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Betsy Simon, Forum News Service, Published May 21 2013

Parents plead not guilty to charges of child abuse

DICKINSON, N.D. - Parents of an infant who died less than two years ago with illegal drugs in its system pleaded not guilty to child abuse charges Monday at a preliminary hearing in Southwest District Court in Dickinson.

Andrue Saunders and his ex-wife, Theresa Saunders, both born in 1989, are charged with Class C felony abuse or neglect of a child. The couple also has a second child.

The criminal complaint states the defendants consumed illegal drugs while the boy, who was referred to in court as “J,” was in their Dickinson home. He was less than a year old when he died Oct. 5, 2011.

An autopsy found traces of cocaine and methamphetamine in the child’s body, the complaint said.

Sgt. Kylan Klauzer with the Dickinson Police Department said at the hearing that officers were called to a Dickinson home on the morning of Oct. 5, 2011, regarding a 7-month-old child who was not breathing.

Klauzer said officers reportedly found the child “ashy and cold” and transported it to the hospital, where the infant was pronounced dead upon arrival.

Klauzer was requested to the scene by the DPD shift sergeant, he said.

Klauzer said he spoke initially with Theresa Saunders, who said she woke up that morning and couldn’t find the child, so she woke up Andrue Sanders, who thought the child was at his mother’s house.

Klauzer said Theresa Saunders said she went upstairs to the bedroom and found the child on its side, between the mattress and the wall, facing the wall.

“I requested that (Theresa Saunders) take a drug screen at the hospital,” Klauzer said, adding no drugs were found in Theresa Saunders’ system and she confirmed that she was not breastfeeding the child.

Klauzer said he also spoke with the doctor who performed the child’s autopsy and the doctor ruled the cause of death to be asphyxia or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The autopsy was entered into evidence, but was sealed by the court because “J” was a minor.

While he believed the drugs in the child’s system contributed to the child’s death, Klauzer said the doctor would not go as far as to say it was the cause of death, but said the drugs would have had to have gotten into the child’s system a short time before it died.

Stark County Assistant State’s Attorney Rhonda Ehlis asked if Andrue Saunders was tested for drugs, and Klauzer said he did not feel that it was necessary at that time.

Klauzer did have additional contact with Andrue Saunders on May 17, 2012, after he was arrested for drug paraphernalia and got a better idea of Andrue Saunders’ actions prior to the child’s death.

Andrue Saunders said that Theresa Saunders had dropped the children off at his mother’s house that day and he picked up the children.

“He denied use of cocaine in that timeframe,” Klauzer said. “He stated that a lot of people used drugs around the house prior to the baby’s death.”

In an interview with one person who Andrue Saunders said had been in the house, Klauzer said the man told him that he and Andrue Saunders were trying to sell meth.

In a second interview with Andrue Saunders, Klauzer said Andrue Saunders said he was hustling drugs to provide for his family.

“The day before (the child’s) death, he said he was up at 6 a.m. smoking meth and went out to try and sell drugs,” Klauzer said. “He said he kept the baby and their other son that afternoon and later said he left them at their grandmother’s house and picked them up later.”

Klauzer said Andrue Saunders, who initially said he never smoked illegal drugs in front of his children, later talked about times the children would enter the room where drugs were being consumed in their house and the children had to be removed from the room.

“I asked him if he thought traces of drugs might have been on his hands or clothes and Andrue said it could be possible,” Klauzer said.

When Andrue Saunders was arrested on the child abuse charges, cocaine was found on him, Klauzer said.

Sometime after the child’s death Klauzer said Theresa Saunders left the North Dakota and moved to Las Vegas, where Klauzer asked police there to conduct an interview with her.

Klauzer said she admitted to the police in Las Vegas that she saw drugs and drug paraphernalia around the house, and she believed the drugs were in the baby’s system because of Andrue Saunders.

“She admitted that she should not have stayed with the children in the house,” Klauzer said. “But she said she did not have the financial resources to remove herself.”

Theresa Saunders’ attorney, Kent Morrow, asked if drug paraphernalia was found in the home, and Klauzer said no. He also said the couple’s other child was not drug tested.

Ehlis explained that Theresa Saunders was charged with child abuse or neglect for not providing suitable living conditions for her son.

“She let her child in a house where illegal drugs were consumed,” Ehlis said. “She failed to provide suitable living conditions for her child.”

With Andrue Saunders, Ehlis said the charge is warranted because he admitted to smoking and possessing illegal substances in the home around the children.

“He admitted that if the kids came in the room, they were taken out and there were traces of drugs in the child’s system,” Ehlis said. “He consumed drugs in the home and allowed others to consume drugs in the home, and drugs were a contributing factor of the child’s death.”