Critical mistakes led to two-year-old’s death from beating

April 14, 2018

Dawn Patrick remembers Brayden Ferguson as a “happy-go-lucky kid. He was always smiling. He always wanted to play. He loved the water. Loved the pool. Loved the bath tub. He was a good kid.”

Today the 2-year-old’s toys decorate his grave site, along with a hand-made wreath saying “I Got Justice 4-6-18” — the date his mother’s boyfriend, Ryan “Luke” St. John, was convicted of beating him to death in February 2017.

Patrick is Brayden’s great-great-aunt. She had temporary custody of him for nine months after he was taken to the hospital in November 2015 — his body covered in bruises suggesting child abuse, according to police reports. St. John was arrested but never formally charged in the 2015 case — a case Patrick feels was mishandled by police and others responsible for keeping Brayden safe.

“I think everybody (failed him),” she said. “I think his mother did. I think Children Services did, big time. I think the police did. They didn’t do their follow-up.”

Brayden Ferguson in happier days. Photo: HANDOUT

Not protected: These 19 children died after welfare agencies returned them to their birth parents

A Dayton Daily News investigation into Brayden’s death found critical mistakes were made by Dayton Police and other agencies that may have put Brayden at grave risk.

For example:

“This case is a tragedy and one which multiple agencies had a role and responsibility to investigate and take appropriate action,” Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl said late last week. “There is currently a thorough departmental review underway of this case regarding the actions of members of the Dayton Police Department and administration, as well as supervisory oversight for such cases.”

RELATED: Man found guilty of murder in death of girlfriend’s 2-year-old

On Nov. 19, 2015, St. John was arrested after Brayden was brought to Dayton Children’s Hospital. “The child had bruising to his face, the side of his head and strangulation marks on his neck,” juvenile court records show. “The child was reported to have ‘spotty bruising’ over various parts of his body. There was a scabbed burn on his left third toe, a blister burn on the bottom of his right foot, and a scabbed burn on his left ankle. The child also had a linear abrasion on his right posterior calf, and three patterned linear scars on his left lateral thigh. The child also had multiple linear abrasions on his face.”

Although St. John was never formally charged, Children Services took steps to remove Brayden from the home, placing him with Patrick. The order, approved by Judge Nick Kuntz, states “there shall be no contact with Ryan St. John.”

But Martin regained custody in August 2016 with court-ordered supervised protection of Brayden, including mandated monthly visits by Children Services to check on his welfare. Martin “has completed all of her case plan activities, but needs to constantly use what she has learned and carefully assess situations which might present a threat to Brayden and plan responsibly for those situations,” a Children Services case worker reported on Nov. 18, 2016. She added that Martin “will need to be specially watchful from this point forward, making sure Brayden is left with safe caregivers.”

Three months after that report, Brayden was rushed to the hospital after Martin found that his lips were blue and he was not breathing. The Montgomery County Coroner’s office ruled the cause of death as a massive skull fracture at the back of his head. St. John was arrested and later indicted on various charges including murder.

RELATED: Murder trial defense witnesses didn’t hear St. John talk of prison

Jewell Good, Montgomery County Children Services administrator, said her agency is prohibited from commenting on the specifics of Brayden’s case. She did agree to an interview about Children Services general practices.

Before a mother and child are re-unified, Good said, a home study is conducted that includes a background check on everyone in the home. The agency can ask a judge to bar re-unification if it feels someone in the home poses a danger to the child, she said, but once custody is granted, the agency can’t always monitor who moves into the home or whether the parent has moved in with someone else.

If caseworkers fear someone in the home poses a risk to the child, they can ask a judge to bar that person from having contact with the child, but that order would only last as long as the protection order, Good said.

Brayden died on February 14, 2017. The protection order was due to expire the following day.

‘Not going to let Luke get away with it’

In a brief phone interview last week, Martin, criticized the handling of the 2015 case by Dayton police.

“If the detective that was the one that interrogated Luke would’ve done her (expletive) job right, we wouldn’t be in this situation,” she said before hanging up the phone. She did not respond to further efforts seeking comment.

The Montgomery County Prosecutor’s Office last week said no other investigations are ongoing involving Brayden, and that St. John was “found guilty by a jury of murdering the 2-year-old victim.”

RELATED: Mother of 2-year-old: Boyfriend said he didn’t want to go to prison

Records show Brayden’s home life was chaotic. Months after he was born his father, Darryl Ferguson, beat a man to death and is now in prison.

Caseworker notes show there was a lot of traffic in and out of the home. “The child has been cared for by any number of relatives where he could have been exposed to any number of other parties,” a caseworker wrote in November 2016. In another section, reviewing why Martin regained custody, the report says: “She completed parenting classes; she has maintained employment and housing; she has attended all of Brayden’s weekly visitation with the exception of maybe 2-3 visits; she has also attended Brayden’s therapy and other medical visits; and she has shown a willingness to protect her child.”

Brayden Ferguson loved toys including anything for the tub or pool. Police said the movie Finding Dory was playing when Brayden's mother discovered his face was blue. Photo: HANDOUT

In her interview with Dayton police after Brayden’s death in February 2017, Martin indicated she didn’t believe St. John was at fault for the 2015 incident “because he was telling her that he wouldn’t do that to (Brayden),” the detective notes show.

She had a different take on St. John after losing her son. “She advised that she is not going to let Luke get away with it,” the detective wrote.

During St. John’s trial, Martin dabbed her eyes as her 911 call to police was played in the courtroom.

She described her thinking on the morning she left her son with St. John, saying she had errands to run.

“I figured that he wanted me, so maybe I should put him in bed next to Luke and he would be OK,” she testified.

RELATED: High staff turnover, burnout puts child welfare system in crisis

Convicted felon Dustin Middleton, who said he met St. John during recreation time at the Montgomery County Jail, also testified at the trial.

Middleton said St. John told him that after Martin left the home, the boy kept crying for his mother. St. John put on a movie for Brayden, but St. John became aggravated after Brayden spit up, Middleton testified, saying the account was provided to him by St. John.

“He said the baby kept continuing to cry and that’s when he grabbed the baby by the face and slammed the baby’s head into the wall,” Middleton testified. “And then he grabbed the baby and shook the baby and told him to shut the (expletive) up and then tossed him on the ground.

“After he did that, he went out to smoke a cigarette and the baby was still laying on the ground crying. And then he came back in and after he came back in from smoking the cigarette, that’s when he realized the baby was not moving or crying.”

Asked by the prosecutor to describe St. John’s demeanor as he recounted the story in jail, Middleton said: “More of less just kind of emotionless. Just kind of talking like a normal conversation.”

The jury deliberated for about 3½ hours before convicting St. John of murder, felonious assault, involuntary manslaughter and endangering children. 

‘He denied hitting him’

A case file was first opened on Brayden after he was brought to Dayton Children’s Hospital badly bruised on Nov. 19, 2015. Police records show hospital officials called Dayton police, which launched an investigation.

RELATED: Boyfriend indicted on murder charges in 2-year-old’s death

Detective Dulaney went to the hospital and spoke with Martin and St. John, both of whom said Martin stayed the previous night at St. John’s house and that Brayden apparently fell out of his playpen, according to police records.

Martin told police Brayden had health issues and bruised easily.

Police arrested St. John and Dulaney interviewed him downtown. In that interview, he provided more details of what allegedly happened, saying he got up with Brayden during the night, changed the then 1-year-old’s diaper, fed him fruit snacks and put him back to bed.

“Luke (St. John) denied any involvement in the injuries to (Brayden),” Dulaney wrote in her report. “He denied hitting him, choking or causing any other injury.”

After 48 hours, St. John was released from the jail with no formal charges filed. Brayden spent four days in the hospital and was then placed in Patrick’s custody by the Montgomery County Juvenile Court.

Court records show Children Services had serious concerns about St. John, and moved to bar him from having contact with Brayden.

In a complaint filed in juvenile court on Dec. 9, 2015, formalizing a request for temporary custody, the agency said Dulaney “reported there are text messages between Ryan St. John and (Martin) discussing ways to cover up the child’s injuries and to not take the child to the hospital.”

It also says Brayden had a busted upper lip and that St. John had “a cut on his hand with blood on it, where it looks like he punched the child in the mouth.”

Social worker notes indicated Brayden also had a “minimally displaced skull fracture.”

RELATED: Dayton police detective disciplined for investigation involving child who later died

But police records of the 2015 case make no mention of this evidence, and records obtained by this newspaper do not indicate what exactly Dulaney or anyone else at Dayton police did in the investigation.

Dulaney was reprimanded in February 2018 for her handling of the case. She was found to have not properly filed supplemental reports and had not responded to requests for additional information from assistant Montgomery County prosecuting attorney Emily Sluk on Nov. 20, 2015, May 9, 2016, or Aug. 29, 2016.

“Until the case is closed, and St. John is sentenced, we’re not going to make any further comments,” said prosecutor’s

The prosecutor’s office also denied a request for emails between the prosecutor’s office and Dulaney during this time period, saying they are trial preparation records and attorney work product not subject to public records law.

In response to a request under Ohio public records law for police files on the 2015 case, the prosecutor’s office provided six pages of highly redacted material marked “Detective Investigatory Product.”

Those records show Dulaney on Nov. 30, 2015, logged that she opened an investigation and interviewed people. But she didn’t specify who she talked to and what anyone said in these interviews until a year later on Nov. 10, 2016 – concluding with, “This case was presented to APA Sluk. Charges were refused at this time.”

office spokesman Greg Flannagan when asked what effort was made to urge Dulaney to respond.

RELATED: Since 2009, adults with a history of abuse have killed hundreds of Ohio kids

Police Chief: ‘Supervisory protocol … is currently under review’

Dulaney’s personnel records say a December 2017 internal investigation into her handling of the 2015 case found she was “untruthful” when she stated in a report that she had completed additional investigation in the case requested by Sluk.

But she was found not guilty of that internal charge, which is a fireable offense, and instead forfeited five days of vacation pay as discipline.

Dayton police have not responded to a March 19, 2018, request from this newspaper for a copy of the special report or a March 28 request for a copy of the internal probe.

In response to emailed questions asking what a supervisor’s responsibility is when a detective doesn’t respond to a prosecutor’s request, Chief Biehl wrote: “Supervisory protocol for follow-up of cases assigned for investigation is currently under review.”

He said no other discipline has been meted out “at this time.”

Dulaney hung up on a reporter when reached before St. John’s murder trial.

RELATED: Murder trial: 2-year-old’s injuries were ‘violent and horrific’

‘Oh my God, somebody has been beating him’

Patrick, who is Martin’s great-aunt, said the abuse was obvious when she took Brayden into her home on Nov. 23, 2015.

“He had bruising all over him,” she said. “On his midsection, on his legs. He had two skull fractures. They were pretty sure he had liver damage – they were speculating that had been from being hit in the stomach. He had a burn mark on the bottom of his foot.”

“I thought, ‘Oh my God somebody has been beating him. It was apparent.”

Patrick said Martin denied any knowledge of how the boy was injured.

“She always told us she didn’t know, she didn’t know what happened,” Patrick said.

Montgomery County Juvenile Court released 25 pages of court motions and orders, however, showing the court believed St. John was responsible for the abuse.

The March 15, 2016, magistrate’s order approved by Judge Kuntz extending Patrick’s custody of Brayden says, “The child sustained physical injuries caused by the mother’s paramour and the mother failed to appropriately address the child’s medical needs.”

The order also says: “There shall be no contact with Ryan St John.”

But Martin maintained her relationship with St. John — and at some point became impregnated by him.

“I found out about it and I told the caseworker, ‘she’s pregnant. He’s the father. If she’s not seeing him and she’s not supposed to have any contact with him, how did she end up pregnant?” Patrick asked. “And the caseworker would look at me and say, ‘Well, she doesn’t look pregnant to me,’ ” she said.

‘Kelsie is still seeing offender’

Children Services refused to release any records in the case. But copies of caseworker notes provided by Patrick from face-to-face visits made to her home in January and March 2016 indicate that the agency knew Martin was still seeing St. John.

“Report that Kelsie is still seeing offender,” a Jan. 7, 2016, caseworker note says.

Patrick said she specifically asked caseworkers to make sure St. John was staying away from Brayden.

“I knew for a fact Kelsie was still seeing Luke, that she was currently pregnant and I said I know this is bad, something is going to happen to him,” Patrick said. “They made it clear to me she wasn’t supposed to be in contact with him.”

Martin gave birth to St. John’s son — named after his father — on Nov. 3, 2016, according to a Children Services report filed later that month.

The child is currently in foster care, according to Bryan St. John, Luke’s father.

Bryan St. John said if his son indeed killed Brayden, then both Martin and Children Services should be held to task for not preventing it.

“Honestly, as much as I hate to say it, if my son did this then she allowed it because she was warned by family, she was warned by Children Services, she was warned by everybody to keep Luke away,” he said. “And if she would’ve kept Luke away, you’d have no story.”

He said he was in the home with his son when a caseworker showed up one day. 

“I was sitting there when (the caseworker) came by to do a regular visit and Luke was sitting on the couch,” he said. “She said, ‘Hi Luke, bye Luke.’”

Michelle Centanni, who founded the Justice For Brayden Ferguson Facebook page, is pleased Luke St. John was convicted but says he never should have been allowed to be near the child.

“All I can say is this situation is a prime example of the importance of complying with a protective order,” she said.

Who failed Brayden?

On the morning of Feb. 13, 2017, Kelsie arrived back home around 10 a.m., she testified in St. John’s trial. She said she “peeked” in on Brayden twice but didn’t realize he was turning blue until close to 1 p.m. That’s when she called 911.

Martin went to the hospital with her son while police went looking for St. John. They found him in a relative’s apartment around 2 a.m. the following morning.

Despite surgery to try to relieve the pressure on his brain, Brayden was declared brain dead by medical professionals.

Martin and Brayden’s father, Darryl Ferguson, made the decision to let Brayden go, according to trial testimony.

Bryan St. John, whose son will be sentenced for Brayden’s death on May 1, blames a lot of people for what happened, including himself.

“I think the people that were living with Brayden failed him,” he said. “I think the people that did not enforce the protective order failed him. And I think even myself, knowing there was a protective order in place, failed Brayden.”