Erin TePaske rarely spent a moment away from her young son, but last Mother’s Day, the single mother took a few minutes for herself. As she strolled through a park on that warm afternoon, her phone buzzed to life. The frantic caller said something had happened to 3-year-old Beckett.
TePaske raced a wailing ambulance to her home in Vienna, Va. The man who had been watching Beckett told her that the boy had fallen and hit his head in the back yard.
Medics wheeled Beckett to the ambulance as TePaske called out to him but got no response. TePaske sensed that he would never recover.
Beckett Podominick had suffered a massive skull fracture. Two days later, he was removed from a respirator at the hospital.
“I held his little body for an hour and a half until he took his last breath,” TePaske said.
She never doubted that her son’s death was a freak accident. But she knew others would.
The man caring for Beckett was Kenneth Bartley, 24, who, as a troubled teen in 2005, opened fire at his Tennessee school. He killed an administrator and wounded two others.
TePaske, 39, met Bartley soon after the shooting through her work as a youth counselor at a juvenile detention center. After he served his sentence, she volunteered to take him into her home to guide his reentry into a world he had never known as an adult. She was convinced he could be redeemed.
“I’ve had many kids come through my door,” TePaske said. “You recognize when one has something special. Someone who has never been given the chance to be who they can be. You could see glimpses of it with Kenneth.”
TePaske had gotten to know him and trusted him implicitly. She said she never saw him exhibit any sign of violence toward Beckett.
But Beckett’s father, who lives in Tennessee, said it was folly to invite a convicted killer into the same home as a young child. Matthew Podominick and TePaske had split up before Beckett’s death.
Podominick has written to the governors of Tennessee and Virginia accusing Bartley of having a role in his son’s death and urging the officials to intervene in the criminal probe, which will reach its one-year anniversary on Tuesday.
“It is now obvious to me that [TePaske] put her love for Kenny Bartley over our son’s safety and well-being,” Podominick wrote in an email.
The nature of TePaske and Bartley’s relationship remains unclear. A forensic report on the case lists him as her boyfriend, but the source of that information is not listed. TePaske said they had no romantic relationship.
The Vienna police have not charged Bartley in the case. He denied repeated requests for comment, and his attorney did not return calls. He is being held in jail in Tennessee on probation violations.
Two grieving parents are waiting for a cloud to clear, but for different reasons. Matthew Podominick said he wants justice for his son. And Erin TePaske wants to remove the doubt hanging over a man who has faced it for much of his life.
Who is right?
The Washington Post has obtained hundreds of pages of documents related to the investigation of Beckett’s death and exclusive interviews that provide an extensive overview of the case.
The evidence, which is complicated and sometimes contradictory, raises troubling questions about what happened in TePaske’s back yard.
May 10, 2015, began as a quiet Sunday for TePaske and Beckett, a vivacious kid with a shock of blonde — almost white — hair. The pair and TePaske’s parents attended church and had lunch at a McDonald’s before TePaske and Beckett returned home to their red brick house, TePaske said.
TePaske had planned to go to the store in the afternoon, but on the spur of the moment, she left Beckett in the care of Bartley and headed to a nearby park she had wanted to explore.
At one point, Bartley texted her to say everything was fine, TePaske said.
Bartley would later tell TePaske that he and Beckett were playing in the back yard when Beckett made a break for the house’s back door. Beckett ascended three steps and began pulling on the door handle with all his might, Bartley told TePaske.
The door was locked, so it didn’t budge. Then Beckett lost his grip.
The boy flew backward off the steps and hit his head on an area of cement pavers and rocks, according to Bartley’s account. Bartley was nearly close enough to catch Beckett but managed only to grab a handful of shirt. Bartley called TePaske.
“He’s in a panic. He says Beckett has fallen and is not acting right,” TePaske recalled. “He won’t stand up. He wants to sleep.”
Bartley called 911 and started CPR, TePaske said. She rushed home.
“Knowing that ambulance was coming to get my baby was the worst nightmare,” TePaske said.
Doctors at Inova Fairfax Hospital discovered a long fracture from the back of Beckett’s skull to the top and severe brain swelling. They operated but gave the boy little chance of recovery.
It was gut-wrenching because there were few outward signs of injury, TePaske said. Beckett simply looked like a child who was asleep and would “awake at any point.” On May 12, she decided to remove him from life support. TePaske and Matthew Podominick, who had arrived by then, said their final goodbyes to their son.
After Beckett’s death, TePaske said she went to the “darkest places” with Bartley. Dozens of times, they went over every aspect of what happened that afternoon. She was convinced he was telling the truth.
Still, because her son died in Bartley’s care, the case drew intense scrutiny.
Local TV and media outlets from Tennessee reported on the case, and Vienna police opened an investigation. TePaske trusted Bartley, but she knew that the shooting at the Tennessee school a decade earlier would sow seeds of doubt.
After most of his classmates had arrived at Campbell County High School on the morning of Nov. 8, 2005, Bartley awoke and began searching for drugs, he would testify at his trial.
The then-14-year-old made an unexpected discovery — a .22 Beretta handgun — in a drawer in his father’s room. It would set off a chain of events so terrible the son would later describe it as “the worst day of many people’s lives.”
Bartley had grown up quickly. His father was an alcoholic, and his parents had divorced when he was in middle school, according to court testimony.
A psychologist who later interviewed Bartley described his parents’ neglect as so “profound” that Bartley was “basically on his own to survive in an unsafe environment.”
“A child in this situation becomes neurologically hard-wired to do whatever it takes to survive,” the psychologist wrote.
Bartley planned to trade the gun to a neighbor for OxyContin. But once at school, he showed it to fellow students. They alerted a school administrator. Bartley was escorted to a cramped office to talk to Principal Gary Seale and assistant principals Ken Bruce and Jim Pierce.
What happened next depends on who is telling the story. Bartley’s trial would turn on the dueling accounts between the surviving administrators and Bartley himself. Was he a cold-blooded killer or a panicked kid?
Seale, who still has a bullet lodged in his body, said Bartley was asked to remove the gun from his pocket.
“I said, ‘Kenny, is that real?’ ” Seale said. “Kenny said, ‘I’ll show you it’s real. I never liked you anyway.’ ”
Seale said Bartley loaded a clip in the gun and fired two or three shots at him before swiveling to Bruce, who had his arms raised in surrender. Bruce was shot and slid down to the floor with his back against a filing cabinet. Pierce was shot as he wrestled Bartley to the ground.
Six shots were fired in just three seconds. Bruce later died.
Seale said he still doesn’t know how he survived. “There’s no way somebody aims a gun at your head and misses killing you at that range,” he said.
Bartley had the babyish face of a tween, but he was one of the most infamous people in Tennessee when he walked into a counseling session run by TePaske at the youth center where he was being held after the shooting.
Despite his troubles, Bartley was a poised and eloquent teen, TePaske said, who opened up about the shooting and his difficult life. TePaske, who was getting her master’s degree in counseling at the time, said Bartley’s case was the type she was drawn to — the difficult ones.
TePaske said the case spurred her to begin working as an activist on juvenile justice issues.
“He did a horrible thing, but I also saw the other side of it — how horribly it was handled,” TePaske said, referring to the criminal case against Bartley.
Prosecutors decided to try Bartley as an adult on a first-
degree murder charge. TePaske thought that was unfair, given his age at the time of the shooting.
In 2007, as his trial was to begin, Bartley agreed to a plea deal that would have put him behind bars for 45 years. But he then moved to withdraw it, saying that he had not had the opportunity to consult with his parents about the deal and that it was never read to him in full.
A judge eventually tossed the conviction and Bartley was granted a new trial in 2014.
At trial, Bartley, wearing a blue sweater vest and glasses, testified calmly. He apologized for the shooting repeatedly. He told the jury he had loaded the clip in the gun at home, not in the principal’s office, and denied making the statement to Seale about not liking him.
He testified he had crushed and snorted Xanax just before being called to the principal’s office. He described his actions as that of a high and scared teen.
“As I cocked the gun, I saw Mr. Pierce swivel in his chair. . . . I thought he was coming at me,” Bartley testified. “That’s when I fired the first shot. . . . I honestly can’t recall the exact sequence of the shots after that.”
The verdict stunned the courtroom.
Bartley was acquitted of first-degree murder but found guilty of the lesser charge of reckless homicide. Instead of 45 years behind bars, Bartley walked out of the courthouse that day. He had already served more than enough time to fulfill the sentence.
Seale and others were incredulous. Some sobbed. Others called it a miscarriage of justice.
In an interview after the trial, Bartley said he was not going to waste another chance.
“All I want is to be able to go out here and be somebody more than the Campbell County school shooter,” Bartley told a Tennessee newspaper. “I’m trying to make this work. I am going to make this work.”
But Bartley quickly got into trouble again, picking up charges for allegedly threatening to kill his father over a set of car keys and becoming belligerent with his mother over a $70 cab fare.
With his options running out in Tennessee, TePaske, who had kept in touch with Bartley, stepped in.
She put together a detailed plan to guide him through counseling, drug rehabilitation and job training. He would live with her in Virginia.
The arrangement was unusual, but Criminal Court Judge E. Shayne Sexton approved it. “Frankly, it looked very good on paper,” he said.
But after learning of Beckett’s death, Sexton said he came to regret his decision. “When I first found out about what happened, I got one of those cold chills. It was a judge’s nightmare.”
TePaske said that things went well initially. Bartley had a positive influence on Beckett, she said. Away from Tennessee, Bartley thrived, too, she said.
She taught him to cook and ride the bus. She took him on hiking trips and set up sessions to remove his tattoos so he would look more professional for job interviews. One was a blue line that looked like a crack that snaked across his skull.
Then came Mother’s Day 2015. Questions about what happened to Beckett were raised almost immediately.
William Hauda, the medical director of the forensic assessment department at Inova Fairfax Hospital, said he was called while Beckett was still alive to examine a group of about six wounds on the child’s head that did not appear to be related to the fall Bartley had described.
Hauda said they looked like marks from something with two prongs, although he could not be sure what caused them.
“That troubled me,” Hauda said.
In July 2015, the Virginia medical examiner ruled that Beckett died of blunt-force head trauma, but there was not enough evidence to determine whether the death was an accident or homicide. The ruling was “undetermined.”
In October, new revelations would forever change the way Matthew Podominick viewed what happened to his son. Fairfax County Child Protective Services wrapped up its investigation into Beckett’s death with a stunning conclusion: He had been abused.
“I collapsed on the floor,” Podominick wrote in an email about learning the results. “I wept. I was so sad, furious, beyond angry, mad, confused, devastated.”
Hauda examined Beckett’s body and concluded that such a fall does not commonly cause such a severe injury. One study from the American Association of Pediatrics estimated the annual mortality rate for infants or toddlers suffering short falls is less than one in 1 million.
What’s more, Hauda said Beckett’s body showed signs of injuries unexplained by the fall — hemorrhaging in the back of his eyes and the grouped markings on his head — and older injuries, some of which are rare in children. Hauda noted signs of possible fractures in Beckett’s vertebrae, a wrist and his sternum that likely occurred two to three weeks before his death.
Normally, Child Protective Services determines who is responsible for the abuse, but in Beckett’s case, it offered a designation it rarely assigns: unknown abuser. CPS officials said that privacy laws barred them from discussing why they made that designation, but they did say that CPS had never been called to TePaske’s home before Beckett’s death.
TePaske strongly disputes the findings, saying she believes the vertebrae and sternum injuries are misinterpretations. She said the wrist fracture was likely the result of an injury Beckett sustained with his babysitter. She noted the medical examiner’s office did not list those injuries in its examination of Beckett. She said she has filed a formal complaint about the findings.
“I spent only 2 weeks away from my son in his entire life,” TePaske said. “I knew he wasn’t abused. He was a happy kid.”
But other red flags also raised questions. Sexton said that Bartley’s alcohol-monitoring bracelet sent alerts multiple times during the months he was in TePaske’s care. The alerts prompted his probation officer to issue a misdemeanor arrest warrant three weeks before Beckett’s death. Sexton said the offense was not serious enough to trigger extradition back to Tennessee.
The judge also said that TePaske failed to submit a 45-day progress report on Bartley, as required by the court. Sexton said that Bartley’s probation officer had not told him about the alerts and that he failed to notice the report had not been submitted.
TePaske said that Bartley was not drinking in her home and that the bracelet alerts were false positives. She contradicted Sexton, saying she had filed the report.
Podominick said TePaske did not tell him that Bartley was living in her home until after Beckett’s death. He said he would never have allowed the arrangement if he had known.
After reviewing the CPS report and other evidence, Podominick said he does not believe that his son’s death could have been an accident.
He said he has been told by Vienna police that the investigation is “stalled” because new evidence has not been put forward. Vienna Police Chief James Morris said that’s not a fair characterization. He said the case remains open but would not discuss details.
“It’s putting it all together,” Morris said. “We are trying to get all the evidence. We want to make sure we are not misinterpreting anything.”
For her part, TePaske said that Bartley is being unfairly “demonized.” TePaske said Bartley moved out of her house shortly after Beckett’s death. Bartley was arrested at his father’s home in Tennessee at the end of March on the probation violations and remains jailed.
TePaske looks forward to the day he is cleared in Beckett’s case.
Neither parent may get the resolution they desire.
Judy Melinek, a pathologist who reviewed the medical examiner’s report and the CPS investigation for The Post, said criminal cases sometimes get hung up because the evidence is not unequivocal enough to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in court.
She said that it is possible, based on the forensic evidence that the fall could have caused Beckett’s death but that she could not rule out other possibilities. The ambiguous “undetermined” ruling by the medical examiner could be an apt label for the case, she said.
“Child injury deaths such as this one can be very difficult,” Melinek wrote in an email. “While television shows such as ‘CSI’ and ‘NCIS’ promote the idea that the pathologist’s opinion is quick, certain and definitive, real-world forensics is slow, thorough and not always definitive. ‘Undetermined’ is an indication of the limits of our science.”