A 14-year-old boy was charged yesterday with involuntary manslaughter in the death of his 5-year-old half sister, who was killed last month in southwest Virginia when she was trapped inside a commercial washing machine.
The boy, whose name was not released by police because he is a minor, was charged as a juvenile for his role in the June 17 death of Rebecca "Hope" Wagoner. An arraignment is pending in the Smyth County Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court.
Police in Chilhowie, Va., have said Hope was alone with her half brother in the Village Laundry when she got trapped inside a heavy-load washer. Hope's mother, Rebecca Billings Wagoner, told police she had taken the children to the laundromat to use a pay phone and stepped outside, leaving them unattended. She returned to discover her daughter tumbling inside the water-filled machine.
Using a rock, Wagoner smashed open the washer and pried Hope through the machine's small glass window.
Hope died less than an hour later. The medical examiner's office ruled asphyxiation as the cause of death.
Police and prosecutors were unwilling yesterday to elaborate on the charges or provide any theories about what might have happened inside the laundry.
"As far as the investigative part of this case, it's complete," said Chilhowie Police Chief Dwayne Sheffield. "As far as releasing any details, we can't do that at this time. It would be absolutely detrimental to the court proceedings."
Under Virginia law, prosecutors can request a hearing to transfer the case to circuit court, where the teenager would be tried as an adult, but there is no indication whether that would happen in this case.
Hope's father, William Wagoner, yesterday defended his stepson, saying he would testify on his behalf in court.
"He's still welcome in my home," Wagoner said. "I still love him."
While Wagoner would not comment on the details of the case, he said he believed charges were not appropriate and characterized his son's arrest as politically motivated.
"I'm not surprised they did it," Wagoner said. "Why? Because the election is in 2006."
Smyth County Commonwealth's Attorney Roy F. Evans Jr. did not respond to repeated phone messages left at his office yesterday.
Shortly after Hope was killed, the county's department of social services ordered William Wagoner's five children placed in the custody of other family members while investigators determined whether neglect played a role in Hope's death. Since that time Wagoner said he has been allowed to see his 10-year-old daughter just one hour a week. He said his stepson charged in Hope's death has been living with his biological father.
Police in Chilhowie, a tiny mountain town near the Tennessee and West Virginia borders, spent weeks trying to determine how the 30-pound girl got inside the washer and how it turned on. They examined security tapes recorded inside the laundromat, checked coins found inside the washer's collection box for fingerprint evidence and consulted with investigators from the washer's manufacturer, Pellerin Milnor Corp. of Louisiana.
The 35-pound capacity Automatic Washer-Extractor requires 11 quarters to operate and will not accept coins until the heavy door is snapped shut. During the high-velocity spin cycle, its interior drum makes 451 rotations per minute. There was no electrical cord to pull from the wall or emergency shut-off switch attached to the washer at the Village Laundry.
William Wagoner said he is now focused on holding Pellerin Milnor accountable for his daughter's death.
"They should put a cutoff switch 50 feet from any industrial machine," Wagoner said. "If there had been a shut-off switch, my daughter would still be alive today."
Jim Moran, Pellerin Milnor's general counsel, said he was not aware of the charges until a reporter told him yesterday. He declined to comment.