Injuries to the head and brain of a 2-year-old Sisseton girl who died in 2012 were likely caused by punching, jurors were told by a physician on the first day of the trial of Mario “Mike” M. Contreras.
Contreras, 35, of rural Waubay is charged with murder, voluntary manslaughter and assault resulting in serious bodily injury.
Aleeyah Cook died Jan. 12, 2012, at a Fargo, N.D., hospital. Authorities believe that abuse by Contreras, her father, caused her death.
Tuesday, jurors in a Sioux Falls courtroom were shown graphic images of injuries to the inside of Cook's head, including injuries to her brain. Dr. Victor Froloff, who conducted the autopsy on Cook, said that in his estimation, the injuries were caused by a fist or knuckles. He noted 18 internal hemorrhages all around the girl's head. Such injuries are not caused by a single fall from a chair, he said.
Froloff is the assistant medical examiner in Ramsey County in Minnesota. The office sometimes does autopsies for other counties, including some from out of state, he said.
Contreras' defense attorney, Sam Khoroosi, said during opening statements that on the morning of Jan. 9, 2012, Contreras sat his daughter at the kitchen table, gave her a banana and a cup of water and turned away to tend to another child. Then, Khoroosi said, Contreras heard a thump and turned to see his daughter on the floor. When he went to check on Cook, the girl was unresponsive, Khoroosi said.
FBI agent Robert Mertz, who interviewed Contreras on Feb. 2, testified that Contreras told him the girl also fell from a folding chair to a floor on Jan. 6, while being watched by somebody else. And, Mertz said, Contreras told him that Cook fell in the shower on Jan. 7.
Mertz said that Contreras had expressed concern about the girl having the flu in the days before Jan. 9. But Mertz also said that Contreras told him twice during the interview that Cook appeared fine on Jan. 8.
Khoroosi said that when Contreras got Cook from her mother on Jan. 4, she seemed lethargic and sickly and was vomiting. He said those symptoms could be indications that the girl was having health problems before Contreras took temporary custody of her.
Khoroosi said that after Contreras noticed Cook was unresponsive on Jan. 9, he took her to see his uncle, who lived nearby. The uncle knew CPR, but couldn't resuscitate the girl, Khoroosi said.
Mertz said Contreras told him he then drove Cook to a Sisseton hospital at speeds approaching 125 mph while simultaneously doing CPR with three fingers. A tribal police officer testified that Contreras did not call 911 or request that an ambulance meet him between Waubay and Sisseton.
Jay Miller, an assistant U.S. attorney and one of the prosecutors in the case, said that Cook was flown from Sisseton to a hospital in Fargo where she died two days later. Khoroosi said that was after family members decided to take her off life support.
A physician who conducted a Dec. 28 health screening of Cook, needed before she entered the Head Start program, testified that the girl was healthy at the time of the screening. Froloff testified that the internal injuries between Cook's scalp and brain appeared to be what he called “acute,” meaning they happened within 72 hours of his exam, which occurred Jan. 12 and 13. Contreras had custody of the girl from Jan. 4 until the time she was taken to the hospital, both sides agree.
Froloff is expected to continue testifying at 9 this morning at the federal courthouse in downtown Sioux Falls. Judge Lawrence Piersol is presiding. Tuesday, more than 30 people were listening to opening arguments and testimony. The trial is scheduled to run through Friday.
If convicted of murder, Contreras could be sentenced to life in prison. The charge has a 30-year minimum term.
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