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The death of Prince McLeod Rams (Part 1)

Prince Elias McLeod Rams. (Joaquin Rams)

Note: This is the first of a four-part story on the death of 15-month-old Prince Rams in Manassas last October. Part 2 will appear tomorrow.

There are quite a few people in Prince William County who think Joaquin Rams is a serial killer. That he has killed three people over the last 10 years, trying to collect a six-figure insurance payout each time.

Police and prosecutors think that his third victim was his own son, 15-month-old Prince McLeod Rams, in Manassas last October. They allege that Joaquin Rams drowned Prince, with three other people in the house, hoping to collect more than $500,000 in life insurance on the boy.

Now charged with the first-degree murder of his son, Joaquin Rams could possibly face the death penalty. The toddler’s mother, who separated from Rams two weeks after the baby’s birth in July 2011, said last week she thought Rams should face a capital murder charge.

But what if Prince Rams wasn’t killed? What if there was no slaying at all?

Rams says that’s the truth. In his first public comment since he was charged with murder, he adamantly maintains that he did not kill Prince Rams. No one did, he claims.

“I did not harm my son,” Rams said in a written statement released by his lawyers. “It breaks my heart to think that anyone would believe that I did.  I’m still shocked to learn how sick Prince was.”

A jury likely will decide what really happened in that Manassas home last fall. But Rams and his lawyers contend that Prince had a fatal seizure — after six seizures in the previous six weeks — and that the child died suddenly with no evidence of homicide. They say he did not kill his ex-girlfriend in 2003 or his mother in 2008, as some have alleged, and he is not charged in their deaths.

The wild and terrible events that surround the death of Prince Rams on Oct. 21, 2012, are almost too complicated and shocking to believe. Pornographic Web sites. Another homicide. An online romance that blossomed, then imploded. A suspicious suicide. Suspected insurance fraud. Two child custody battles. And at the center, a feverish child beset by seizures.

In the end, though, the trial of Joaquin Rams will likely boil down to whether a jury believes Virginia assistant medical examiner Constance DiAngelo’s opinion that Prince McLeod Rams drowned. In rebuttal, they will hear from defense experts who will attack the drowning diagnosis and discuss the danger of repeated febrile seizures; from the insurance agent who sold the big policy to Rams; and from the three people in the house with the father and toddler son, who say Joaquin Rams didn’t kill Prince.

DiAngelo, the state’s lead medical examiner in Northern Virginia, is an experienced forensic pathologist who has worked many cases here over the past eight years. She took three months to issue a ruling on the death of Prince McLeod Rams, and did so only after examining the boy’s brain tissue for possible signs of seizures or epilepsy. She then ruled that the boy died by drowning, but did not rule the death a homicide.

Joaquin Rams, 40, has said from the start that his son was shaking and hot, and was wet only because Rams was trying to cool him down with cold water until paramedics arrived. Rams’s attorneys have since discovered that Prince Rams had six febrile seizures in the six weeks before his death, and records obtained by Rams’s lawyers show an apparent seventh seizure months before that.

Prince lived with his mother in Maryland, and his father didn’t know that the boy had six seizures in Maryland in addition to one that occurred in Manassas in September 2012, his lawyers say.

Joaquin Rams and his ex-girlfriend, Hera A. McLeod of Gaithersburg, were involved in a ferocious custody and visitation battle over Prince in 2012, after emerging from an ugly set of criminal charges and countercharges in 2011. By court order, the two parents had no direct contact.

Instead, Joaquin Rams was given an instruction sheet telling him what to do if Prince had a seizure induced by a high fever, called a febrile seizure. And one of the main instructions was to “sit the child in two inches of lukewarm water.” Rams has claimed that he rushed the unconscious child into the bathtub and turned on the water, but there was no stopper in the tub, so he splashed the child with cold water while a housemate called 911. Prince would die a day later.

The other people in the house on Landgreen Street in Manassas City were two adults and Rams’s 13-year-old son. All three say that Rams was never alone with Prince and did not drown the boy, according to Rams’s lawyers. Investigators believe that Rams was alone with Prince long enough to kill him, and that statements by those in the house corroborate that.

Timothy M. Olmstead, Rams’s lawyer and a former Prince William prosecutor, said in a recent interview he doesn’t think Manassas City police and the Virginia medical examiner were aware of Prince’s full medical history before reaching the drowning conclusion, which was followed days later by the murder charge.

In particular, Prince had four seizures in a 24-hour period in September 2012. Prince also had a febrile seizure with his mother two days before he fell unconscious on Oct. 20 with his father, and two other seizures in Maryland that were uncovered by the defense team after the father’s arrest.

“We’re not convinced she [DiAngelo] was provided with his entire medical history,” Olmstead said. “A significant medical history she’s not aware of. A case like this is done by exclusion, and medical history is vitally important. ..We are interested in justice in this case and we feel it’s leading to this point.”

DiAngelo has testified about Prince’s death in two hearings: a preliminary hearing last week and a March custody hearing in which Joaquin Rams’ 13-year-old son was permanently removed from his custody because of his arrest. She did not discuss her knowledge of the toddler’s medical background in detail either time.

Paul Ebert, the long-time commonwealth’s attorney of Prince William, said he was confident in DiAngelo’s findings. He said the suggestion of seizures was “contrary to the opinion of the medical examiner’s office,” and his prosecutors would rely on that opinion to make their case.

McLeod, the distraught mother of Prince said of her ex-fiance, “Either he’s the most unlucky person around, or he’s a serial killer.”

Part two: Joaquin Rams’s past, the birth of Prince, the parents’ sudden separation and the ensuing custody battle.