Nearly two years after 3-month-old Dominic J. Naples III suddenly suffered seizures, lapsed into a coma and died, Fairfax County authorities have charged his home day-care provider with felony murder and child neglect, alleging that the infant was shaken to death.
But the horror that Dominic's parents felt May 15, 2001, when they saw him lying in intensive care at Inova Fairfax Hospital has turned into outrage at a system that took 21 months before seeking an arrest.
"Here we want justice," said the baby's father, Dominic Naples Jr., "and the people who are supposed to deliver it aren't doing it."
The infant was in his second day with child-care provider Sharon M. Sundloff, 39, at her home near Lake Barcroft when he suffered the seizures. Sundloff has declined to comment, but her attorney said she had no part in Dominic's death. "It's a very sad event, and we have a great deal of sympathy for the family's loss, but she had no responsibility for it," attorney Marvin Miller said. Sundloff, whose day-care license is suspended, is scheduled to make her first court appearance at an arraignment today.
The charges mark a welcome turn in the case for the child's parents, who say their contact with police, prosecutors, state medical examiners and the county department responsible for protecting children only added to their grief.
"The county and state officials have all mishandled this case from the get-go," Dominic Naples said. "They've all contributed to this -- the cops, the medical examiner, Family Services -- and they wouldn't keep us informed."
After the baby's death May 26, 2001, the state medical examiner's office in Fairfax took 11 months before ruling the event a homicide. Although doctors in the hospital's emergency room told the parents that Dominic had been severely shaken, a pathologist in the medical examiner's office initially told police he thought the baby died a natural death, investigators said.
Without a final ruling, Fairfax's Department of Family Services reinstated Sundloff's license to provide in-home day care that September, and she continued to care for children for several months. It is not clear when her license was suspended again.
Dominic's parents say Fairfax police and prosecutors lost interest in their son's case and wouldn't return phone calls -- a claim the police and prosecutors dispute. Investigators say they, too, were hamstrung by the indecisiveness of the medical examiner's office, particularly the lead pathologist on the case, Aleksandar V. Milovanovic.
"We certainly had some problems with Dr. Milovanovic changing his opinions with respect to the case and frustration in simply getting an opinion from him," said Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh. "I can well understand the family's frustration with that. It's frustrating for us, too."
Frances Field, the head medical examiner in Northern Virginia, did not return phone calls seeking comment for this article. Marcella Fierro, the state's chief medical examiner, also did not return a call.
But Milovanovic, who has since left the medical examiner's office, said that the cause of Dominic's death was not immediately apparent and that the delay in a ruling resulted from conflicting opinions from two neuropathologists he consulted. One said abnormalities in the baby's brain were the cause; the other blamed head trauma from shaking.
After further testing, Milovanovic said, he settled on head trauma and ruled the death, 11 months earlier, a homicide.
The baby's parents, meanwhile, had begun to familiarize themselves with shaken baby syndrome. Karen Coleman, a spokeswoman for the Utah-based National Center for Shaken Baby Syndrome, said awareness of the syndrome as a cause of serious, sometimes fatal, infant trauma has increased in recent years.
Improved technology, she said, has allowed doctors to diagnose more cases, though statistics on how often babies are badly shaken are scarce. Coleman said one study by a doctor in Atlanta found 1,200 to 1,600 cases annually in the United States, with 300 to 500 deaths.
Homicide investigators say the cause of infant deaths is rarely obvious immediately. Fairfax police Lt. Bruce Guth, who heads the county's homicide division, said Dominic's case "didn't fall through the cracks. These cases are just not that clear-cut."
But that wasn't the impression the baby's parents got from doctors at Inova Fairfax Hospital on May 15, 2001. When Heather Naples, 32, dropped her son off at day care that morning, he appeared healthy, she said, but Sundloff called her at 1:50 that afternoon to say Dominic was headed to the hospital after experiencing seizures.
At the hospital, three doctors eventually met with the anxious parents. "They told us he had been severely shaken, and it's called shaken baby syndrome," said Dominic Naples, 45. "They said they knew it because of what they could see behind the eyes. They knew what it was."
The parents said they were told that Dominic, their second child, had a one-third chance of surviving fine, a one-third chance of being brain-damaged and a one-third chance of dying. "They hit us hard," the father said. "I just couldn't believe it."
The infant clung to life for 11 days. Less than eight hours after his death May 26, Milovanovic did an autopsy, finding hemorrhages behind the baby's eyes and bleeding in his head, the autopsy report states.
Shaken baby syndrome "is not tough to see," said Thomas Sullivan, a pediatrician at Inova Alexandria Hospital. "It's easy to make the diagnosis."
Yet for months, the medical examiner reached no conclusion on the cause of Dominic's death. What's more, Sundloff's child-care license, initially suspended pending an investigation by the Department of Family Services, was restored four months later.
Cathy Froyd, director of the department's children, youth and family division, said that she could not discuss Sundloff's case directly but that her office is required by law to complete its investigation within 60 days. "We rely on the medical examiner," Froyd said. "It's very difficult to make a finding without having heard from them."
The department's Office for Children, which is responsible for inspecting and licensing in-home day-care providers, was unable last week to say whether there had been other complaints against Sundloff or when her license was granted or suspended.
In September 2001, the Department of Family Services drafted a letter saying that any complaint against Sundloff in the Naples case was unfounded. "A preponderance of the evidence indicates Dominic Naples III was not physically abused by Sharon Sundloff," the letter read.
The baby's parents did not receive the letter until January 2002. By then, Dominic Naples said, "we weren't hearing from anybody. Nobody would return any of our calls."
Both Guth and Morrogh said the family's calls were returned. "In this business, you have to be careful what you say to people before you have evidence about who committed a crime," Morrogh said. "Mr. Naples was not mistreated by us because we just flat don't mistreat victims."
The lead detective on the case left the homicide unit last winter, and Guth assigned the investigation to his "cold case" detectives, who handle older unsolved homicides.
In April, Milovanovic finally issued his ruling that Dominic died of head trauma.
Milovanovic said he had little information about the case when he performed Dominic's autopsy. He said he was open to all possible causes of death and didn't want to assume that a day-care provider would fatally injure a child. "I was not there to put somebody in jail right away," he said.
He said the first neuropathologist he consulted was adamant that the baby's death resulted from irregular blood vessels in the brain that burst. Milovanovic sought a second opinion, and that doctor was just as adamant: Dominic had been shaken to death. Getting the two opinions took seven or eight months, he said, and further testing took more time.
Last summer, cold-case detective Bob Murphy began reinterviewing witnesses. He also took the autopsy findings to a pathologist in St. Louis, who confirmed the homicide finding. The testing, reports and interviews consumed additional months.
"If it takes some time to get it right, then that's what we have to do," Guth said. "Because the alternative is to get it wrong, and that's not fair to the defendant, to the families, to anyone."