The siblings of a 5-year-old girl who was killed last week when she became trapped inside a commercial washing machine have been placed in foster care while investigators determine whether neglect played a role her death, their father said Friday.
Standing outside his home, William Wagoner said the county's social services department ordered the children into the temporary custody of other family members while police continue their investigation into the death of his daughter, Rebecca "Hope" Wagoner.
"They have no reason to keep my children from me," said Wagoner, his voice breaking with sobs. "It's because I'm standing by my wife."
His wife, Rebecca Billings Wagoner, has told police that she took her daughter and 14-year-old son to the Village Laundry in Chilhowie on June 17 so she could use a pay phone. At some point, Rebecca Wagoner stepped outside. When she returned to the laundry, she found her daughter tumbling inside the locked, water-filled washer. There was no visible electrical cord to pull or emergency shut-off, so she used a rock from the parking lot outside to break the washer's small glass door.
Hope was pronounced dead an hour later.
Police in the tiny mountain town just shy of the Tennessee and West Virginia borders said they are still trying to determine how the girl got inside the washer and how it turned on. The washer requires 11 quarters to operate and will not accept coins until the heavy door is snapped shut. Investigators are examining a range of possibilities from the most innocent -- that Hope climbed into the washer by herself, slamming the door closed, and somehow the machine started -- to the malicious death of Hope at the hands of her half brother.
Wagoner said he spent the morning in court addressing the foster-care arrangement. By early afternoon, he was agitated. Standing in white stocking feet on his front lawn, Wagoner accused the state of going too far by taking his children, who he said have never been abused and were never disrespectful to one another.
"They've stepped on the wrong snake this time," he said.
Wagoner insisted that there was no foul play on the part of his stepson, calling whatever may have transpired between Hope and her brother "horseplay."
Although he said he did not know how the 30-pound girl got inside the washer, he blamed a faulty machine for starting when the door was closed.
Wagoner said his stepson didn't have any money. "All the change they had between them was 50 cents, and it was Hope's," he said.
Messages left with the Smyth County's commonwealth's attorney's office and social services department were not returned. The couple has five children between them; it was not clear how many were placed in foster care.
Police said engineers with Milnor, the company that manufactures the machine, have been running tests to see if the washer could have been closed from the inside or malfunctioned.
The machine is meant for heavy loads of laundry and spins at high speeds -- 451 rotations per minute -- during the spin cycle to extract water from the wash. Police have said the wash cycle appeared to be nearly complete before Hope could be pried from the washer by her mother.
A preliminary finding by the medical examiner suggests that Hope died of asphyxiation.
Adorned with a jukebox, a video game machine and soda and candy machines, the Village Laundry was not an uncommon place to find children, with or without their parents, residents say.
Today, the 35-pound-load Milnor Automatic Washer-Extractor is gone from its spot inside the coin-op, impounded by police for further investigation, but an identical machine sits just feet from a sign warning "Use Washers at your own risk."
Residents of Chilhowie, a tight-knit community of 2,000, remain supportive of the family, crowding the memorial service held for Hope on Wednesday and bringing silk flowers and other tokens to the laundry in her honor.
Still, many observers have said that the parents should have been paying closer attention to their child's whereabouts.
"Where was the mama?" spat Barbara Davis, 58, who was in town from Granite Quarry, N.C., visiting her mother. "She's the one who needs to be charged."
Chilhowie resident Alan Keesee isn't so sure anyone should be held accountable, seeing the tragedy as perhaps punishment in itself.
"They could charge someone, but the biggest price has already been paid," Keesee said. "That little girl's not coming back."