medical cause for life-threatening condition, there is absolutely no evidence that this is an intrinsic medical condition. Given her overall physical condition including extreme malnutrition, the injuries noted on nearly all body surfaces and her extreme lab derangements, these findings are most consistent with physical abuse as evidenced by her physical injuries and most likely administration of some form of salt, possibly as punishment. It is highly likely there is a component of extreme psychological and emotional abuse.”
Dr. Laskey’s report ended with: “to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, the injuries and findings described above cannot plausibly be explained by accidental injury, pre-existing medical illness, reasonable discipline or benign events. Therefore, these injuries should be considered consistent with inflicted trauma that being child abuse.”
Ryan admitted to investigators on March 10 that when he picked Lauren up from her mother in August of 2009, she appeared healthy and happy. He said he saw a huge decline in Lauren’s condition over the past several months and lamented that he shouldn’t have taken her from Amber’s custody.
An autopsy was conducted on Lauren’s body, during which the coroner ruled the manner of death as undetermined and the cause as “complications of hypernatremia, or high sodium” with “non-organic failure to thrive,” or malnourishment, as a contributing cause.
When Lauren died, Kaylynn was removed from the McConniels’ custody and placed into foster care. On March 19, Amber’s attorney, Kimberly Dowling of Muncie, filed a petition for permanent custody of Kaylynn, which was ultimately granted in July of the same year, although Kaylynn was placed with her mother by the end of March.
At some point after Lauren died, Brittany posted this on her MySpace page (spelling and grammatical errors are hers): “the best thing in the world is being a mommy!! When you look in there eyes and see the love they have for you; that is an amazing thing! I have three amazing kids i wouldnt trade them for the world!!!! They are grow up way to fast you blink your eye and they have changed again! I have two kids of my own and have the chance of rasin my beautiful stepdaughter!! She is the one who has grown and changed the most over the summer!! She is great!…”
On May 1, 2010, the McConniels and the Lees moved out of the house on South Ebright Street.
Two months after Lauren’s death, her older sister, Kaylynn, told psychologist Kenneth McCoy that when Lauren got in trouble for being bad, their dad and stepmom “would hit her on the bottom of her feet with a stick” and “make her do jumping jacks, push-ups, and stuff.” She was also punished by being hit with wet towels and forced to hold heavy objects, like cans or books, with her arms outstretched.
Kaylynn told the psychologist that Lauren never got hugs or kisses from Ryan or Brittany, adding, “It was scary there. I didn’t like the way they hit her. It made me cry.”
At last, after three months, Ryan and Brittany McConneil were arrested on Friday, June 11, 2010 and transported to Delaware County Jail, where they were held on charges of felony neglect of a dependent resulting in death.
Ryan and Brittany’s initial court appearances took place on Tuesday, June 15, at which time a Delaware County judge entered a preliminary plea of not guilty for each of them and approved their requests to have public defenders appointed to them.
Ryan McConniel, who is reportedly a bit of a dolt, spoke up once in court when the judge asked if he had any questions about the charges against him. “I don’t understand why I was charged with that,” Ryan replied. “I didn’t intentionally–”
At that point, the judge interrupted him before he could incriminate himself. I imagine there were some eyes rolling in the courtroom that day.
The same month, Angi Lee gave the police a statement, while Samra declined to be interviewed. Robert showed up for a police interview, but midway through it, he told them he was in pain and ended up checking into the hospital. Sergeant Gibson said, “He said he needed to leave and never came back.”
Linda Smith, Robert Lee’s mother, spoke shortly after the arrests with reporter Phil Sanchez from 24-Hour News. “I haven’t had a decent night sleep since that baby died,” she said.
When Linda saw Lauren in February, she had suspicions. “I [saw] her then and I thought, she really lost a lot of weight, and I asked about it and they said they were taking her to the doctor, and that she was being treated by a physician, and that she was in counseling for an eating disorder, and I said at five? And they said, yeah, she has an eating disorder.”
The next time Linda saw Lauren, it was for the last time in Riley Hospital. “You could just tell by looking at her, there was nothing left of her. She was skin and bone; she had all of these things all over her head; she wasn’t breathing right. You could just tell.”
Linda told the reporter she thought Lauren’s father was innocent. “I don’t know. I know he was working full-time, going to school full-time. I know he wasn’t here a lot. I really wish I knew the answer to that question.”
Lauren’s maternal grandmother, Michele Maddox, told a reporter, “She was kept from the family that loved her and would have taken care of her. This has been hell on our side of the family. I believe they were deliberately hiding from our side of the family. Ryan didn’t even call Amber when Lauren was admitted to Riley Hospital. A cousin did.”
Michele said she thought the stories of Lauren’s behavior issues were either made up or “something that was trauma-induced. How do you develop a mental illness that quickly unless it’s caused by abuse?”
As for Ryan, Michele said she “finds it hard to believe that he is the one who assaulted [Lauren], but it doesn’t make him any less responsible. Neglect means you failed to do something.”
Others also expressed doubt that Ryan was directly responsible for administering Lauren’s physical abuse. His cousin, Steve Shreves, told a reporter that if anyone was abusing Lauren, it wasn’t her dad. “Ryan’s just not that type of person.”
Many family members stood behind Ryan and Brittany and planned to do so at least until more details were released. Lauren’s uncle Ron Shreves said, “I’m not surprised that they were picked up or anything like that. What surprises me is the charges that they’re putting on them. A lot of people don’t realize that she was at the Ball Hospital the night before going to Riley Hospital, and they released her. I don’t blame anybody. I don’t know what happened.”
Lauren’s loss, Ron said, devastated the family. “Our family is torn apart,” he said. “You got half of them that believe one way and the other half another thing.”
Ron himself planned to support Lauren’s father and stepmother when they went to court. “They are my baby, and I don’t think anybody was looking to kill her little five-year-old baby.”
Brittany’s uncle, Anthony Rice, told the Star Press that the exercises Lauren was allegedly forced to do were actually voluntary and that Lauren was involved in a wrestling program through the Muncie PAL Club. “That’s where the pushups and sit-ups and jumping jacks come into play. They did it for fun.”
Anthony denied the allegations that Lauren was hit, beaten, or forced to hold heavy items with arms outstretched and said his niece and her husband had done everything they could to get Lauren physical and emotional help.
As for Lauren’s mother, Amber, she was most certainly not supporting the suspects. She had one message for the people of central Indiana, which she spread through a telephone interview with Fox59 news in June of 2010: “Do not let this happen to another kid.”
She pleaded with the public, “To everybody, if you ever see a child that you think is being abused, even if you have your doubts, please contact Child Protective Services.”
Amber, who still lived in Knoxville, Tennessee at the time (and, in fact, still does to this day), said, “The only reason that [Lauren] ended out of my custody is because when I went to my divorce proceeding, I did not have an attorney to represent me. I mean, you’ve got your children and you’re a good mother of them, and a judge says, ‘Alright, we’re going to give custody to the dad.’”
In June, after Ryan and Brittany were arrested, Sergeant Gibson said, “There are a whole lot more family members who could be held accountable, but how far do we go? Do we arrest everybody? We’re behind on other cases and under-staffed.”
(I mean… you arrest anyone who contributed to the crime, right? Am I missing something?)
Sergeant Gibson also said they had no intention of launching investigations into health care workers, including doctors and nurses, who treated Lauren in her final months and failed to report her injuries to CPS.
On the evening of June 18, 2010, hundreds of people, adults and children alike, gathered outside the former McConniel/Lee home at 2304 S. Ebright Street in Muncie to remember Lauren, bringing with them flowers, balloons, pictures, and toys. Some bore t-shirts printed with the slogan, “In Loving Memory of Lauren Michele McConniel, in Jesus’s Loving Arms.”
Organizers of the vigil urged attendees, many of whom did not know Lauren or her family, to write messages in a condolence book, which would later be given to Amber Huggins, and to make donations to help pay Amber’s travel expenses to attend criminal court proceedings in the case.
In February of 2011, Ryan was granted a divorce from Brittany, pending payment of related court fees.
On February 15, Brittany McConniel’s family paid a ten percent, nonrefundable premium of $3,000 to a bail bondsman, allowing Brittany to walk free from jail, however temporarily. Meanwhile, Ryan’s public defender, John Brooke, was busy making all kinds of requests, including asking for a “test jury” to be seated to determine whether or not he could get a fair trial in Muncie and requesting the real jury be sequestered during his trial. Brittany’s public defender, Zaki Ali, requested her trial be moved to another county due to pre-trial publicity potentially tainting the jury pool.
Brittany’s trial was scheduled to begin on May 9, 2011; Ryan’s was set for June 6.
Before either case could get to trial, however, Ryan struck a deal with prosecutors, pleading guilty to a reduced charge of neglect of a dependent, a class B felony, in exchange for his testimony against his own estranged wife, Brittany, at her trial. As a result of the plea agreement, Ryan faced up to 20 years in prison as opposed to the maximum 50 year sentence Brittany faced for her class A felony charge of neglect of a dependent resulting in death. The plea agreement document was submitted to the court by Deputy Prosecutor Eric Hoffman and Ryan’s attorney, John Brooke, and it suggested that Ryan may also provide information about others who may have been involved in Lauren’s death.
Potential targets of investigations were named in the agreement, including Brittany and three other members of her family who were under investigation but had not yet been charged. Another document was filed the same day as the plea agreement, a ten-page affidavit ordered sealed by Judge Thomas Cannon Jr., which was said to contain “factual statements [made by Ryan McConniel] describing abuse and/or neglect inflicted upon Lauren McConniel by a certain person or persons.”
The document stated that Ryan “desires to aid in the investigation and prosecution of those persons responsible for the abuse, neglect and death of Lauren McConnell.” His cooperation would include “making himself available for pre-trial interviews as well as providing truthful testimony” during grand jury proceedings and any subsequent trials.
Brittany’s attorneys attempted to suppress testimony regarding comments made by her four-year-old son K.L. and Ryan’s ten-year-old daughter Kaylynn about her treatment of Lauren, including Kaylynn’s remarks to psychologist Kenneth McCoy about Brittany beating Lauren’s feet with sticks. Dr. McCoy also examined K.L., who said that Lauren died “because she got too many spankings.” Judge Cannon ultimately ruled that the psychologist’s testimony could be presented, and at the same time, he ruled to allow the prosecution to present most, but not all, of Lauren’s autopsy photos during trial. Deputy Prosecutor Eric Hoffman had argued to present the photographs to show Lauren’s “severe emaciation” at the time of her death.
Brittany’s request to have her trial moved from Delaware County was ultimately denied.
The trial of Brittany McConniel began on Monday, May 10, 2011. Hoffman gave an emotionally charged opening statement suggesting to jurors that Lauren was the recipient of severe abuse at the hands of her stepmother and possibly others in the home, which he described as “a house of horror.” He said when Lauren was removed from her mother’s home in Tennessee in August of 2009, she was a “beautiful, happy, loving 5-year-old girl,” but over the next seven months, she changed into a “pale, fragile, malnourished and exhausted child” who was “beaten, abused, tortured and neglected.”
During his opening argument, Hoffman mentioned that when Lauren died, her body was “mysteriously full of salt” and that there was an abundance of salt in the family’s home, including a large spaghetti sauce jar full of salt. He described the punishments inflicted upon Lauren by her stepmother, saying, “The last six months of Lauren’s life was a living hell.”
Defense attorney Zaki Ali did not make an opening statement to jurors. I have never heard of a trial in which both parties didn’t make an opening statement. What a weird choice.
On Tuesday, May 11, Lauren’s mother, Amber Huggins, testified through tears about holding her precious daughter in her final moments after being removed from life support. She also talked about her months-long effort to locate her daughters.
Dr. Kenneth McCoy testified on May 11 about Kaylynn’s description of the punishments inflicted on Lauren, including foot and hand beatings with a stick and being forced to do exercises. He testified that Kaylynn had told him she and Lauren had received “the hardest whipping a kid can ever get.”
Ryan McConniel’s testimony also began on Tuesday. Prosecutor Jeffrey Arnold led him through questions about the deal he had struck with prosecutors.
On the stand, Ryan said, “Looking back on everything now, I could have done something more to stop the abuse. I believe [Brittany] is guilty… I just want the truth to be known. It is what it is.”
While being questioned by Mr. Arnold, Ryan told the jurors that Kaylynn and Lauren were in Brittany’s care for up to 14 hours every day while he went to work at a local factory in addition to attending classes at Ivy Tech.
During his continued testimony on Wednesday, Ryan said that Brittany told him at one point, “Lauren needs to start being good or I’m going to break her.”
He said he removed Lauren from Amber’s custody in August of 2009 at the urging of Brittany and her family members, who wanted the child support payments Lauren’s presence would bring. “We just needed the money,” Ryan said.
Ryan said on the stand that he was physically intimidated by Robert Lee, who was larger than him, which was part of the reason he went along with Brittany and her family’s ideas.
Linda Smith, Ryan’s aunt and Robert’s mother, testified on May 12, as well, saying that Lauren was “a delightful child, a pleasure to be around.”
“The child could light up a room with her smile,” Linda said.
She described an incident about a month before Lauren died when she visited the home and was shocked to see Lauren shivering in an “ice-cold” shower. When she confronted Brittany, she testified, Lauren’s stepmother replied that the little girl was “used to cold showers.”
Linda testified that Lauren “looked terrible… like she had lost 20 pounds when she couldn’t afford to lose one.” At that time, Brittany explained to Linda that the doctor told them Lauren had anorexia and that she was taking medication and seeing a psychiatrist. In addition, Linda testified that Brittany “wasn’t nice to” Lauren, who she said was “always grounded.” She had observed that Brittany treated Lauren very differently from the other children, forced Lauren to call her “mommy,” and showed no love whatsoever for the little girl.
Linda’s testimony also included her account of an incident in which she saw Brittany’s four-year-old son, K.L., intentionally kick a door so it smashed Lauren’s fingers. Brittany tried to explain it away as an accident, but when Linda insisted it wasn’t, Brittany “said well [K.L.] I guess I’m going to have to spank you [K.L.] because everybody is mad at me.” Linda said Brittany “swatted him on the butt and he laughed at her and that was it.” Linda also testified that Brittany exhibited clear dominance over Ryan.
Thursday, May 13 brought testimony from medical staff, including Mary Verghese, an emergency room doctor from Riley Hospital for Children, and Laura Pachloski, a primary care doctor from Riley’s pediatric ICU, who said of Lauren’s degree of emaciation, “It was something you’d see in a third-world country.”
Dr. Verghese testified that when Lauren cried in response to painful stimuli, “she had no tears… She appeared cachetic and malnourished with her bones sticking out on her cheeks and ribs.”
One juror submitted a written question to Dr. Pachloski, asking if high sodium levels could cause hallucinations, to which the doctor replied, “Yes.”
During the testimony on Thursday of Sergeant Jimmy Gibson, jurors were shown 22 photographs of Lauren, most taken during her hospitalization and two taken during her autopsy. While the photos were passed amongst the jurors, two of them became visibly upset, wiping away tears and shaking their heads in disbelief at what they had seen. One juror stood up abruptly and asked to be excused, but the judge asked him to sit down before calling a brief recess. After a meeting in the judge’s chambers, it was determined that the man would remain on the jury.
On Friday, May 14, Dr. Andrea Weist, the medical director of Riley’s PICU, testified that the entire team of physicians treating Lauren during her final days “all believed” the little girl had been subjected to “forcible salt intake,” which contributed to her death. Dr. Weist said the consumption of “a very large amount” of salt raised the sodium in Lauren’s blood to a lethal level, and her body, weakened by abuse and neglect, had been unable to recover from the shock and seizures brought on by the elevated sodium level.
“Her body just could not handle it anymore,” testified Dr. Weist, who believed Lauren was the victim of “active” physical abuse. She had notified the hospital’s child abuse team shortly after Lauren arrived on March 3, 2010.
Dr. Weist testified that when Ryan and Brittany mentioned Lauren was under the care of Dr. Shoemaker, she said she would give him a call, because she knew him. At that point, she said, “They told me they had not actually seen him.”
When defense attorney Zaki Ali asked Dr. Weist why other medical professionals, including the ones who examined Lauren for a possible head injury just hours before she was admitted to Riley Hospital, didn’t realize how serious Lauren’s condition was.
Dr. Weist replied, “Anyone who saw that child should have known. I would have thought anyone on the street would have known something was wrong.”
Other witnesses testified that after Ryan and Brittany assured them that Dr. Shoemaker was treating Lauren for malnutrition, they focused their attention on the little girl’s other problems.
While Brittany’s trial stretched into its second week, speculation ran rampant about the identities of the other household members who were being investigated for possible prosecution. Most of that speculation zeroed in on then-44-year-old Robert E. Lee, Brittany’s stepfather. The Star Press reviewed court documents, including a 30-page interview from 2002 with then-16-year-old Brittany Lee, in which Brittany said her stepfather had been sexually abusing her since she was between the ages of five and seven, “too many times to count, almost every day.”
Most of Brittany’s allegations described Robert fondling his teenage stepdaughter, at other times forcing her to expose herself or watch him masturbate. She also alleged that he often watched her bathe and made her pose for him in a provocative manner.
“He just tells me not to say anything, because if I told anybody that it would hurt my mom, and she wouldn’t love me anymore,” Brittany told investigators at the time. “And then he would hurt me.”
The documents indicated that Brittany was abused in exchange for the ability to leave the home. “He would make me stroke him, or you know, kiss him before I could do anything with my friends,” Brittany was quoted as saying. She also said Robert told her, “I don’t love you like a daughter. I love you like my mate.”
During the investigation, police asked Brittany repeatedly if she thought her stepfather might have abused Lauren in the same way. While it has never been proven that Robert molested Lauren, she did exhibit many behaviors associated with child victims of sexual abuse, including toilet-training regression, self-hatred, sleep disturbances, changes in eating habits, mood swings, self-harming behaviors, and not talking as much as usual.
When questioned in 2010, Angi Rice Lee told police she didn’t remember Robert’s arrest in 2002 or his subsequent prosecution, which resulted in Brittany spending over two years in foster care.
Robert was described by police officers in reports as someone whose intellectual abilities were so limited that he was almost unable to carry on a conversation. Robert’s only income was his Social Security disability payments.
Ryan testified earlier that he knew about the skeletons in the Lee family closet when he agreed to move in with the family along with his wife and their four children. “I had nowhere else to go,” he said. “It was easier to go along with what [Brittany] wanted then pay the consequences later.”
Ryan had also testified that Robert said he would hurt Ryan if he complained about the way Brittany and Robert treated Lauren. “They weren’t hitting her, so I really didn’t make a big deal out of it,” Ryan said, adding that Brittany told him “she would divorce me and I would never see my children again” if he mentioned Lauren’s abuse to anyone.
When Deputy Prosecutor Eric Hoffman was asked about possible future prosecutions, he replied, “This trial is only round one.”
On Monday, May 17, prosecutors Jeffrey Arnold and Eric Hoffman presented a recording of an interview Brittany gave to Muncie police in March of 2010, just hours before Lauren was pronounced dead in the hospital. In the interview, Brittany told Sergeants Jimmy Gibson and Linda Cook that her stepdaughter “went from skipping a meal or two to not eating unless we made her eat.”
Brittany told both officers, “There’s a lot of stuff we could have done sooner. I know we should have got her help… we didn’t know where to go.”
They seemed to have some idea how to start, considering they lied to every medical provider they saw about Lauren supposedly being treated by Dr. Shoemaker for her malnutrition, but I digress.
Also during the interview, Brittany told the officers that Lauren “never said anything” if Robert Lee was sexually assaulting her. “She never told us,” Brittany said, although she did tell the investigators that Ryan had “voiced concerns” about his two daughters living in the house with Lee, considering his history.
While Brittany listened to the recorded interview being played in court, she cried for the first time during her trial. Her attorney left the defense table to get her some tissues.
Dr. Antoinette Laskey from Riley Hospital testified on Tuesday, May 18, telling jurors that Lauren was the victim of “inflicted trauma [and] child abuse” and describing for the court her first glimpse of the dying girl in the PICU at Riley. “I couldn’t believe she was still alive. I see a lot of kids, but it was that bad… There was nothing to her, not a single ounce of body fat. She was covered in bruises.”
Dr. Laskey testified that Lauren’s brain injuries, caused by the ingestion of a massive amount of salt, made the little girl’s recovery impossible, saying, “We tried very hard to save Lauren. The fact is that she [was] in total system failure.”
With a laser pointer, Dr. Laskey drew the attention of the jurors to Lauren’s painfully thin state, as well as pointing out bruises on the girl’s body, including those on her back, her legs, and the soles of her feet, which bolstered Ryan McConniel’s earlier testimony about Brittany and Robert beating Lauren on the hands and feet with wooden sticks.
During her March 2010 police interview, Brittany denied these allegations. “I did not do that,” she said, although she acknowledged that she was “not a perfect parent; not even close.”
That may be the understatement of the decade.
On Wednesday morning, the state rested its case without calling additional witnesses.
As the defense began presenting its case, Brittany McConniel herself took the stand, but only to announce that she had changed her mind about testifying, saying, “I do not want to take the stand.”
The only witness who ultimately testified for the defense was Samra “Jo-Jo” Lee, Brittany’s half-sister, whose testimony on Wednesday was brief and consisted of Samra providing Zaki Ali with 24 photos she took of Lauren and other members of the family between August of 2009 and January of 2010.
With Samra on the stand, Prosecutor Arnold made a pointed jab at her, apparently referring to the fact that she lived and thrived in the home while Lauren wasted away: “Did you have a chance to have a good breakfast this morning?”
That question drew an objection from the defense, but Judge Cannon allowed the question to stand. Samra replied that she had not yet eaten breakfast, and Arnold asked, “I bet you don’t miss many meals, then, do you?”
Closing arguments took place on the morning of Thursday, May 20. Eric Hoffman gave the prosecution’s closing remarks, saying that Brittany McConniel “beat, tortured, starved, and neglected” her stepdaughter, putting Lauren “in an early grave.”
Addressing the falsehoods Brittany repeatedly told medical providers about Lauren supposedly being treated by Dr. Shoemaker, Hoffman said, “She told lie after lie after lie.”
He pointed at Brittany at one point, saying to her, “You had the duty to protect [Lauren], and you miserably failed.” Brittany did not react.
Hoffman told jurors, “Lauren McConniel didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell” of surviving the abuse and neglect she suffered in that “house of horror,” telling them that a conviction could not erase the harm done to Lauren and the ones who loved her, but “a little bit of justice will go a long way.”
During the defense’s closing argument, Zaki Ali told jurors he “cannot make excuses for Brittany,” but said she was just one of several people “who failed Lauren McConniel.”Ali said Brittany and Ryan lacked “the sense and wherewithal” to seek treatment for Lauren’s worsening condition. He had the nerve to suggest prosecutors should have pursued charges against some of the hospitals and agencies that he said failed to respond appropriately to warning signals and thereby save Lauren’s life. “Did they not see this child was in distress?”
At one point, Ali sat in a chair in front of the jury box and told them he would be playing the part of Robert E. Lee, Brittany’s stepfather. In character, he said, “I molested Brittany when she was five until she was in her early teens. When they moved into the house, I saw another victim, and that was Lauren.”
Ali, calling Robert a “dirtbag,” suggested that the man had been the one to give Lauren the fatal dose of salt, concluding that they should not reach a verdict in Brittany’s case because “you don’t have all the pieces in the puzzle.”
Afterward, Prosecutor Jeffrey Arnold rebutted, giving sarcastic praise to Ali’s “perhaps Broadway-quality showmanship” and telling jurors the investigation was ongoing into others possibly responsible for Lauren’s death.
“Several people did fail Lauren, especially in the last 30 days of her life,” Arnold said. “Are you going to add yourself to that list of names [by not convicting Brittany]?” He urged the jury consisting of seven men and five women to return a guilty verdict and to “do it swiftly.”
The jurors obliged. Deliberations began at 1:35 PM, and by 3:00 PM, they were ready with their verdict, even eating lunch during the same time frame.
Brittany McConniel was found guilty of neglect of a dependent resulting in death.
As Judge Cannon read the verdict, Brittany winced but remained otherwise composed, even as she was handcuffed and led out of the courtroom. Her sentencing was scheduled to take place on June 13, 2011, and she faced up to 50 years in prison.
After the verdict was read, Lauren’s mom, Amber, cried as she showed off photos of Lauren in happier, healthier times. Amber had attended the trial with her husband, Jackie, and her parents, Michele and Glenn Maddox, saying it was “a rollercoaster of emotions.”
Amber told reporters she hoped her daughter’s story would prompt other people to report suspected child abuse and neglect. “It is our responsibility to protect our children.”
Amber said, “I have two children left, and four stepchildren, [but] my life’s not complete without my little girl.”
Lauren’s grandma, Michele Maddox, said she had a message on her answering machine from Lauren that she planned to keep forever, left by her young granddaughter when she lived with her mother in Tennessee. “Hi, Nannie. I love you. I call back in little bit.”
“Most days it still hurts,” Michele said. “But the love of her voice, it warms my heart.”
After the verdict, defense attorney Zaki Ali said, “I think [Brittany] is a scapegoat, and I think there are other people out there that should have been charged.”
(Hold your horses, big fella. It’s called patience.)
Prosecutor Jeff Arnold said, “I would have loved to make this into a murder case, but there was no way we could prove Lauren ingested that salt on her own.” He said that Ali was trying to “blame everybody else, [to] get the blame off of Brittany,” and that questions about the responsibility and liability of health care professionals and agencies would be better resolved through civil litigation, although to the best of my knowledge and research, that was never pursued.
Amber, too, said she was waiting for further charges, saying Brittany’s conviction did not mean justice had been served. “I would rather they did it to me instead of my daughter — any child, not just my daughter. Any child. No child deserves this… there is nothing this child could have done to deserve what was done to her.”
In an email exchange with The Walker/Roysdon Report, one of the jurors who convicted Brittany, Jim Schenkel, said, “We hope no other child will face the same lack of action exhibited by so many in the health care field. Lies or truth from care-givers notwithstanding, they should always follow up when presented with signs of abuse as they were with Lauren… We need to expect better from the professionals we entrust with the care of our children.”
At the request of Zaki Ali, who asked that Brittany be examined by a psychiatrist or psychologist before being sentenced, his client’s sentencing hearing was postponed, but June of 2011 was not entirely wasted in the pursuit of justice for Lauren.
Late in the afternoon of Tuesday, June 21, 44-year-old Robert E. Lee, Brittany’s stepfather, was arrested and charged with aiding, inducing or causing neglect of a dependent, a class A felony; three counts of battery, a class D felony; and failure to immediately report child abuse, a misdemeanor. Robert was held in the Delaware County Jail.
That evening, Prosecutor Arnold said, “I’ll spend the rest of my career, and all the resources of my office, chasing down and investigating anybody who had anything to do with [the abuse and death of] Lauren McConniel, and get them in front of a jury. If you were involved in that, look over your shoulder, because I’m coming.”
I love this guy!
Robert was seen in court on Wednesday, June 23, at which time his bond was set at $50,000 cash. His trial was ultimately scheduled for April of 2012.
At the court hearing, Robert tried to claim he was illiterate. However, prosecutors brought up the fact that he used Facebook to communicate as proof that this was false. They also pointed out that among Robert’s interests listed on Facebook were the Bible and a religious blog.
Amber Huggins wrote a heart-wrenching victim impact statement in preparation for Brittany’s sentencing. The statement read in part: “…there are no words in the English language to properly, completely, and fully explain how much Lauren’s life and our lives have been devastated and forever changed because of Brittany’s actions…
“…if there was ever a picture of compassion, it would have been Lauren. She loved everybody she came into contact with, told them quite frequently with hugs and kisses and ‘I Yuhs You’s,’ and never met a stranger. Even as her biological father, stepmother, and 3 other adults hated her, abused her, starved her, and neglected her, there was never a report of Lauren saying she hated them. She instead reflected that hate upon herself. And knowing my sweet daughter the way I do, she probably loved them all up to her last breath despite what they did. Because that’s who Lauren was.
“Sir, they did not just kill my daughter’s body. They murdered what made Lauren, ‘Lauren.’ Lauren was never mean. She never kept alone to herself. She never hurt herself or others. She always smiled, laughed, hugged. Sang. Cuddled. She had so much love and potential and it was slowly and agonizingly smothered and extinguished by the senseless, cruel acts of evil and hatred by the very people who should have loved and protected her…
“Because of Brittany’s actions, I now only get to watch one daughter grow up, instead of 2. I have nightmares every time I fall asleep of the sound of my baby crying, screaming, begging me to come save her and can see in said dreams the look of confusion and fear on her face when I cannot show up. When I am awake, there are ever constant companions of heartache, loss, grief and brokenness that have become like unwanted best friends.
“Because of Brittany’s actions, my son, daughter, and 4 stepchildren have to grow up without their baby sister. I often hear the words, ‘I wish Buggy was here’ or ‘I wish Buggy could see.’ They now have to see their sister not face to face, but in a cemetery. Kaylynn, who was abused also and witnessed the abuse on Lauren, now has to see a therapist once a week. She has suffered extreme psychological trauma. There is no easy way to make it all better for her. My once very happy-go-lucky daughter faces issues of anger and guilt on a daily basis. Brittany changed both of my daughters…
“Lauren should have graduated kindergarten this last spring. Now, I will never get to see my daughter’s first day of school, fix her cap and gown at high school graduation or shed tears of pride at her college graduation. I will never have the joy of helping my daughter on her first date, help her get through her first heartbreak, or help her arrange her wedding. I will never get to hold, see, love the grandbabies Lauren would have given me. There will be no more silly songs sang between Lauren and I. No goofy jokes with her stepdaddy. No hugs and cuddles with her Nanny or animal noises on the phone with her Papaw. No playing games and swinging with her brothers and sisters…
“We are ALL responsible for our own actions. By allowing Brittany anything less than the maximum 50 years is allowing her to take no responsibility for her actions. She took a life from a child, not the child’s toy. Brittany’s atrocious actions deserve not a day shy of the maximum punishment…
“For actions this severe and cruel, to have ruined so many people’s lives, 50 years is not enough. For what she put my daughter through, 50 years is not enough. Anything less than the maximum 50 years is simply an injustice to my daughter. So I would humbly ask you to strongly consider nothing short of the maximum punishment.”
Amber read her ten-minute statement at Brittany’s sentencing hearing on Tuesday, August 9, 2011 while holding a pink plastic pony that she said was one of Lauren’s favorite toys.
Brittany, too, spoke to Judge Cannon during the hearing, saying she was unsatisfied with the case Zaki Ali presented for her. She cried as she said, “I did let Lauren down. [But] I didn’t do most of the things Ryan said I did… Nothing I could do or say would bring Lauren back.”
Eric Hoffman argued, “It’s always been about Brittany, poor, pitiful Brittany,” saying the torture Lauren endured “shows you the depth of the depravity of this defendant.”
Prosecutor Arnold said he had never seen a defendant less remorseful or a crime more devastating to a community, adding that while there was “no punishment available to fit the facts of this crime,” Brittany deserved “every minute of 50 years.”
Judge Cannon, citing “the brutal and horrible nature” of Brittany’s crime against Lauren and referring to the months Lauren lived with Brittany and her family as “the nightmare on Ebright street,” sentenced Brittany McConniel to the maximum prison term of 50 years.
Ryan McConniel officially pleaded guilty on Tuesday, October 11, 2011 to his reduced charge of neglect of a dependent. Judge Cannon took the guilty plea under advisement and set a tentative sentencing date for January 9, 2012, which was later rescheduled to May 14 and eventually rescheduled for March of 2013.
In January of 2012, the last two arrests were made in connection with Lauren’s death. Her step-grandmother, 45-year-old Angela “Angi” Rice Lee, was charged with aiding, inducing or causing neglect of a dependent, a class A felony, and failure to immediately report child abuse or neglect, a misdemeanor.
Angi’s daughter, 21-year-old Samra Lee, was also arrested and faced the same charges as her mother, except the aiding or inducing charge in her case was a class D felony.
At last, every adult living in the McConniel/Lee house where Lauren lived her nightmarish final months had been arrested.
At the preliminary hearing for both Angi and Samra Lee, the two women sat next to each other in the jury box, wearing blue jail uniforms, their hands cuffed to a waist belt and their ankles shackled. Angi stumbled and almost fell while shuffling from the witness stand back to the jury box. Ha.
Angi’s bond was set at $31,000 and her trial date set for May 15, 2013. She told the judge she hadn’t held a job since 1994 and that she no longer had a source of income, because “my husband’s Social Security check stopped.”
Samra’s bond was set at $6,000. Her trial was scheduled for May 24. She told Judge Cannon she had never had a job and didn’t know her Social Security Number. We’re dealing with a bunch of winners here.
Judge Cannon agreed to appoint a public defender to each defendant.
Samra was ultimately freed on bond.
On March 9, 2012, two years to the day after Lauren’s death, Amber Huggins filed a civil lawsuit against Ryan, Brittany, Robert, Angi, and Samra. Also named in the suit were the Southside Church of the Nazarene and three of its officials: youth pastor Timothy Black, pastor Andrew Cole, and his wife, Elicia, who was also the church’s children’s director. In the lawsuit, Amber and her attorney, Ralph Dowling, alleged that these church officials “observed Lauren’s deplorable physical deterioration, severe emaciation and widespread bruising shortly before her death and failed to report them to the proper authorities.”
On Monday, April 9, 2012, Robert E. Lee entered a guilty plea to his class A felony charge of aiding, inducing or causing neglect of a dependent, and Judge Cannon agreed to take under advisement a plea bargain placing a 40 year maximum on Robert’s possible prison term. Robert’s sentencing was tentatively set for June 4, later pushed back a few weeks.
During the April 9 hearing, Robert admitted to making suggestions to Brittany about punishments to inflict on Lauren; said he did nothing to help Lauren while she was “wasting away;” and admitted he did not report the abusive acts his stepdaughter performed against Lauren. He also said under questioning by Prosecutor Arnold that his wife, Angi, was aware of Lauren’s abuse and worsening condition and did nothing to intervene. However, Robert insisted his daughter, Samra, was not present when most of Lauren’s abuse took place.
Robert’s public defender, Doug Mawhorr, asked Judge Cannon to sentence his client to 20 years in prison with some time suspended, reading aloud an apology letter Robert wrote to Lauren — so much for Robert being illiterate, huh? — and requesting the judge consider Robert’s poor health.
Deputy Prosecutor Eric Hoffman pointed out the hypocrisy in that request, considering Robert’s health issues included diabetes, gout, obesity, and nicotine dependence. “The irony stinks up the courtroom,” Hoffman said, that Robert chose to “smoke and feed his face” while Lauren starved to death in his home.
On May 18, 2012, Amber Huggins received a judgment by default in her lawsuit against Brittany, Robert, Angi, and Samra. I’ve been unable to find the terms of the order. Against Ryan, Amber’s lawsuit continued until 2019, which I’ll talk about near the end of the episode.
Robert was sentenced on June 18, 2012 to 40 years in prison for his role in Lauren’s death. Judge Cannon told Robert he must have been a monster “manifested in the flesh” to Lauren in the months before she died.
Samra Lee pleaded guilty to her class D felony charge of aiding, inducing or causing neglect of a dependent on September 4, 2012; her sentencing was scheduled for October 15, at which time she was sentenced to the maximum of three years, two of which to be served in prison and the third on supervised probation.
Meanwhile, Brittany had been attempting to appeal her conviction on the grounds that the court abused its discretion in denying her defense funds to pay for an expert witness; that the evidence was insufficient to sustain Brittany’s conviction on a class A felony charge; and that the 50-year sentence imposed upon her was inappropriate in light of the nature of the offense and Brittany’s character. The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s conviction and sentence.
Nice try, Stepmonster!
On January 22, 2013, it was Angi’s turn to enter a guilty plea in front of Judge Cannon. During the hearing, Angi admitted she knew about Lauren’s physical abuse and malnutrition and that she had failed to alert police or CPS about it. Her sentencing was scheduled for March 4.
In February of 2013, the Southside Church of the Nazarene and the officials named within Amber’s civil lawsuit settled with her out of court, and the lawsuit against them was thereby officially dismissed in April of that year.
Monday, March 4, 2013, just five days shy of the third anniversary of Lauren’s death, Angi Rice Lee was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
The sentencing for Ryan McConniel, who was by that time 36, was held the same day at 1:30 PM. Ryan wept through his 90 minute sentencing hearing, during which his ex-wife, Amber, read another difficult victim impact statement.
“I used to love Ryan and had planned on spending the rest of my life with him,” Amber said. “Now, there is nothing left in me for him but pure disdain, disgust, anger and hatred…
“Daddys are supposed to be a little girl’s king. Her protector. Ryan, however, was Lauren’s nightmare. Daddys are supposed to lay down their lives for their daughters. Ryan threw Lauren to a known child molester and watched as his own flesh and blood was tortured just because he was scared Robert would beat him up or Brittany would be mad. Just to save his own pathetic skin…
“Your honor, Ryan is the biggest offender of them all. Lauren was his own daughter. And, in my opinion, he’s also the worst kind of offender. He obviously has no boundaries on who he will hurt and allow to be hurt. If he has no more compassion and respect for the life of his own flesh and blood than what he’s shown, then who’s to say he wouldn’t allow it to happen to another child in his home? He’s already proven he has no respect for a human life unless it benefits him…
“Lauren was, from birth, ‘Mom’s baby.’ And she would get furious if anyone insisted she was anyone else’s baby but Mama’s. I loved my daughter with every ounce of energy I possess and will love her until my last breath is taken. I miss her more than I could ever hope to express to the court. The hole that has been left in my heart from her death is humongous. I feel incomplete without her.
“Ryan caused that. That constant feeling of loss. Of grief. And not just in my life. In the lives of my whole family. My husband’s family. Our friends. Ryan’s cowardice did that.
“Of the 5 people charged with Lauren’s death, Ryan had the greater responsibility. He failed tremendously as a father. For his involvement in Lauren’s torture, his refusal to get his daughters to safety, and his betrayal to Lauren and Kaylynn, he deserves so much more punishment than what this court could order. But I would ask… that maximum sentencing be imposed.”
Prosecutor Arnold called Ryan “the most gutless, empty father and human being that I’ve ever seen,” saying he would “go to my grave wondering if I did the right thing” in offering Ryan a plea deal to secure the convictions of the other offenders in the case.
Deputy Prosecutor Hoffman called Ryan a “spineless wimp,” saying, “It’s truly pathetic that all of us in the courtroom have more compassion for a child that we never met than her own father [did].”
Ryan sobbed as he apologized to “my children, and the Lord, and to Amber and her family… I guess I am just a worthless father like they said. But I did try to protect her and help her. But I didn’t do enough.”
At the end of the hearing, Judge Cannon sentenced Ryan to the maximum of 20 years in prison.
In early 2017, Angela Lee filed a motion requesting an early release from the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis, arguing that she had completed several counseling programs in prison and hoped to start her own housekeeping business if released.
Hoffman said in his reply, “The state will not now, nor will it ever agree or consent to a modification of her sentence,” saying Angi’s crimes were “heinous and appalling.”
He continued, “She was a member of a conspiracy of silence relating to the murder/death, systematic torture, and starvation of a 5-year-old child. Not only did she observe barbaric punishments administered to this helpless child, she encouraged Brittany McConniel to administer them.”
Judge Cannon swiftly denied Angi’s motion. Angela Rice Lee, DOC #217333, is in the custody of the Indiana Department of Corrections, now at the Madison Correctional Facility. The DOC website lists her earliest possible release date as October 23, 2025.
Robert E. Lee, DOC #226365, is imprisoned in the Wabash Valley Level 3 Facility in Carlisle. His earliest possible release date is listed as December 18, 2030.
Brittany McConniel, Indiana DOC #214615, is incarcerated in the Rockville Correctional Facility in western Indiana. With credit for good behavior, according to the state Department of Corrections website, the earliest date she could be eligible for release is March 14, 2034.
Brittany did, however, file a petition for post conviction relief on July 1, 2020, which was assigned to Judge Thomas A. Cannon, Jr., who still presides over Delaware District Court 5. A motion for change of judge was filed and denied. I haven’t been able to find any information on the grounds for this motion. In this matter, which is still ongoing, Brittany is being represented by public defender Hope Fey. Eric Hoffman represents the state of Indiana.
Hoffman had been promoted by Prosecutor Jeffrey Arnold to the title of Chief Trial Deputy Prosecutor in 2012. When Arnold decided not to seek a third term in 2018, Hoffman decided to run.
In November of 2018, Eric Hoffman was elected as the 60th prosecutor in Delaware County’s 192-year history, assuming his new position on January 1, 2019. Hoffman said Arnold “has taught me countless things about being a lawyer, a prosecutor, a husband and a father.”
Hoffman met his wife, Kelli, when she was a DCS official who testified at Brittany McConniel’s trial. “Six months or a year later,” Hoffman said, “we started going out and eventually got married.”
Lauren’s case, especially testimony from Brittany’s trial, had a lasting effect on Hoffman, who has a stepson in addition to three daughters born to himself and his wife, Kelli. Their oldest daughter’s middle name is Lauren, a tribute to the precious little girl whose death brought Hoffman and his wife together.
Jimmy Gibson has officially retired from the Muncie Police Department, but he does continue to work there as a reserve officer, working what they call the “sergeant’s desk,” where he performs duties such as taking reports.
In my research for this story, I discovered that, while it was never covered by the media, Ryan McConneil was paroled in May of 2019 after serving only six years of his 20 year sentence. He was evidently released on parole to Idaho, where his parents, Bill and Marsha McConniel, moved in 2017. On August 2, Ryan posted photos on Facebook of himself and his father fishing on an idyllic lake under clear blue skies, accompanied by a happy little dog. Isn’t that nice? Ryan’s living life to its fullest while his daughter, who barely got a chance to live at all, rests for eternity under six feet of earth.
At the end of July, Ryan seemed to cast bait of a different kind, posting a status reading simply: “hey dream girl.” The only comment on that status was from none other than Samra herself. How nice that they’ve continued a friendly relationship after sharing responsibility for a child’s death! Since I saw them last week, Ryan’s posts have been deleted or made private.
And what’s ol’ Samra up to these days? She evidently met the man of her dreams, Ted Rife, in July of 2013, and became engaged to him two months later. A year after that, Samra Lee became Mrs. Samra Josephine Rife. It appears the couple lives in Indiana.
In Amber’s victim impact statement at Samra’s sentencing hearing, she gave some insight into Samra’s personality: “As my daughter starved to death and wasted away to a living, breathing skeleton, Samra herself was the very picture of obesity. Instead of feeding a very obviously hungry child, Samra was content to dye her hair, pose in sunglasses and post pictures on Facebook while tending to her farm on Farmville. She could grow imaginary food but couldn’t be bothered to walk into the kitchen and make a simple sandwich so Lauren’s belly would stop growling.”
Samra’s interests currently appear to include sunflowers, trite self-love quotes, wigs, hair dye, and posting selfies.
Tragically, Jackie and Amber Huggins lost a second child last year. Jackie’s son, JJ, who was born on September 23, 2000, died unexpectedly on May 16, 2019 at the age of 18. His girlfriend, Deja, was pregnant at the time of his death and gave birth to their beautiful daughter in November of 2019. Jackie and Amber are reportedly over the moon about their now nine-month-old granddaughter, their son’s last and greatest gift to them. May JJ rest in peace.
Amber’s lawsuit against Ryan was finally settled in June of 2019, when Ryan was found liable under tort law for the wrongful death of his daughter, Lauren. A judgment was entered for Amber against Ryan for damages in the agreed-upon amount of $300,000, which Ryan was ordered to pay in installments of at least $300 per month once he became employed. His balance with the court is still $300,217.00, which is the amount of the judgment plus court fees, so it would appear he has not yet obtained a job or begun making payments to Amber.
Kaylynn, who is now 19, graduated high school in 2019. I hope she has found peace and been able to manage the trauma and survivor’s guilt inflicted on her by her biological father, his wife, and her twisted family.
Amber’s older son, Cameron, is 21 and got engaged in February of this year.
Both Kaylynn and Cam call their stepfather, Jackie, “Dad.”
Jackie and Amber’s youngest child, Zach, graduated from high school this year.
This has been an incredibly complex and difficult case to cover, as you can probably tell by the length of this post alone, but it’s essential that in the midst of this mess, we don’t forget Lauren Michele McConniel and who she was as a person.
Lauren’s maternal grandmother, Michele, remembered her granddaughter beautifully on what would have been Lauren’s tenth birthday. Along with a precious photo of the two of them together, Michele posted in a Facebook group called Little Lauren:
“It’s hard to believe that you would have been ten years old today…You will forever be the little bug I fell in love with & cherished for five short years. Yet, in quiet moments I try to imagine you growing up & wonder if you would still like to wear dresses (I bet you would!) & how many bags of chips you could devour in a weekend at Nanny & Papaw’s. Would you still sing to me & make funny noises with your papaw? (I know he still would).
“Each year that passes could never dim our love for you…it only grows stronger. That is the one constant. Love never gives up! I’m confident that you are safely surrounded in perfect love & look forward to when I can hold you again.
“Happy Birthday, baby. I Love you beyond infinity!!!”
Amber told a story on the Remember Lauren McConniel Facebook page about why she associates found dimes with her daughter’s continued presence. “The story of the dime: after Lauren passed, I went downstairs outside the hospital to be by myself. I had just held my baby as she took her last breath. I sat down on the ground, with my back to the wall and my legs straight out and crossed at the ankles. As I sat and cried, I looked down, and in the laces of my shoe, on the side, was a dime. I had kept no money on me while we were at Riley. Either my husband brought me food to her room or my family paid if I ran down. It may seem like coincidence to some. But I know, in my heart, that it wasn’t. They show up in the craziest places in the times I need them.”
Ever since she found the dime in her shoelaces, whenever she finds one, she takes it as a sign that Lauren, who she calls Bug Boo or Buggy, is with her.
According to Amber, “Lauren was gentle and sweet. Always willing to be a helping hand. Full of songs and smiles and hugs and kisses.”
“Lauren was very trustworthy. We always said she never met a stranger. I can honestly say I cannot recall a single person that she disliked.”
“Lauren was always playing dress-up. I remember buying, at least once a month, brand new sets of dress-up shoes, tiaras, costume jewelry, little rhinestone scepters. She had been raised to believe she was a princess. And that’s how she deserved to be treated.”
As far as I’m concerned, that’s also how Lauren deserves to be remembered: as a sweet, kind, compassionate, loving little princess who had love for everyone. Wherever she is, I’m sure she’s wearing the prettiest, sparkliest tiara while she introduces her big brother, JJ, to her countless friends.
For all she went through, but more importantly, for everything she was, Lauren will never be forgotten.
Sources: NotJustForLawyers.com, Justice4Caylee, Find a Grave, Wikipedia, Mothers of Lost Children – Indiana, The Star Press, Domestic Violence Kills – Indiana, Associated Press, The Dreamin’ Demon, The Walker/Roysdon Report, Remembering Lauren McConniel, 10/3/2004 – 03/09/2010 Facebook group, Little Lauren Facebook group