Authorities are investigating whether a severe epileptic seizure could have caused a young mother in this rural Virginia town to become so disoriented that she put her 1-month-old baby into a microwave oven, killing it Thursday morning.
The death of the infant, Joseph Lewis Martinez, has stunned this tight-knit community 35 miles east of Richmond. No charges have been filed, but Commonwealth's Attorney C. Linwood Gregory and the New Kent County Sheriff's Office are conducting a criminal investigation. The state medical examiner, who said the baby had burns resembling what a microwave oven would produce, performed an autopsy Thursday but has not released a cause of death pending further tests.
Elizabeth Renee Otte, 19, the mother of the child, was taking medication for epilepsy, friends and authorities say.
Authorities would reveal little about their investigation, declining to say whether they believe Otte put the baby in the microwave. But the investigation is focusing on her. A law enforcement source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said authorities are researching whether Otte's epilepsy could have caused hallucinations and bizarre behavior.
Friends who have spoken with Otte's immediate family said she has told her family that she had a seizure and believed she was putting a bottle of milk in the microwave.
Neither Otte nor the child's father, Joseph Anthony Martinez, 18, was available for comment today. Immediate family members also declined comment.
Friends of the family say Otte and Martinez, a plumber's assistant, were living together at the home of his parents in a one-story brick rancher near Chickahominy Lake. The family told authorities that they awoke early Thursday morning to discover the baby missing.
After an exhaustive search, the baby's aunt discovered him in the microwave, where he had patches of redness and blisters, friends say.
A sheriff's deputy, called to the house at 5:43 a.m. to help search for the infant, was there when the family found the baby, who was declared dead at the scene, the New Kent County Sheriff's Office said.
Burn experts said they know of only one other case of a child being burned by a microwave. That case was not fatal.
Otte's baby was born Aug. 18. Friends of Otte's say her mood darkened and her epileptic seizures became more frequent after July 4, when her 17-year-old brother died in a fiery car crash not far from her New Kent County home.
Epilepsy is a generic term used to define a variety of seizure disorders, which are disturbances in the electrical activity of the brain. According to the Landover-based Epilepsy Foundation of America, an epileptic seizure focused on one part of the brain could lead a person to become temporarily confused and to commit unconscious acts. Symptoms can include dream states, distortion of time sense, illusions and hallucinations for up to half an hour after a seizure.
Roy C. Grzesiak, director of the National Burn Victim Foundation's forensic psychology unit, said that after suffering a severe seizure, a person can enter a state of clouded consciousness, confusion and disorientation. He said that in such a state, a person's "higher thinking processes" may not be functioning, but that they may be able to perform mundane tasks, such as dressing and undressing or going to the bathroom.
"Absolutely that could happen," Grzesiak said, referring to the possibility that someone could put a baby in a microwave oven after a seizure. "They wouldn't be microwaving their child, they would be acting in a very confused state."
A neighbor, Jeremy Hall, 20, said Otte's seizures sometimes left her confused and disoriented. "I've seen Liz have a seizure," Hall said. "She wakes up and will cook eggs on the counter."
Timberg reported from Lanexa and White from Washington.