AUGUSTA – A Wiscasset woman has been found guilty of murder in the December 2017 killing of 4-year-old Kendall Chick, whose case highlighted problems in Maine’s child protection system and spurred calls for reforms that continue today.

Superior Court Justice William Stokes ruled Tuesday at the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta that Shawna Gatto, 44, acted with depraved indifference in causing the death of Chick, the paternal granddaughter of Gatto’s fiancé, Stephen Hood. The girl had been removed from her mother’s care by the state before her 2nd birthday and had been living with Gatto and Hood for much of her short life.

Kendall Chick died with multiple injuries.

Stokes spent nearly an hour going through the facts of the case before delivering his verdict. He said that if Kendall was not the victim of depraved indifference, he couldn’t imagine any case meeting that definition.

“The physical abuse suffered by Kendall Chick, when viewed objectively and in the totality of all the circumstances, can only be described as outrageous, revolting, shocking and brutal,” Stokes said.

Gatto showed little emotion before she was led out of the courtroom. Her sentencing was tentatively scheduled for June 25. She faces 25 years to life in prison.

Philip Cohen, one of her attorneys, said Gatto was disappointed with the decision and they would consider their options on appeal.

Asked whether she felt remorse, Cohen said, “She’s upset by what happened, I’ll leave it at that.”

Assistant Attorney General John Alsop, one of two prosecutors for the state, said he was pleased with the verdict and called it justice for Kendall.

“I think the facts demanded that result,” Alsop said. “These cases are always difficult because child abuse is the sort of thing that happens in very private situations.

“It’s a very serious case and we’ll be asking for a very significant sentence,” he added.

Gatto’s trial spanned 5 days in early April. She waived her constitutional right to a jury, putting her fate in Stokes’ hands.

During the trial, prosecutors Alsop and his co-counsel, Donald Macomber, portrayed Gatto as a woman who was frustrated about being the primary caretaker for three young kids at this stage in her life, after her own children were grown. In addition to Kendall, Gatto also regularly cared for two of her grandchildren while Hood worked.

Kendall died from blunt force trauma to the abdomen, which lacerated her pancreas and caused internal bleeding, but she suffered numerous other injuries, including head injuries, prior to that. Maine’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Mark Flomenbaum, testified at the trial that the injuries were consistent with child abuse.

Shawna Gatto wipes tears as she sits with attorneys Jeremy Pratt, left, and Philip Cohen, right, at the Capital Judicial Center, where she was found guilty of murder for the December 2017 killing of 4-year-old Kendall Chick. Press Herald photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

He documented 15 to 20 distinct injuries to her head, face and neck, as well as other significant bruises on her body. Many of those were shown in photographs at trial. Some were so graphic that at one point the medical examiner even asked the prosecution to take one down after it had been on display for many minutes.

Flomenbaum testified at length about recent trauma to Kendall’s abdomen – which occurred from 1 to 12 hours before death but closer to the shorter end in his opinion – that was so forceful it lacerated her pancreas and caused internal bleeding. He said that injury seemed more consistent with hard or prolonged squeezing than a blow or a fall.

“She had been under stress for a long time, we’re talking weeks or months,” he said.

Stokes also agreed with prosecutors that Gatto never had good explanations for Kendall’s injuries and that they always seemed to happen when no one else was around. He also said there was ample physical evidence inside the home – blood spatter and stains, as well as a head-sized defect in the drywall near the girl’s bed – that her injuries were not accidental but inflicted.

Gatto declined to take the stand in her own defense, but several witnesses disputed the state’s characterization of her, including her former husband, her former stepson, a one-time neighbor and her own son. Each testified that they never saw Gatto physically discipline Kendall and that she was loving toward the girl.

Gatto’s attorneys, Cohen and Jeremy Pratt, offered Hood as an alternative suspect. Hood, who testified for the prosecution, acknowledged that he would get frustrated but said he only struck Kendall once, with a belt, and felt terrible after.

Gatto told police that the girl was a “drug baby” and was accident-prone. Hood said the same when he was called as a state witness, although he also acknowledged that he had wondered whether Gatto could have been abusing the girl.

That uncertainty came through in a phone call between Gatto, who was in jail, and Hood a few weeks after her arrest. The phone call was played in its entirety during day three of the trial.

“We are not supposed to be doing this right now. I thought we were a happy home, with happy children,” Hood said.

“I know. Do you think this is easy for me,” Gatto replied.

“No, I think this is hell for you.”

“Then why are you getting mad at me?”

“I don’t know what to say,” Hood said, clearly frustrated.

“What do you mean?”

“We’re not getting any answers.”

“I know that,” Gatto said, trying to stay calm.

“I want to know what killed my little girl.”

“Yes, I know that.”

During the trial, both Gatto in her interview with detectives and Hood on the witness stand, acknowledged that they considered taking Kendall to the doctor weeks before she died, but were concerned about how she looked. Stokes, the judge, said that explanation “strained credulity.”

“She knew it looked like child abuse because it was child abuse,” he said.

Kendall Chick’s death, followed shortly after by the death of another girl, 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in Stockton Springs, prompted investigations into Maine’s broken child-protection system. Some reforms have followed, and more are under consideration.

One major disclosure came when Hood said from the witness stand that Maine Department of Health and Human Services caseworkers only checked on Kendall once in the three years she was living with him and Gatto.

It was also revealed at trial that both Gatto and Hood suffered from opioid use disorder and were taking Suboxone, which was noteworthy because Kendall was removed from her parents’ care because of their struggles with addiction.

There was evidence presented at trial that neither Gatto nor Hood wanted Kendall. A few days before her death, Hood sent a text message that read, “Call DHHS and see what they say. If they think she needs special care, fine. Take her.”

Hood also sent another message to Gatto that read: “I don’t know what to do, get rid of her? How? And if we did that, we’d have to carry the guilt.”

Cohen, Gatto’s attorney, doesn’t think the state should be let off the hook for its role in Kendall’s death.

“I think she was partially (the state’s) responsibility,” he said. “I think, too, that Stephen Hood would bear some responsibility here because even if the judge is correct in determining that he didn’t inflict any of the injuries, he certainly knew what was going on in the home.”

Hood sat in the courtroom as Stokes read the verdict. He was fidgety and visibly uncomfortable as the justice went through the evidence in painstaking detail. He declined to comment as he left the courthouse.

Alsop, the prosecutor, said the state will consider whether to charge Hood but had not arrived at a decision.

As for whether or not the state bears responsibility, Alsop and Macomber each said that it was regrettable how little DHHS evidently checked on Kendall after she was removed from her mother’s care and placed with Hood and Gatto.

But Macomber said that lapse in oversight does not excuse Gatto’s conduct.

Sen. Bill Diamond, a Democrat from Windham who sat in on much of the trial and is working on legislation to improve child protection, said Tuesday’s verdict is just the first step toward accountability.

“We also have a responsibility to look at the larger issues here. For example, Kendall’s grandfather, Stephen Hood, testified under oath that DHHS only checked in on Kendall one time in three years,” he said in a statement. “That is unacceptable – one more visit could have saved her life.

“Since Logan Marr (another victim of child abuse) died in 2001, through four gubernatorial administrations, we’ve had seven commissioners of DHHS, and kids are still dying. We need action from a number of different entities to address this issue, not just DHHS, but the courts, the legislature and law enforcement. We have to act now.”

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