When a six-year-old child dies of unknown causes, it is a tragedy that upends everything we hold to be true. A parent should never outlive a child; it’s against every instinct we possess.
When said parent is later found to be the cause of that child’s death, the tragedy is compounded with anger. The public wants someone to blame. We wonder why no one acted sooner to save the child. We demand to know how no one knew something was going on; where were the neighbors? Other family members? Children’s services in particular?
When we find out that the agencies and authorities tasked with protecting children had the opportunity to help that child and failed, the anger turns to outrage.
Such is the case with the death of Kerri Rutherford.
Kerrigan Michael Rutherford was born on February 17, 2014 to then-26-year-old Courtny Ann Rutherford and 27-year-old Paul Susralski, who has been in and out of jail since a 2009 burglary conviction, is currently on parole from his most recent prison stint, and was reportedly not a part of Kerri’s life.
According to Courtny’s mother Sue in a Facebook post, when Kerri was born, Courtny remained in the hospital for seven weeks, part of that time spent on life support, although the reason for her hospitalization was unclear. Sue said she struggled to be a grandmother because just three weeks before Kerri was born, Sue’s husband, Mike Rutherford, had passed away. Sue and Mike had three children together: Courtny, her sister Trisha, and their brother, who I’ll call C.R., because I’m not sure of his age.
Regarding her sister’s hospitalization, Trisha wrote on Facebook on March 17, 2014, “Courtny Rutherford was transferred to a rehab facility in sycamore for the last stop on her I WAS REALLY SICK AND ALMOST DIED tour. They’ll be working on getting her strength back so she can come home. I can tell she’s feeling better because she was joking around with me and her nurse today. Whoohoo, progress!”
Months after Kerri’s birth, Courtny began dating her future husband, James Allan Davidson. The couple was married in 2015, and Courtny gave birth to a second daughter in October of 2016, who I’ll call J.D.
(Edit: This blog post previously mentioned that James may have served in the military, but I have since been informed that although he participated in the ROTC program, he was unable to pass the required IQ and psychological tests to enter the military, as well as law enforcement and the fire department.)
On Courtny’s Facebook page, she stated on October 26, 2018 that she became a stay-at-home parent, referring to herself as “Mother wife sister daughter cousin niece.” Prior to that, her employer was listed as Wendy’s. For his part, James noted on Facebook that he began a job as customer service representative at U-Haul on December 6, 2016. Before that, he worked as a stocker at Walmart and then a crewman at Taco Bell.
In 2019, the family moved into a rental house at 128 Boulder Hill Pass in Montgomery, Illinois after their rental lease at their previous home was not renewed. The owners of the previous house reportedly declined to renew their lease “because they vandalized our home with filth and damage and roaches.”
Now, let’s jump ahead to July 2, 2020. At 1:28 PM, the deputies from the Kendall County Sheriff’s Office and members of the Oswego Fire Department responded to the Davidson home on a call of a “6-year-old female, possibly not breathing, bleeding from the nose, turning different colors.” Upon arrival, they found six-year-old Kerri dead inside the rental house. Investigators said it appeared Kerri had been dead for some time.
Immediately, the Sheriff’s Department opened an investigation into Kerri’s death with assistance from the Kendall County Coroner’s Office and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
The couple’s surviving three-year-old daughter was taken into protective custody.
Interestingly, just the day before, Kerri’s grandmother, Sue, and uncle C.R., both of whom also lived in the Boulder Hill house, left on a planned vacation to Atlanta. The evening before Kerrigan was found deceased, neighbor Monica Alexander reportedly heard Kerri outside, screaming, but Kerri was taken inside before Monica was able to go out and check on her.
Kerri’s funeral was held on Friday, July 10 at Warehouse Church in Aurora, Illinois.
CBS2 revealed that prior to her death, the Kendall County Sheriff’s Department was called to the Boulder Hill house 15 times since the Davidson family moved in the year before.
The Davidsons apparently moved out immediately after Kerri died. Their former landlord told sheriff’s officials on July 9 that the residence had been freshly painted, the carpet had been replaced, and one of the bathrooms had been remodeled before the family moved in about a year before.
A police report from the day of Kerri’s death described the environment inside the house as uninhabitable, detailing a foul stench permeating the residence, multiple piles of garbage inside the home, as well as dirty diapers and what appeared to be feces on the floors, carpets, and stairs throughout. On the floor in the dining area, police found broken eggs, spilled soda, rotting food, and both clean and dirty diapers. Roaches were seen on a shelving unit and countertops in the kitchen, and multiple prescription bottles for about ten different medications were found in the bedrooms.
Monica Alexander, who had made multiple calls to police about her concerns, told a reporter, “When I saw [police] at the house, my first response was, ‘It’s Kerri.’ I just assumed that she was hurt or she was gone. And then when they didn’t take her away, I knew.”
Shortly after Kerri’s death, Monica posted the following on Facebook:
“This is my neighbor. An innocent, six-year-old child lost her life. She was the same age as my daughter. She just finished kindergarten. She loved to play outside with her dog, sister, and friends. She loved to color with chalk, talk to my girls, and share in our cookouts and s’mores. We often passed food, chalk, or toys to them over the fence. Despite the environment she lived in, she was still a sweet little girl.
“I have personally called the police on several occasions to report abuse and neglect when they were playing outside naked in the snow (but don’t worry, the cops told them to go inside and put on coats), when they were screaming nonstop so loudly that I could hear it inside my home (but don’t worry the cops said the kids were being bad so they were locked in a room), when they were playing with fireworks that are illegal for adults to use in Illinois WITHOUT any adults present, (but don’t worry the cop sat in his car until they stopped…no need to check on the kids there), when the mother yanked a tricycle out from underneath Kerri, slamming her whole body, head-first, onto the concrete in front of my home (but don’t worry, the mom told the cop Kerri was okay so they left). Other neighbors have also called the police. Nothing has happened.
“Those kids have been taking care of themselves with no adult supervision most of the time, but when there are adults present they are screaming and cussing at them or physically hurting the children. These kids were 2 and 5 when they moved in going through life this way. It broke my heart to watch this and not be able to do anything. People in the neighborhood groups mocked the scanner calls for well being checks. They said people shouldn’t be so nosey. I guess I should have been more nosey.
“[My] girls don’t know yet. I don’t know how to tell them. How do you tell two little girls that their friend has died? How do you tell them that her parents likely murdered her? I don’t know how to do it.
“What I do know is something needs to be done. The other children need to be placed in protective care. DCFS and the Kendall County Police department need to be investigated for their lack of action. This is unacceptable. No one EVER followed up with me from DCFS. My heart is broken. This should not happen. There has to be a way to protect children from their parents.”
In another post, Monica said, “Friends, family, neighbors, Kerri’s doctor, teachers, and even strangers driving past their Boulder Hill home reported the family to the Kendall County sheriff’s office and DCFS, but no one saved her. It seems even many of their family members ignored or excused the mistreatment. Courtny’s mother and brother lived in the same home. How did they witness the abuse, neglect, and deplorable living conditions those children suffered and do nothing? Why is Sue Orr Rutherford walking free when she contributed to the dysfunctional home that [sic] to Kerri’s death? It seems that instead of demanding justice, many in the family are trying to protect those who failed to provide first-hand information to authorities that could have saved Kerri. Anyone who contributed to the circumstances leading to her death should face justice for their actions or more likely, inaction…
“Through the just past year, the neighbor living next door to the home they were renting witnessed a life that no child should have to suffer through. She reported abuse and neglect on multiple occasions for instances such as the girls playing naked or in diapers (yes, six-year-old Kerri wore diapers despite her apparently normal mental abilities for her age), Courtny slamming Kerri on the concrete and leaving her there crying and alone, witnessing the girls play with illegal fireworks with no adults outside, seeing the girls playing in a busy street, and hearing [J.D.] piercingly screaming for a heartbreakingly long time. Never once did the police investigate inside the home or spend more than a couple of minutes talking to the parents. When responding to the calls, the officers explained that DCFS had a ‘huge’ file on them (the Davidson’s) and that the caseworker would be contacting witnesses. That worried neighbor never got a call from the caseworker despite calling DCFS herself.”
A neighbor named Debbie told CBS2, “My family has called the police to check on those kids at times. I was scared for those kids.”
Another neighbor said in a Facebook comment, “I lived behind the family. I just moved in this year in April. In the short time being here. I had a feeling life was not safe over there. I did pay attention just in case. I saw Kerrigan outside sometimes. She appeared to be adorable happy little girl. I was in my yard on Father’s Day and saw the adults fighting. Kerrigan said if you don’t stop the neighbors will call the cops…”
According to CBS2, one of Kerri’s teachers also reached out to DCFS at one point with concerns about the little girl’s well-being.
According to a DCFS spokesperson, the agency did have contact with the Davidson family dating as far back as December of 2015, when DCFS investigated a report of alleged abuse or neglect. After that, there were six more investigations into similar allegations that took place from 2017 through this year. According to the Chicago Tribune, “The case was being treated as an ‘intact family case,’ and an outside firm hired by DCFS provided intact family services to the Davidsons and their daughter. In such cases, DCFS provides services to a family to prevent further neglect or abuse, but does not remove the child from the household.”
We know all too well from the stories of AJ Freund and James Biel, among others, that Illinois DCFS needs a massive overhaul — more accurately, a total gutting and restructuring — and Kerri’s is another story to add to the list of reasons why that fact cannot be argued. Illinois DCFS has long been riddled with issues, including overwhelming caseloads for caseworkers and a revolving door for leadership. Since 2003, the agency has been overseen by 15 directors or interim directors, which, the Chicago Tribune pointed out, is a rate of a new director almost every year. Also, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, “AJ’s case has shone a glaring spotlight on the catastrophic failure of DCFS in the state. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services Inspector General’s annual report reveals an utterly shocking statistic: 123 children — yes, that’s one hundred and twenty three! — who had contact with DCFS between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2019 died within twelve months of that contact.”
In AJ’s case, two former DCFS employees were recently arrested, each of them charged with two felony counts of endangering the life of a child and one felony count of reckless conduct. Carlos Acosta and Andrew Polovin stand accused of failing to act, falsifying reports, and allowing their laziness and apathy to culminate in the brutal beating death of five-year-old AJ at the hands of his mother, who has been sentenced to 35 years in prison. AJ’s father, who admitted to burying his son’s body in a shallow grave after the fact, was sentenced last week to 30 years.
Dr. Kristin Escobar Alvarenga of the Kendall County Coroner’s Office conducted an autopsy on the day of Kerri’s death, including a number of toxicological tests, the results of which took several weeks to return. According to the autopsy report, Kerri’s body arrived at the coroner’s office “in a body bag, clothed in a disposable diaper, that is urine soaked and has moderate amount of fecal matter. No additional clothing is received, with the body. Potato chip crumbs are scattered on the lower extremities and within the body bag.”
The results of the toxicology tests combined with information obtained during the investigation led Kendall County Coroner Jacquie Purcell to rule the little girl’s death a homicide caused by prescription drug toxicity. Kerri had ingested a lethal dose of olanzapine (better known under the brand name Zyprexa), which is an antipsychotic drug commonly prescribed to treat schizophrenia or bipolar mania in patients aged 13 or older. The drug had been prescribed to Courtny, who has previously been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In Kerri’s blood, lab results revealed 720 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL), which indicates nearly ten times the maximum recommended dosage for treating an acute psychotic episode (20 to 80 ng/mL). The recommended dosage for regular treatment of schizophrenia and bipolar mania is five to ten milligrams daily.
Like a lot of people, I wonder if Kerri received the medication for an extended period of time. One of the common side effects of olanzapine, as well as other antipsychotic medications, is substantial weight gain. For the first year or two of her life, Kerri appeared to be within the normal weight range for a child her age, but by the age of six, while she was both beautiful and adorable, she was also undeniably overweight at 4.5 feet tall and 160 pounds. Regardless of the reason for this, 160 pounds is nearly four times the average weight of a girl her age, which is around 44 pounds.
Meanwhile, over the past few years, based on photographs and jail records, it appears Courtny shed a significant amount of weight. Her inmate profile on the Kendall County Sheriff’s Office website has her listed at a mere 80 pounds, which is literally half what her six-year-old daughter weighed. Could Courtny’s weight loss and Kerri’s simultaneous weight gain have something to do with the illicit transfer of prescription medication? That’s only speculation on my part, but I can’t help wondering. Staci McDuffee’s daughter, Kayla, who was also close with the family, said on Facebook that Courtny’s weight loss may have resulted from an autoimmune disease (some have suggested Guillain-Barré syndrome) from which she is said to suffer. This may also have been the reason for her earlier hospitalizations.
There are no reports of Kerrigan being diagnosed with any type of mental illness or behavioral issues, and even if there were, olanzapine is not generally prescribed to children under 13. The medication comes in two forms: standard tablets and orally disintegrating tablets, although it has not been specified in which form Kerri consumed the fatal dose of the drug.
On the consumer information leaflet for brand name Zyprexa, the inactive ingredients in the orally disintegrating tablets include aspartame (an artificial sweetener) and mannitol (a sugar alcohol also used as a sweetener). I reached out to a local pharmacy, where the pharmacist informed me that olanzapine orally disintegrating tablets are both sweet and, depending on the manufacturer, flavored.
The only reason I bring this up is because I have seen multiple online comments insisting there was no way Kerri could have ingested such a high dosage of the medication of her own accord, but I would venture to say she certainly could have, particularly if the form of medication readily accessible to her was sweet and tasty and and melted easily in her mouth. Kerri was only six years old; she could very well have thought the pills were candy. Hell, it’s entirely possible an adult even convinced her to ingest the medication at some point by saying it was candy, leading her to consider the tablets harmless and subsequently consume a fatal dose.
IMPORTANT NOTE: I’m not stating as fact that Kerri consumed the fatal dose of medication on her own. I’m simply saying she could have depending on the form of olanzapine Courtny had been prescribed and dispensed.
Regardless, I don’t believe this alleviates an iota of responsibility for Kerri’s death from her mother and stepfather. As parents, they had a duty to keep any and all harmful substances out of the reach of the two young children in their care. For quite some time in my house, every medication stronger than Tums was kept in a locked filing cabinet, the key hidden where only I could find it; there was no way in hell my kids were getting their hands on anything that could potentially harm them, whether it be prescription medication or Tylenol. Even if Kerri did ingest the tablets on her own, Courtny and James Davidson utterly failed Kerrigan in their responsibility to protect her, and it cost that precious little girl her life.
I also want to mention that if Kerri actually did need medication for some undiagnosed behavioral or mood disorder, she should have been taken to a doctor and received an appropriate diagnosis and prescription. Some atypical antipsychotics, such as Abilify, can be prescribed to children as young as Kerri. Abilify is technically indicated for children 10 and up, but, depending on the child and the severity of symptoms, some doctors are willing to go off label in some cases. Abilify can also cause weight gain, but as with every medication, the side effects have to be weighed against the benefits.
Anyway, getting back on track: another possible side effect of olanzapine is heart complications. Kerri’s autopsy revealed left ventricular hypertrophy, which means there was some unusual thickening of the walls of her heart’s main pumping chamber.
Her body showed no signs of injury other than a small bruise on her right leg. Cerebral edema, or a buildup of fluid around the brain that causes an increase in intracranial pressure, was also noted.
At last, 29-year-old James Davidson and 32-year-old Courtny Davidson were arrested on August 6 at the residence where they had recently moved, which, according to a law enforcement officer speaking on condition of anonymity, was a converted hotel populated by transients located in the 800 block of Washington Street in Mendota, Illinois. Each was charged with one count of involuntary manslaughter and two counts of endangering the life or health of a child, all class 3 felonies. Court documents allege that James and Courtny “unintentionally and recklessly performed acts which were likely to cause death or great bodily harm to” Kerri by giving her enough olanzapine tablets to cause her death. They were booked into the Kendall County Public Safety Center.
Courtny’s bug-eyed appearance in her mugshot and other recent photos may also be the result of her possible autoimmune disease.
Many people online have decried the charges pressed for being too lenient, but as I’ve said before on the blog and the podcast, prosecutors file the maximum charges for which they believe they can get a conviction. There is nowhere near enough evidence, based on what has been released so far, to prove that Courtny and James deliberately murdered Kerri. Unless someone else who lived in the house, such as Courtny’s mother or brother, comes forward with such damning information, involuntary manslaughter is likely the most severe charge we can expect for these two.
In court the day after the arrests, Judge Jody Gleason set bail for each defendant at $250,000, which means each would have to pay a $25,000 bond to be released. To date, both remain in jail.
At the bond hearing, first assistant state’s attorney for Kendall County, Mark Shlifka, said that both Courtny and James Davidson attempted to dodge responsibility for Kerri’s death, adding that the two weren’t as forthcoming as they should have been when questioned by law enforcement about what happened. He said the prescription medication found in Kerri’s system was not intended for her, “or for any child at all.”
Courtny and James were both initially represented by Kendall County Public Defender Victoria Chuffo, although at a later hearing, Kendall County Assistant Public Defender Courtney Transier took over Courtny’s representation.
At the August 7 hearing, Judge Gleason ruled that neither of the Davidsons was allowed contact with any child 18 years of age or younger, although she did grant Courtny supervised visits with three-year-old J.D. James was granted Zoom video visits with J.D., who was referenced in court on that date as his stepchild. Later, Kendall County State’s Attorney Eric Weis confirmed that James Davidson is indeed J.D.’s biological father.
On August 12, Kendall County Chief Judge Robert Pilmer denied the defendants’ motions to reduce their bail amounts to $25,000 each, which would allow family members to post the required bond of $2,500 each. Transier’s motion for bond reduction claimed that Courtny was only receiving half of her usual medications in jail and that Courtny’s mother, Sue Orr Rutherford, said Courtny had been in a manic episode since Kerri’s death. Transier added that Courtny needs an evaluation and possible hospitalization upon her release from jail.
Judge Pilmer wrote in court documents on August 12 that bond conditions for both James and Courtny had been modified to include no further contact with J.D. until further notice from the court and juvenile court. This modification, coincidentally or not, occurred after Kerri’s autopsy and toxicology reports were released.
On September 9, James and Courtny, who turned 33 since being arrested, appeared in court via video conference, during which both pleaded not guilty to the charges against them. They now await a jury trial; it is unclear if they will be tried together.
Courtny and James, both of whom remain held in the Kendall County Public Safety Center, are next scheduled to be seen in court at 9:00 AM on November 2, 2020. If convicted of all of the charges against them, each could face a maximum of 34 years in prison.
Kerrigan Michael Rutherford loved the color pink and wearing dresses, and she was, by all accounts, an excellent big sister.
According to Kerri’s obituary, she was a kindergartner at Boulder Hill Elementary at the time of her death. “She was a very active princess, who loved Barbies, playing outside, slime and tigers. She enjoyed bubble baths, swimming, mermaids and unicorns. Kerri also liked to watch YouTube videos and was a huge fan of JoJo Siwa.”
In a GoFundMe campaign, Kerri’s Auntie Trisha wrote, “Kerri was a bundle of joy and fun, with a huge imagination and love for everyone she met. She loved playing with barbies, going to school, having her hair done (with big bows, like Jojo Siwa!), and giving lots of hugs. She lit up every room she was in, and was such a goofball.”
Kerri sounds like an adorable, sweet, absolutely perfect six-year-old girl, other than the tragic circumstances surrounding both her life and her death. I am heartbroken that although multiple people attempted to intervene, DCFS failed to step in and save her life. It’s inexcusable that they never followed up with this family, which was clearly a train wreck waiting to happen.
Kerri deserved better.
Rest in peace, sweet princess.
Click here for my ongoing coverage of Kerrigan’s story.
Sources: Kendall County Sheriff’s Office, Kendall County Coroner, Illinois Department of Corrections, Patch, Dunn Family Funeral Home with Crematory, Meaww, MedLinePlus, GoFundMe, WCSJ News, CBS2 Chicago, NewsTribune, Kendall County Now, Lilly website, CrimeOnline, Her Name is Kerrigan Rutherford Facebook group, Chicago Tribune, Justice for Kerri Facebook group