On Monday, March 1, 2021, the trial began for the first of three family members accused of causing the death of five-year-old Keaton Boggs in March of last year. By the end of the day on Wednesday, March 3, the jury had returned with a verdict: guilty of death of a child caused by a parent, guardian, or custodian by knowingly allowing child abuse.
Keaton was taken, unresponsive, to J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital on March 18, 2020 by his paternal grandmother, Michelle Boggs, and his paternal aunt, Chasity Wodzinski. He died after two days on life support. Keaton had suffered a head injury causing bleeding in his brain and eyes, as well as bruises on his head, face, collarbone, and neck and assorted injuries to his ear, inner thigh, and genitals. All of his injuries were in varying degrees of healing, indicating they occurred over multiple incidents.
According to a forensic pathologist, Keaton’s death was a homicide caused by blunt force trauma to the head, opining that Keaton’s head had been moving while the injury, which had required repeated blows, was inflicted.
Michelle Boggs and Chasity Wodzinski, as well as Chasity’s husband, Peter “PJ” Wodzinski, were arrested shortly after Keaton’s death and indicted in September on a single count each of death of a child by parent, guardian, custodian, or other person by child abuse. In West Virginia, a conviction on this charge can result in a sentence of up to life in prison.
Since the death of Keaton’s father, U.S. Army veteran Christopher Boggs, in Pennsylvania in 2019, Michelle Boggs was the little boy’s legal guardian, the person with physical custody of a child, and Chasity and PJ were his legal custodians, who were legally responsible for his finances. It’s not common for different people to be appointed as a child’s guardian and custodian, but that was the case here, possibly because of Michelle’s shady financial history. One family member said Michelle once prepared their taxes for them, stole their financial information, and used it to make herself a signer on their bank account; another said Michelle transferred $10,000 from their 401K to herself, and when she was caught, they said, she claimed she had a brain tumor and didn’t know what she was doing.
Although Michelle brought Keaton to West Virginia in July of 2019 and was his legal guardian, he did not live with her until three months later. Initially, he lived with his Aunt Chasity and Uncle PJ and their children in a trailer in Lumberport; in the fall, the family moved to a rickety old house in Lost Creek, and Michelle moved into the house with them.
Keaton’s mother, Jessika Bishop-Holt, did not have custody of Keaton at the time of Chris’s death because she was battling a drug addiction. Although she tried to see Keaton, Chris’s family managed to thwart her attempts to visit her son and used her legal situation as leverage. After Chris died, the Boggs-Wodzinski family all but vanished without a forwarding address, leaving Jessika unable to locate or even check up on her son.
According to two people close to the family, calls were made to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services (WVDHHS), in particular the Bureau for Children and Families, with concerns about Keaton’s well-being, but intervention was not accomplished in time to save Keaton’s life.
West Virginia State Police have reportedly obtained images and text messages, some of which were deleted, from the cell phones belonging to Michelle and Chasity. WV News reported that PJ’s phone could not be accessed because it was protected by a password and not compatible with investigators’ software.
Harrison County Assistant Prosecutor Gina Snuffer said the only plea deal the state had offered the three defendants was for each of them to plead guilty and throw themselves on the mercy of the court, but all three declined, not wishing to roll the dice on a life sentence.
At a pre-trial hearing on February 12, Harrison Circuit Judge James A. Matish granted severance requests for all three defendants, meaning each of the three accused will have a separate trial from the others.
Testimony was heard at the virtual hearing from a behavioral health professional, who told the court that Michelle and Chasity were no-shows at an appointment scheduled for Keaton on March 17, the day before he was rushed to the hospital with catastrophic bleeding on the brain.
The two attended an intake appointment on February 5, 2020, to have Keaton treated by learning coping skills. However, they missed appointments with the provider for Keaton on February 19 and March 4 of last year.
A pediatrics office manager also testified about missed appointments, and a note was entered into evidence from the pediatrician regarding the doctor’s examination of Keaton on January 29, 2020.
During his testimony at the hearing, West Virginia State Police Sergeant Ronnie Gaskins spoke of seeing Keaton upon his admission to J.W. Ruby, taking photographs of his injuries, and taking the defendants’ cell phones into evidence.
According to Assistant Prosecutor Snuffer, the data extracted from the cell phones will be presented in court as evidence that Keaton had suffered abuse over an extended period of time. When Judge Matish asked how the text messages and photos would show that Keaton’s injuries were caused by the defendants and not self-inflicted by Keaton as they had claimed, Snuffer said the information could be used by the jury to decide, adding that Keaton could not tell them what happened because “this little boy is dead.” She said the photos would show the escalation of the abuse against Keaton, and the data would also show that Keaton’s caretakers missed appointments for him and sometimes attempted to hide his injuries with makeup.
Among Keaton’s grievous injuries was a four centimeter laceration on his penile shaft.
Naturally, the defense attorneys for the accused were against the admission of the cell phone data at trial. PJ’s attorney, Jason Glass, said the photos are “highly prejudicial” and that one in particular made him “sick to his stomach.”
Harrison Deputy Defender Perry Jones, who represents Chasity, and attorney Dreama Sinkkanen, Michelle’s attorney, both agreed the photos are inflammatory. Judge Matish took the evidence and arguments presented at the hearing under advisement, saying he would issue an opinion prior to trial.
The trials were scheduled to begin on March 1, March 29, and April 19, 2021. I fully expected them to be postponed indefinitely due to COVID-19, so imagine my surprise when I learned that PJ’s trial had begun on Monday!
Since I couldn’t watch the trial unfold live, I’ve had to rely on printed news coverage of the proceedings to put this blog post together.
Monday, March 1:
During the prosecution’s opening statement, the state laid out its case by saying that it would prove intent via text messages discussing hiding Keaton’s injuries and skipping doctor appointments. Although PJ claimed Keaton’s injuries were self-inflicted, they pointed out that this poor, sweet baby had a laceration from the tip of his penis to his scrotum. They also mentioned that Keaton missed four out of five scheduled doctor appointments.
In its opening statement, the defense, led by Jason Glass, said that PJ was innocent and reminded the jury that the prosecution must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. With three adults in the home, they claimed, it would be impossible to prove that PJ was responsible for Keaton’s death.
The first witness on the stand was Dr. Stewart Godwin of UHC (United Hospital Center), who told the court that Keaton was brought to the hospital unresponsive, at which time he was placed on a ventilator and taken for a CT scan. Dr. Godwin detailed Keaton’s various injuries, and he also testified that there was no way Keaton could have self-inflicted the injury to his genitals.
When he spoke with two women in the emergency room, Dr. Godwin testified, they told him that Keaton was feeling unwell that morning and, after a nap, never woke up. The hospital, he said, contacted Child Protective Services, as well as Healthnet, because specialists rather than regular EMTs were required to transport Keaton to Ruby.
Dr. Godwin testified on cross-examination by the defense that the CT scan also showed a blood clot in Keaton’s lungs, and he said the injuries to Keaton’s brain, based on the degree of swelling, appeared to have been caused several hours before.
On redirect, the prosecution asked if Dr. Godwin’s opinion was that Keaton’s injuries were caused by child abuse, and he replied that it was, adding that Keaton’s was the worst case of child abuse he had ever seen.
Tuesday, March 2
The first witness on the stand on Tuesday was the digital forensic analyst from the West Virginia State Police who had extracted the data from the three defendants’ cell phones, as well as three tablets. On the stand, she read aloud dozens of text threads between PJ and his wife, Chastity, many of which discussed hiding their nephew’s injuries. One message from Chasity to PJ read, “I’m going to put make up on it to hide it.”
Next on the stand was Dr. Casey McCluskey of the WCU Medicine Children’s Hospital Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, who said that when Keaton arrived at Ruby, his brain injury was too severe to be helped by surgical intervention, so she and her staff focused instead on what they could do, which was to stabilize him. She, too, told the court that Keaton’s was one of the worst cases of child abuse she had ever encountered, describing the bruises all over his body and face, his two black eyes, and the laceration to his penis, in addition to his low heart rate and low blood pressure.
During Dr. McCluskey’s testimony, the jury was shown photos of Keaton that a nurse took after his vital signs had been stabilized and he had been intubated, at which point, the doctor testified, she gathered Michelle and Chasity into a conference room to obtain Keaton’s health history and ask them about his current state. Michelle asked if CPS was going to take her grandson, and the doctor said, “Yes.” Chastity explained to the doctor that Keaton woke up that morning with a headache bad enough that he did not eat breakfast or go outside to play with his cousins, opting instead to take a nap. Michelle told the doctor that when she attempted to rouse Keaton later on, he was unresponsive, so they brought him to UHC.
Regarding Keaton’s injuries, Dr. McCluskey said, the women told her that Keaton had several behavioral disorders, bruised easily, and self-harmed by hitting himself with a toy hammer. They claimed that Keaton’s black eyes were caused when he repeatedly walked into doorknobs while sleepwalking. They also explained that bruises on Keaton’s back had been caused when he tripped over the family dog and fell down the stairs. If you’re familiar with Keaton’s case, you may remember that the same excuse was used to explain the bruises evident in photos taken at Keaton’s birthday party just weeks before his death.
The far-fetched story the doctor heard when she asked about the cut on Keaton’s genitals is beyond unbelievable. Michelle told the doctor that Keaton had a habit of digging his finger into his own penis and that she told him if he didn’t stop, she would cut it off. Later, Michelle claimed, she noticed her grandson had taken a knife to himself, causing the 4 cm laceration. The doctor stated unequivocally on the stand that Keaton’s injuries were not self-inflicted but instead caused by someone else inflicting non-accidental trauma on him. Children his age, she testified, do not cut themselves, especially in very sensitive areas like the genitals.
According to Dr. McCluskey, Keaton’s vital signs took a drastic turn overnight due to the severe swelling of his brain, which she and another doctor believed was causing his brain to be crushed against his skull, causing brain death. Ruby policy requires two separate doctors to test for brain death at least twelve hours apart; the two tests took place on March 19 and March 20, at which point Keaton was declared brain dead.
Keaton’s organs were donated to save other children, the doctor stated, and when the little guy was wheeled to the operating room, hospital staff lined the hallway to honor him.
Wednesday, March 3
During her closing argument, Assistant Prosecutor Gina Snuffer described the myriad injuries Keaton suffered, adding, “These are the most wicked and depraved acts one can commit.”
The defense did not present any witnesses, and clearly, the evidence, including text message containing quite a bit of “harsh language” from PJ, spoke for itself.
I love this quote from WV News: “Assistant Prosecutor Gina Snuffer and Prosecutor Rachel Romano gave a masterclass on knowing the strength of their case and then not overplaying it.
“Instead, they opted for a precise and, in the context of a homicide trial, rapid presentation that revolved around photos showing the brutal abuse suffered by Keaton. They then wrapped up with a photo from what appeared to be a happier time earlier in the boy’s life.”
Jason Glass, during his closing argument, told the jury that the state had failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, relying on circumstantial evidence and never proving who inflicted Keaton’s fatal injury.
The jury deliberated for a mere 25 minutes before returning with a guilty verdict, convicting Peter James Wodzinski Jr. of allowing either his wife or his mother-in-law cause the death of his nephew via brutal blunt force blows to the head.
This conviction could net PJ a sentence of life in prison with eligibility for parole as early as March of 2035, although parole is certainly not guaranteed and will depend on the opinion of the parole board at that time.
PJ’s sentencing has not yet been scheduled; I would imagine that won’t take place until after Chasity and Michelle have both been tried.
Chastity’s trial is scheduled to start on March 29; Michelle’s will begin on April 19.
All three defendants are all being held at the North Central Regional Jail, where PJ will likely remain until he is sentenced and remanded to state prison.
Sources: WV News, WBOY