The first child, 2 years old, died 2 1/2 years ago. Twelve months later, a 4-year-old boy and his 2-year-old cousin died of heart inflammation within three days of each other. After the fourth child died in the arms of the 19-year-old babysitter after an immunization injection, she vowed to stay away from children.
"Sometimes I wonder if I don't have some kind of spell over me when I get around young 'uns," Christine Falling, the babysitter, told a reporter.
Today authorities in the Florida panhandle community of Blountstown charged the babysitter with first-degree murder in two deaths after a fifth child, Travis DeWayne Coleman, 2 months old, died in her custody earlier this month. According to state attorney Jim Appleman, Falling was charged with the murders of Cassidy Marie (Muffin) Johnson, 2 years old, and Coleman by strangulation or suffocation or both.
At a news conference today, Appleman said Falling is being held without bond in the deaths of Johnson, in February, 1980, and Coleman, who died on July 3. The three other deaths in the communities of Lakeland and Perry are not in his jurisdiction, Appleman said.
"It's just a weird probability," said public defender Virgil Mayo, who was appointed Falling's attorney this morning. "But the law of probability is weird."
Authorities declined to release any evidence in the deaths. "Let's just say we got enough evidence that we felt comfortable in making an arrest," sheriff Buddy Smith said.
For the past 2 1/2 years, the mysterious deaths have raised speculation, including voodoo and hexes, in Blountstown, population 4,000. But today, Mary Goodman of Goodman's Cafe said brusquely: "Nobody wants to discuss it."
Unskilled and impoverished, Falling as a child was shuffled from home to home by relatives and social workers, sheriff Smith told a reporter last year. She left school after seventh grade to marry and have a baby but she lost the child and the marriage soon ended, Falling has said.
Doctors examined Falling last year in search of a mysterious lethal virus but found nothing wrong. Recently she had cared for relatives' children without incident.
The first victim, 2-year-old Muffin Johnson, died after staying with Falling for four hours. A few days later, Falling was caring for Kyle Summerlin, 3, when he was rushed to the hospital and treated for meningitis. He survived.
In early 1981, Falling was watching two brothers who went into convulsions. They were hospitalized and recovered.
A few days later, Falling was babysitting for Jeffrey Michael Davis, 4, when she said she couldn't awaken him from a nap. He died of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. Three days after that, his cousin, Joseph (Joe-Boy) Spring, 2, died of the same illness while in Falling's care.
A year ago, Jennifer Yvonne Daniels, 8 months old, died. She was Joe-Boy's sister and both were the children of Falling's stepsister. Falling and the baby's mother had taken Jennifer to the health department for a vaccination. Falling held the baby when she started screaming from the shot and kept holding her when they went to the grocery. In the car, Jennifer grew quiet. "I was just hollering, 'Oh, not again,' " Falling told a reporter.
Earlier this month, the Coleman baby, who had displayed pneumonia-like symptoms, died after he had been in Falling's care the night before.
Appearing dazed and haunted in an interview in her trailer a week ago, Falling said she was convinced she was not to blame. "Just because I'm not having an easy life . . . maybe it will straighten up one day," she said, adding, "I don't see how that's ever going to happen."