The death of Prince McLeod Rams (Part 4)

Hera McLeod, center, mother of Prince Rams, speaks to the media outside the Prince William County courthouse last week, flanked by her parents, Mary and Gus McLeod. (Tom Jackman - The Washington Post)
Hera McLeod, center, mother of Prince Rams, speaks to the media outside the Prince William County courthouse last week, flanked by her parents, Mary and Gus McLeod. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

Note: This is the fourth and final part of this story. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here.

When Prince McLeod Rams died, Manassas City police immediately turned their attention to his father, Joaquin Rams. They still suspected Rams in the 2003 shooting death of his ex-girlfriend, Shawn Mason, and some felt he might also be responsible for the 2008 death of his mother, Alma Collins, which had been ruled a suicide.

In each case, as with Prince, there were large life insurance policies on those who died. In addition, paramedics found Prince “naked, cold and wet,” and he had a bruise on his forehead and small abrasions on his face. Rams’s lawyers said the bruise had been noted by the supervisor in charge of the custody exchange, Diane Tillery, before the boy was handed off to his father.

The police searched the house where Rams lived, with the consent of its owner, Roger Jestice, on Oct. 20, and removed several bags of evidence. They then obtained warrants for further searches Oct. 23 and Jan. 25. The October affidavit by police in support of the warrant stated that state medical examiner Constance DiAngelo believed Prince’s “death is suspicious” and that Rams’s claim of splashing cold water on the boy “does not account for the presence of water in [Prince’s] nasal passages and intestines.”

Court records show that Rams told police he had seen Prince having a seizure, splashed cold water on him and performed CPR until paramedics arrived.

Rams’s lawyer, Timothy M. Olmstead, said that Rams answered the questions of police, doctors and paramedics Oct. 20. “It remains baffling,” Olmstead said, “that the lead detective did not take the time to obtain a formal statement from Joaquin at Fairfax Hospital, as she acknowledged during a hearing in March.”

Timothy M. Olmstead, attorney for Joaquin Rams, speaks to reporters last week after Rams' preliminary hearing for murder at the Prince William County courthouse. (Tom Jackman - The Washington Post)
Timothy M. Olmstead, attorney for Joaquin Rams, speaks to reporters last week after Rams’s preliminary hearing for murder at the Prince William County courthouse. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

The defense lawyer said that once Manassas City police obtained a search warrant, “just two days after Prince’s death, where they alleged criminal activity by Joaquin, of course he refused to cooperate, on the advice of his attorney, because it was clear that they had leaped to a conclusion, absent a complete investigation.”

No formal statements were taken from Roger Jestice or his wife, Olmstead said, and they also declined to cooperate after police obtained a search warrant. Statements were taken from Joaquin Rams Jr., but Prince William prosecutors in a recent hearing declined to turn them over, saying they were not exculpatory.

Manassas City police Capt. Stephen Bamford said he could not discuss specific evidence or statements, but said he was certain of the case for murder. “We didn’t charge right away,” Bamford said. “We took some months to investigate this case, looking at all the circumstances and the evidence presented to us at the scene and at the medical examiner’s office. … We got the finding from the medical examiner’s office. All the other pieces of circumstantial investigation were completed and things began to fall into place for the big picture. We feel confident in the medical examiner’s findings and we feel confident in the investigation.”

Meanwhile, DiAngelo continued her investigation. She testified that she was told that Prince had febrile seizures and that she researched the possible impact of that. DiAngelo testified at Rams’s preliminary hearing last week that she researched “complicated febrile seizures,” and “I’ve found no report with children dying from febrile seizures.”

An online search of medical literature turned up such studies as “Death in children with febrile seizures: a population-based cohort study,” from The Lancet in 2008. This study reported “a five-fold higher risk of sudden unexpected death during the two years after a first febrile seizure,” and that “recent studies from developing countries have reported a substantial increased mortality in children with seizures during fever.”

In addition, recent studies in the journals Pediatric Neurology, Nature Clinical Practice Neurology and the Journal of Clinical Investigation all addressed the risk of death in children with febrile seizures.

In her final autopsy report on Jan. 16, DiAngelo wrote in her summary that “the decedent has a history of febrile seizures,” but did not elaborate. Elsewhere in the report, she closely examined the toddler’s brain and found no irregularities, other than that the brain was swollen, “consistent with hypoxia [lack of oxygen] and mechanical ventilation,” because Prince had been kept alive for a day.

The autopsy also reported that “There are findings consistent with drowning including thin fluid in the sinuses, airways, lungs, and intestines. When found by rescue personnel, he was naked, wet, and cold.” DiAngelo repeated these findings, as well as the swollen brain, at Rams’s preliminary hearing last week, and added that 350 milliliters of fluid, or about 12 ounces, was found in his intestines. She said she did not test the fluid. She also noted that Prince arrived at the emergency room with a temperature of 91.2, which she did not think could have occurred if the boy previously had a fever of 103 degrees. But Olmstead noted that there is no record that anyone ever took Prince’s temperature during his fever, and that his heart may not have been beating for close to 25 minutes before he arrived at the hospital.

Gregory Davis, a forensic pathologist at the University of Kentucky and an assistant state medical examiner, said drowning is a “diagnosis of exclusion. There really is no test for drowning. When all is said and done, it’s one of the prime examples where both the autopsy investigation and the forensic investigation have to come together.” He said he had seen wet lungs and dry lungs in drowning autopsies. He said sometimes the sinuses have water, but “it often contains water during life.”

Olmstead said the fluid in the sinuses and airways was likely from Prince’s sinus infection, as noted by the hospital’s emergency room doctors, and experts said fluid in the lungs and intestines is not a sole indicator of drowning. Drowning is typically caused when the upper airway closes, to prevent water from entering the lungs, and the victim suffocates from lack of oxygen. Water sometimes does flood the lungs in drowning, but DiAngelo’s autopsy did not find that. Prince also was on life support for a day and received intravenous fluids, Olmstead noted.

At the custody hearing in March for Rams’s older son, also named Joaquin Rams, Olmstead asked DiAngelo what effect the 24 hours of medical intervention on Prince would have on his sinuses. “There would be no effect,” the medical examiner said. When Olmstead asked DiAngelo at the preliminary hearing whether additional information on Prince’s seizures would change her mind, she replied, “No, this child died from drowning.”

JoaquinRams2
Joaquin Shadow Rams, charged in Prince William County with first-degree murder in the death of 15-month-old son Prince Rams. (Manassas Police)

On Jan. 25, Manassas City police obtained another search warrant for Rams’s home in Manassas, and then arrested him on a charge of first-degree murder. He has been held without bond since then.

Police and prosecutors were particularly intrigued by the fact that Rams had three life insurance policies on Prince: one for $443,000, one for $50,000 and one for $35,000. Patrick Regan, the lawyer for Prince’s mother, Hera A. McLeod, said, “Why would he take out $500,000 of life insurance …unless he was confident something untoward was going to happen to his son?” Regan added, “The life insurance on the son establishes a very powerful motive, and the autopsy establishes the means of the child’s demise.” Experts have also noted that it is rare to have such a large policy on a young child.

Olmstead said the insurance purchases were made as a savings investment, and that he was advised by his attorney in Prince’s custody case to “get his financial affairs in order. One way to demonstrate that is to set up instruments, to take care of the children through life insurance.” Rams’s custody attorney, Prudence Upton of Rockville, declined to discuss the case.

Rams sought to purchase a life insurance policy only on himself, Olmstead said. But an agent for Mass Mutual told the defense he convinced Rams to buy policies on both of his children as well. “He ended up purchasing whole life policies as a family policy,” Olmstead said, under the impression that it was a sound investment in the family’s future. That was in the fall of 2011.

McLeod pointed out that no evidence of the policies was ever presented to the judge in the custody case, and also that Rams had no proof of employment. “It doesn’t make any sense why he didn’t present that to the court,” she said.

“All I know,” McLeod added, “is I had a healthy baby and he came back to me dead.” She supports seeking the death penalty for Rams. Prince William Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney James Willett said after last week’s preliminary hearing that no decision had been made on whether or not to seek a capital murder charge. The Prince William grand jury will meet Monday.

Olmstead said he’s seen no evidence of a murder. “We haven’t talked to anybody who says that Mr. Rams was alone with Prince with any opportunity to drown,” he said. “We have been investigating this case for months and haven’t found any information which indicates he murdered his child.”

Previously:

Part 1:‘Either he’s the most unlucky person around, or he’s a serial killer.’

Part 2: Joaquin Rams’ past, and the birth of Prince McLeod Rams.

Part 3: Prince has a series of seizures, then collapses during a visit with his father.

Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998.
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Tom Jackman · May 3, 2013