PEABODY — A Peabody man who admitted to shaking and “head-butting” his 7-week-old daughter because she would not stop crying while he was trying to play Xbox was sentenced to three to four years in state prison yesterday.
The baby suffered brain damage and may have permanent damage to her vision.
Richard Elias, 23, received the prison term, to be followed by two years of supervised probation, as a result of a plea agreement.
That agreement was negotiated after it became apparent that an important witness in the case — the infant’s mother and Elias’ wife — had dropped her divorce complaint and was no longer interested in testifying against him. In fact, Rachel Elias, 38, sat just a few feet from her husband, chatting with him, prior to the start of yesterday’s hearing and, according to court papers, has taken the baby, Isabella, to see him in jail.
Elias’ lawyer laid blame for the abuse on post-traumatic stress disorder, arising from his service in Iraq with the U.S. Army in 2007. As part of a unit that searched for mines and improvised explosive devices, Elias came upon the scene of a suicide bombing that had killed approximately 15 people, his lawyer said.
The abuse that led to two counts of assault and battery on a child causing serious injury occurred in October 2011, when Elias, 22, was home alone with the baby, prosecutor Kate MacDougall told Salem Superior Court Judge Timothy Feeley.
On Oct. 20, Rachel Elias had gone out to pick up her two older children when her husband found himself changing Isabella’s diaper. He later told investigators that he became frustrated when the infant immediately soiled her new diaper and confessed to shaking the baby and slamming her head into the table.
That shaking triggered a series of seizures in the infant, who was evaluated. But Elias said nothing about what he had done, and doctors sent the baby home, not sure what had caused the seizures.
About two weeks later, on Oct. 29, Rachel Elias went to a Halloween party, her first night out since the birth of the baby. Richard Elias stayed home with the infant, who was fussing as he drank beer and attempted to play Xbox Live with other players online.
Later that night, he called his wife and told her the baby was suffering seizures again, MacDougall told the judge.
What he didn’t tell her was that he had picked up his daughter, squeezed and shook her and then slammed his own head into hers, MacDougall said.
Rachel Elias returned home, but instead of taking the baby to the hospital, the couple waited, Rachel recording the seizures on her cellphone to show doctors later. MacDougall described the recordings as showing the infant in the throes of a seizure, her tiny hands opening and closing.
The next morning, the couple took the baby to a pediatrician, who immediately sent them to North Shore Children’s Hospital. From there, the baby was transferred to Massachusetts General Hospital with injuries that included swelling and bleeding on both sides of her brain and in her retinas. Doctors also discovered that the baby’s ribs had been broken on at least two occasions.
Richard Elias initially tried to convince investigators from the Peabody police and the Department of Children and Families that he had simply handled the infant a little roughly while bouncing her on his knee.
But confronted with additional information about the baby’s injuries, he confessed.
He told investigators that after he head-butted the infant, her skull felt “spongy,” and he became worried enough to ask his fellow Xbox players what to do. They urged him to call 911.
But he didn’t, the prosecutor said.
While Elias could have faced up to 30 years in prison, the recommendation of three to four years was based in part on his willingness to accept responsibility, as well as his underlying mental health issues, which “left him particularly ill-equipped to care for an infant child.”
More than a year and a half later, the baby has made far greater progress than anyone originally expected, MacDougall said, but is expected to suffer some degree of permanent damage to her vision.
Defense lawyer John Apruzzese, in a sentencing memorandum, included information about the baby’s condition now, including mild motor delays but no seizures for the past year.
Elias, meanwhile, has obtained assistance from the Veterans Administration, which will provide in-patient treatment for his PTSD and a substance abuse problem after he completes his prison term, Apruzzese told the judge.
It’s help that Elias, who was briefly hospitalized while still in the service, should have been — but was not — getting after his discharge in the spring of 2011, his lawyer said.
In his sentencing memorandum, Apruzzese said the family was strained by financial problems at the time of the two incidents.
Elias hadn’t worked since his discharge from the service that May, and his wife was earning less because she was working fewer hours after the birth of their child. Weeks earlier, Elias had been involved in a car accident in his wife’s car, but coverage for the damage was denied because he hadn’t been listed as a driver on the insurance policy, the lawyer wrote. They were trying to save money to fix the car and put it back on the road.
Rachel Elias declined to comment outside court yesterday.
In court papers, Apruzzese described how during visits at Middleton Jail, where Elias has been held since his arrest, the baby gives her father “high-fives” through the glass partition.
“I’m terribly sorry for my actions,” Elias told the judge yesterday, his voice breaking slightly. “I wish to become a good father and a good man.”