Many differently abled children grow up to live happy, healthy, relatively normal lives. They have the parental care and medical support they need to overcome their obstacles and to triumph over tragedy.
Sadly, however, as we’ve seen in many cases I’ve covered in the past, children with special needs are abused at a much higher rate than children without mental or physical issues.
The case of 5-year-old Josias Marquez, who suffered meningitis shortly after birth and was left with cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and a host of related medical problems, illustrated this all too well. His mother currently awaits trial in Wisconsin on charges relating to Josias’s death by starvation and flagrant neglect.
Yesterday, I learned about another heartbreaking case of a mother accused of ending the life of her child who relied one hundred percent on others for her care, and it is with an aching heart that I’m telling you today about that child. I can’t tell you how many times I teared up reading about what this precious girl endured or looking at photos of her sweet smile.
Kylie Christine Larson was born on June 6, 2007 at Rice Memorial Hospital in Wilmar, Minnesota to 22-year-old Matthew Jon Larson and 22-year-old Elise Christine Rodgers. Due to oxygen deprivation during delivery, Kylie suffered damage to her brain and central nervous system, which left her with a host of health issues, including spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy, cortical impairment, chronic respiratory failure due to aspiration, neurological difficulties, developmental delays, and seizures. For the duration of Kylie’s life, she would be unable to walk or speak and totally reliant on her caregivers.
Family members kept an online Caring Bridge journal from June of 2007 through August of 2010, in which they detailed the multiple tests and procedures Kylie endured from birth through the age of three. The journal described newborn Kylie in glowing terms: “…Kylie opened her eyes when Matt and Grandma talked to her, which gave us much joy. She has beautiful dark violet eyes and a full head of black, wavy hair. Her thighs and arms are delightfully plump!”
A few weeks after birth, the family was told their daughter would require 24 hour home nursing care to prevent her from drowning in her own secretions. “Monitors cannot be trusted,” the Caring Bridge journal read. “The visual eye and listening to her breathing and air flow are the best means to keep Kylie safe.”
Soon afterward, Kylie was transferred from the hospital in St. Cloud, where she had been cared for since birth, to the NICU at the University of Minnesota Fairview Hospital, where she underwent surgery to place a gastrostomy (feeding) tube. When Matt and Elise were allowed to take Kylie home on July 11, 2007, she was sent with a home monitor and a suction device. They were trained on using the monitor, and several family members also received CPR training.
“Our little Kylie is home,” the online journal reads, “and we Thank God for her (and her precious pinchable cheeks!).”
Kylie was baptized on July 29, 2007 by Pastor Mary at Trinity Lutheran Church in Brooten.
Once Kylie was home, Elise took over writing the Caring Bridge Journal for the most part. In an entry on August 2, 2007, she wrote, “This sure has been the hardest week since we’ve been home and I think I’m exhausted.! I will get throught [sic] it… God won’t give me more than I can handle.”
For the first year or so, Elise updated the journal religiously; in the entries, she expressed endless love and care for her daughter, describing Kylie’s struggles in detail and expressing great pride for her baby girl’s strength.
An entry in February of 2008 reads, “I just keep thinking how lucky we our [sic] to have little angel. When she smiles, everything in the world goes away and its just amazing. Even though its not that often, especially with her being sick… It fills my heart with so much love to last a lifetime. I know all you mommas know this but being a mom is just the most rewarding and wonderful thing in this whole world!!”
In a later entry, Elise wrote, “Kylie still likes to have us there all the time. Always needs to know someone is there. Can you blame her? She has us all wrapped around her finger and that will never change. I hope she always knows we will ALWAYS be here for her…”
It was especially jarring to read these loving entries written by an apparently doting mother while knowing what Elise has since been accused of doing.
When she was about two and a half months old, Kylie was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Doctors gave the family the devastating news that Kylie may never learn to speak or walk and that she faced severe cognitive impairments. Her brain did not appear to be growing, which they were told would cause cognitive and developmental issues, and her basal ganglia was permanently scarred, meaning she would not have control of her limbs and would have a very hard time with speech and other functions. Still, Matt and Elise soldiered on, faithfully providing love and care to this incredibly strong little girl with the help of their parents and other extended family members.
Kylie had respiratory trouble from the beginning; her breathing was very noisy, she appeared to struggle to draw breath, and she repeatedly stopped breathing. She was in and out of the hospital countless times during infancy for seizures, feeding tube issues, infections, and breathing problems, including multiple bouts of pneumonia.
In December, when Kylie was almost six months old, she underwent a surgery called mandibular distraction, in which her jaw bone was cut on both sides, facilitating new bone growth within the cut areas, which would thereby move her jaw and tongue forward and open her airway further. This surgery was intended to avoid the necessity for a permanent tracheotomy tube to be placed. However, after a few months, Matt and Elise had to make the difficult decision to have a trach done, because it was discovered that despite the surgery, Kylie’s airway was collapsing. Several family members were trained on how to care for the trach.
Kylie also had surgery on her salivary glands to help manage her secretions, which still required frequent suctioning, as well as surgeries on her hips and ears.
Despite her many surgeries, setbacks, and constant medical visits, hospitalizations, and treatments, Kylie began smiling and giggling early in life, and this little fighter never seemed to tire of laughing and smiling.
Elise and Matt welcomed a second daughter, who I’ll call B.L., in October of 2009. As the girls grew, Kylie and her sister enjoyed a close, loving relationship.
According to Elise’s entries in the journal, on Christmas Eve of 2009, Matt proposed, and the couple planned to marry in July of 2010 with their daughters as flower girls. It does not appear they ever went through with the wedding.
In February of 2010, during an 11-day trial in Kandiyohi County, Minnesota, a jury awarded Matt and Elise $23.2 million, finding Affiliated Community Medical Centers and Rice Memorial Hospital negligent in the injuries Kylie suffered at birth. The doctor who delivered Kylie, Dr. Gabrielle Vencel Olson, a family practice physician, was initially included as a defendant but removed during the trial because she had acted as an agent of ACMC.
The award encompassed $1.7 million for past health care expenses, $10 million for future health care expenses, $10 for the pain, disability, and emotional distress suffered by Kylie and her family, and $1.5 million for Kylie’s loss of earning potential. However, both the ACMC and Rice filed motions in opposition to the award, 80 percent of which was attributed to ACMC and 20 percent to the hospital. District Judge Donald Spilseth ordered both sides to mediation, and they reached a settlement in June of that year. The settlement document remains sealed, so the terms are unknown.
Matt and Elise were a couple for about 13 years before breaking up when Kylie and her sister were about four and two years old, respectively. Elise eventually married Kylie’s stepfather, Jeremy Nelson, who had two older children of his own; Matt began dating Kylie’s stepmom, Tasha, in 2013, and they were married in August of 2016. It appears Matt and Elise shared custody of the girls to some degree.
On Sunday, June 21, 2020, a 911 call summoned first responders to the Nelson home in Paynesville, Minnesota, where they found 13-year-old Kylie Larson unresponsive on the living room floor. She was rushed to a nearby hospital, but it was too late; at 1:50 PM, Kylie was pronounced dead.
At the hospital, Elise told investigators that Kylie, who required around-the-clock care, had been in her sole care and custody that weekend. Her husband, Jeremy, had gone away on a fishing trip on June 18, and Elise had planned to take her daughters to a cabin in Alexandria. However, Kylie, she said, developed diarrhea, so she cancelled her travel plans and sent B.L. to stay at a family friend’s house for the weekend.
She said she had heard Kylie’s oxygen alarm go off Sunday morning out of nowhere and then witnessed Kylie’s oxygen drop to 86 percent before Kylie “flatlined,” at which point she said she performed CPR on Kylie for an hour before dialing 911.
Paramedics who responded to the Nelsons’ home, however, reported that when they arrived, Kylie was cold to the touch, and blood had pooled in the back of her legs (also known as lividity), indicating she had been dead for some time before they arrived. Other first responders said that when they arrived at the home, Elise did not appear to have been exerting herself for an hour prior to their arrival. CPR is hard work; she should have been sweaty, out of breath, and exhausted, but she was not.
Seeking data from Kylie’s pulse oximeter, a medical device that clips to the fingertip to monitor pulse and blood oxygenation levels, investigators sent the device to Medtronic for analysis, where it was discovered the device was in excellent working order and that Kylie’s levels were stable on June 18 and 19.
The data revealed that beginning on the morning of June 20, Elise repeatedly silenced alarms designed to give an audible warning if Kylie’s blood oxygen level dropped below a certain threshold. These alarms were set to go off if Kylie’s pulse went below 50 beats per minute or above 190 beats per minute, or if her oxygen levels dipped below 90 percent, which is standard; the alarm could be silenced briefly, but if the patient’s level did not increase within a minute, it would sound again.
On the morning of June 20, the data showed Elise silenced the alarm twice before lowering the threshold to 87 percent. One of Kylie’s nurses told investigators there was no medical reason to lower the threshold below 90 percent.
Around 6:40 PM the same day, when the alarm sounded again, Elise turned the device off completely. At 12:32 AM, she turned the machine on again, resetting the threshold to 90 percent. 36 minutes later, the alarm began sounding once every minute, and each time, Elise silenced it, once again completely turning the device off at 1:13 AM.
The criminal complaint filed in the case stated, “With the machine off, nothing monitored the child’s oxygen saturation levels or pulse rates.”
At 4:37 AM, Elise turned the machine on again and set the threshold to 89 percent, which caused the alarm to go off immediately. Again, she silenced it. One minute later, she lowered the threshold to 84 percent.
Between 4:59 AM and 5:32 AM, the alarm sounded repeatedly and was silenced each time; at 5:41 AM, the threshold was returned to 90 percent, and the alarm was silenced each subsequent time it sounded between 5:42 and 5:45. At 5:44, the threshold was lowered to 79 percent.
At 6:33 AM, the alarm was silenced again, and over the next eight minutes, Elise gradually lowered the threshold to 74 percent.
The last pulse signal and oxygen level detected by the device was at 6:43 AM on Sunday, June 21. Ten minutes after that, the oxygenation threshold was manually set back to 90%, and the device was removed from Kylie’s finger.
Later that morning, the family friend caring for B.L. attempted to call Elise multiple times, but Elise did not answer the calls; nor did she answer when the friend knocked on her door.
At 12:49 PM, Elise finally sent her friend a text message, saying she had been performing CPR for an hour and was waiting for police to arrive. However, she did not place a call to 911 until 1:09 PM, which was over six hours after the pulse oximeter last registered a pulse or oxygen level from Kylie.
The implications of this data are horrifying. 13-year-old Kylie Christine Larson slowly suffocated to death over a period of 24 hours, during which she was alone with her mother, who not only ignored her plight but actively exacerbated it. I can’t imagine the terror, confusion, pain, and betrayal this little girl felt as the woman who gave birth to her bustled around, silencing alarms and taking no action to assist her as she struggled to breathe.
An autopsy conducted by the Midwestern Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Kylie’s death a homicide caused by complications during birth, adding that Elise Nelson “deprived care resulting in death.”
After a three-month investigation, Elise Christine Nelson was arrested on the afternoon of Wednesday, September 23, 2020 and booked into the Stearns County jail, where she remains in lieu of $350,000 bail with conditions or $500,000 unconditional bail. She made her initial court appearance the same day. According to her arrest warrant, she has been charged with second-degree intentional murder without premeditation and second-degree manslaughter, both felonies.
I’m honestly not sure why Elise was not charged with first-degree murder; Kylie’s death occurred in slow motion over the course of 24 hours, which to me would indicate premeditation. I’m curious to find out what evidence led to that decision on the part of the prosecution.
Elise’s next court date is a Rule 5/Rule 8 hearing scheduled for October 8, at which time Elise will be advised of her rights for a second time and be given the opportunity to either hire an attorney or apply for a public defender. Most felony cases are advanced from that point to an omnibus (or pre-trial) hearing, after which plea negotiations may begin.
If convicted of the murder charge, Elise could be sentenced to up to 40 years in prison.
Kylie’s obituary, which stated that she was a student at Paynesville Middle School, said, “Kylie was our gift from God. She taught us to embrace the blessing of being in the world together. Her smile was so beautiful it radiated love and joy to all. Kylie enjoyed being outside and moving around, whether it be spinning around in her chair, going for walks with friends and family, or traveling to new places. She loved spending time with her family and going for boat rides. Kylie was blessed with amazing nurses who loved her so deeply and she became part of their hearts. Her fellow schoolmates looked forward to pushing her around in the halls and laughing with her. You saw her sweet soul and smile in her eyes. The simplest things in life would make her laugh. Kylie made all our lives better when she was around. ‘C-ya later punkin’ would always give her a belly laugh.”
Sweet Kylie was laid to rest on Tuesday, June 30, 2020 in Paynesville Cemetery.
There are so many questions yet unanswered in this case. How could Elise do such a thing to her helpless baby girl? What could have motivated her to do this? My heart goes out to Matt, to Kylie’s little sister, and to all of Kylie’s extended family and friends. The world lost a brilliant beam of sunshine when Kylie Christine Larson gained her wings.
Click here for my ongoing coverage of Kylie’s case.
Sources: Park Rapids Enterprise, Caring Bridge, CBS Minnesota, Facebook, Stearns County Sheriff, Stearns County Criminal Case Search, Ambrose Law Firm, Metro News, West Central Tribune, Star Tribune, Daniel Funeral Home