Last November, authorities reported that 16-month-old Michele Heasley had died after being found comatose at a Lomita day-care home.
In the two weeks that followed the girl’s death, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department made some troubling announcements:
The toddler had been strangled. She also had been sexually assaulted. Two other children who had been cared for at the home showed physical symptoms of sexual molestation.
The case arrived in Torrance Superior Court this week, four months after the girl’s death, with the arraignment of the home’s operators--Robert and Linda Zieger--and their 19-year-old daughter, Laura. All three pleaded not guilty to charges of felony child endangerment and of violating the state Health and Safety Code by operating without a license.
They are free on $3,000 bail each. The Ziegers have been ordered by the state Department of Social Services to discontinue operation of their day-care center.
The maximum penalty on the charges is six years in prison.
Investigators said they still have not determined exactly what happened at the Zieger home on West 262nd Street.
“Any time you have a young child die and you can’t show the cause of death, it’s frustrating,” said Sheriff’s Lt. Gil Leslie, who is supervising the investigation. “We don’t have the whole truth yet.”
Deputy Public Defender Mike Clark, who represents Robert Zieger, sees the 4-month delay in filing criminal charges differently. Clark said it shows the prosecution’s case is weak.
The scope of the case changed last month when the county coroner’s office made a second examination for sexual abuse and found that Michele Heasley’s body showed “no evidence of recent or old trauma.”
Deputy Dist. Atty. Rod Leonard said the supplementary autopsy shows that the initial conclusion that the girl was sexually assaulted was incorrect. That aspect of the investigation has been closed, he said.
But it was the sexual abuse allegation that led to the medical examinations of 12 other children cared for by the Ziegers, and the finding that two girls under the age of 2 had been molested, authorities said. Those findings are still valid, Leonard said.
An official, who asked not to be named, said the Sheriff’s Child Abuse Unit is still trying to determine who molested the two girls and whether the abuse occurred at the day-care home.
Meanwhile, homicide detectives said they are still working on the Heasley case. “We are investigating it as a murder until it is proven differently,” said Lt. Leslie.
The autopsy showed that the girl died of “ligature” strangulation after a rope or cord was wrapped around her neck two or three times.
The only other potential witness in the room with the Heasley girl was another infant, Leonard said.
He said the child endangerment charge “most accurately reflects the offense itself.”
“This is grossly negligent conduct,” Leonard said. “You expect someone to watch your child when you take them there, not to put them in another room where they can . . . strangle as a result.”
He said the Ziegers have hampered the investigation by first presenting contradictory accounts of the girl’s death and then by refusing to speak to investigators.
According to investigators’ reports, Laura Zieger said she left the Heasley girl napping at 1:30 p.m. on Nov. 14 in an upstairs bedroom. Laura said that when she returned an hour later, the girl was not breathing.
Robert Zieger, 48, and Linda Zieger, 47, confirmed that account.
But children at the home, including the Ziegers’ 12-year-old daughter, said the infant was actually found in a downstairs bedroom, a report said.
The children also told investigators that the Ziegers sometimes used “harness devices” to tether children to walls, a report said.
Detectives who searched the house found neither harnesses nor the “cord-type of material” that the coroner said was used to strangle the girl.