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Father’s First Trial to Begin; Two Babies’ Deaths Initially Tied to SIDS

Garrett Eldred Wilson, the Maryland father accused of smothering two of his children more than a decade ago for $190,000 in life insurance, goes on trial today in a Rockville courtroom in the 1987 death of his 5-month-old son.

The trial is the latest in a series of murder prosecutions across the country arising from infant deaths that originally had been attributed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

In February, Dina Abdellhaq, a 34-year-old addicted gambler deeply in debt, was convicted of killing her 23-day-old daughter, Tara, for a $200,000 life insurance policy. In that Illinois case, defense attorneys argued that Tara died of SIDS, in much the same way that her sister, Lena, just 18 days old, died in 1994.

And in one of the most publicized cases, Marie Noe, a 70-year-old Pennsylvania woman, pleaded guilty last month to second-degree murder in the suffocation deaths of eight of her children–who ranged in age from 13 days to 14 months–from 1949 to 1967.

Although the mother of little Garrett Michael Wilson told friends at the time that she suspected her husband of killing the boy, she did not notify authorities until 1994. Police then investigated the child’s death for four years before Garrett Eldred Wilson was charged.

Wilson, 43, is charged with first-degree murder in the Aug. 22, 1987, smothering death of his 5-month-old son, allegedly to collect a total of $150,000 in insurance on the child. He will be tried Sept. 10 in Prince George’s County on a charge of first-degree murder in the smothering death of his infant daughter, Brandi Jean, in 1981, allegedly to collect $40,000 in insurance money.

The deaths of both children originally were attributed to SIDS. Last year, Maryland’s medical examiner changed the cause of deaths for both children to smothering and ruled that the manner of Garrett Michael’s death was homicide. He changed Brandi Jean’s manner of death from natural to undetermined causes.

The prosecution is expected to rely on recent studies that show the chances that two children in the same family will die of SIDS are 1 in 4 million.

And in an unusual move, Circuit Court Judge Ann S. Harrington will permit the jury deciding the case against Garrett Eldred Wilson in Garrett Michael’s death to hear evidence about how Brandi Jean died. Jurors will also be permitted to question witnesses directly.

Wilson’s trial is projected to last four weeks and will mark the first time that Montgomery County State’s Attorney Douglas F. Gansler has prosecuted a case since he was elected last year and the first time in 10 years that the county’s top prosecutor has personally tried a case.

Gansler’s star witness likely will be Linda Norton, a Dallas-based forensic specialist widely considered one of the nation’s leading experts on SIDS. Norton is a former Dallas County, Tex., medical examiner and expert in pediatric pathology who played a key role in the case of Stephen VanDerSluys, an Upstate New York sex offender accused of killing his three young children in 1977 and 1979. VanDerSluys later confessed to killing two of them. His motive: a set of insurance policies worth $40,000.

In contrast to Gansler, who has notified the court that he plans to call as many as 29 witnesses, including four forensic experts and the mothers of both deceased children, Wilson’s attorney,Barry Helfand, has told the court that his client does not have the money to pay for expert witnesses. And Harrington has ruled that the state will not pay for experts for Wilson.

Helfand’s defense is likely to hinge on raising doubts about the autopsies for both children. “Suppose an autopsy wasn’t done correctly, and the person doing it missed the real cause of death,” Helfand said. “If they missed that, we’d never be charged with murder.”

Some critics have questioned why Gansler chose to prosecute such a high-profile case.

“He’s certainly upped the publicity ante early on,” said Paul Kemp, an attorney who represented Mike Tyson. “On its face, the facts are horrific. It’s infanticide for money. . . . How much worse can it be? It’s positively Shakespearean.”

Asked if he is trying to grab the spotlight by prosecuting the case, Gansler said: “That’s ludicrous. If I were, I’d take a case that’s a slam-dunk winner. This case isn’t it. It’s a case with real social value, because you’re dealing with an evolving science.”

According to charging documents filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court, Garrett Eldred Wilson purchased a $50,000 life insurance policy on his son Garrett Michael on March 27, 1987, five days after he was born. The father was the primary beneficiary, and Mary “Missy” Anastasi, the boy’s mother and Wilson’s wife at the time, was the contingent beneficiary.

Two weeks later, Wilson purchased another policy on his son’s life, this one for $100,000, according to the charging documents.

Anastasi told Montgomery County investigators that she was always uncomfortable with the idea of buying life insurance on the baby and threw the policy in the closet of the couple’s Germantown home, according to court records.

Anastasi said she knew that Brandi Jean–Wilson’s child from a previous marriage–had died of SIDS in 1981 and sought genetic counseling during her pregnancy, fearing that her child, too, might succumb to SIDS.

She told police and prosecutors that she so feared the prospect of her child dying and was so suspicious of Wilson that in early August 1987, during a day at the beach, she told him that they “had made it”–meaning that because baby Garrett was 5 months old, he had reached an age when death from SIDS was unlikely.

In the predawn hours of Aug. 22, when Anastasi and Wilson heard baby Garrett crying from his crib in a nearby room, it was Wilson who for the first time at night rose to feed him, according to court records. Anastasi later told investigators that her husband was “distant, estranged” from his son because he “didn’t want to get attached to the baby until he was sure” he would live.

Through a baby monitor, Anastasi told investigators, she heard Wilson rocking his son in a chair, then what sounded like his putting the baby to rest in his crib. Suddenly, Anastasi has said, she heard a sigh.

Anastasi went downstairs to feed the cats. Upon returning the second floor, she has told investigators, she noticed that Wilson was no longer in the baby’s room and found the baby lying in the crib on his stomach.

She said she covered the baby with a blanket, but that something didn’t feel right. She put her hand on the baby’s mouth and felt foam; her son was not breathing.

She picked up the baby, and he was limp, she told investigators. She ran into the bedroom and demanded of her husband, “What did you do to him?” She said Wilson was pale.

Frantic, Anastasi told investigators she lay the infant on her bed and dialed 911. He was taken by ambulance to Shady Grove Adventist Hospital, where he was pronounced dead less than two hours later.

According to court records, Anastasi knew only about $10,000 of the life insurance policy; Wilson received $150,000 from the two policies.

In November 1990, plagued by credit card debt, the couple filed for bankruptcy and almost lost their home. In 1993, Anastasi learned that Wilson secretly filed for divorce in Florida, had remarried and had another child.

She waited until 1994, after following Wilson to several states and watching their marriage crumble, to alert police of her long-held suspicion. Police launched an investigation and presented their findings to Maryland Medical Examiner John Smialek, who later reclassified the causes and manner of deaths of the two children.

Client Reviews
"I have watched Mr. Helfand in trial and in negotiations. He is remarkable. Mr. Helfand is extremely knowledgeable in the law, and even more knowledgeable in the ways to deal with people." Afshin Pishevar, Criminal Defense Attorney in Rockville, MD
"I strongly endorse this lawyer. I have known Mr. Helfand for many years. We have worked together on cases and represented conflicting parties. I have watched Mr. Helfand in trial and in negotiations. He is remarkable." David Felsen, Criminal Defense Attorney in Rockville, MD
"It’s one of the biggest cases that’s been tried in Montgomery County in a long time,” said Steve VanGrack, a Rockville lawyer considering a Democratic bid for state’s attorney." Washington Post