It was the middle of the night when the baby came, prosecutors said. Richardson’s parents were asleep downstairs; her brother was asleep across the hall. The teenager went to the bathroom — and emerged with a lifeless baby.
Alone, she buried the infant in the backyard and went back inside, still telling no one, prosecutors said. She graduated high school a few weeks later and spent the next two months preparing for college at the University of Cincinnati. Then, one afternoon in July 2017, the police called. Richardson’s gynecologist had reported the baby’s death to the Warren County coroner, leaving the cause of death blank.
Now, police wanted to know: How did the infant die?
That’s the same question a jury will be left to decide as Richardson’s trial on charges of aggravated murder in the death of her baby begins this week. From the beginning, Richardson has insisted the baby was stillborn. But even as a coroner has been unable to determine a cause of death, prosecutors insist the cause was homicide and that Richardson, now 20, buried the evidence so she could continue on with a picture-perfect teenage lifestyle.
The case exploded, becoming a tabloid-fare narrative about an all-American cheerleader accused of secretly killing her child because she and her family were “pretty obsessed” with external appearances, as Warren County Prosecutor David P. Fornshell said in 2017. He claimed Richardson burned the baby’s corpse, too — sinister details that later turned out to be incorrect, Richardson’s attorney said, but that nevertheless only fueled nonstop coverage. Photographers camped outside the family’s home in small-town Carlisle, waiting to share the latest snippets of the family’s lives. Antiabortion activists picketed Richardson’s hearings, demanding justice for Baby Jane Doe.
But Richardson didn’t kill the baby, her attorney, Charles M. Rittgers, insisted to prospective jurors Tuesday during jury selection. Instead, he said, “This case was about a massive rush to judgment.”
Warren County Assistant Prosecutor Julie Kraft said Tuesday that it all began in August 2016, when Richardson broke off a relationship with a guy she had been dating for about a month.
She would spend much of her senior year of high school pregnant, but it was hard for friends and family to tell. For years, Richardson had suffered from anorexia and bulimia, friends and family told Cosmopolitan last year. They could tell in spring 2017 that she had put on weight — but the last thing they wanted to do was ask her why. Richardson had a new boyfriend she met at school. She was on the honor roll and had been accepted to college. Maybe she was just feeling more comfortable in her body, they thought.
“I was happy because I was like, ‘Oh, she’s met this nice boy. She doesn’t care about how she looks anymore, doesn’t care if she’s getting thick,’ ” Richardson’s aunt told Cosmopolitan. “I mean, the eating disorders were always horrible. So we were all like, ‘Oh, yay! She’s putting weight on.’ ”
As Richardson’s relationship with her new boyfriend progressed, her mom, Kim, thought it might be time for Richardson to talk to a gynecologist about birth control, Cosmo reported.
Richardson went to her first appointment with an OB/GYN on April 26, 2017, Kraft said. But the doctor told Richardson she couldn’t have birth control: She was already 32 weeks pregnant.
“Upon learning she was pregnant, Brooke burst into tears and told her doctor that she could not have this child and that she could not tell anyone about being pregnant,” Kraft said, according to Fox 19′s video footage of the trial. “And Brooke told no one. She did not tell her parents, her friends or the baby’s father.”
The doctor told her she could expect to give birth within 10 weeks, according to Rittgers. But the doctor was wrong about one thing, Rittgers said: As it turned out, Richardson was actually 37 to 39 weeks pregnant. The fetus was smaller than it should have been, he said.
Instead of giving birth 10 weeks later, she gave birth within 11 days.
The baby was a lifeless pale, Rittgers said. The umbilical cord was not attached to the placenta. The newborn wasn’t breathing, he said. Kim told the Cincinnati Enquirer that her daughter said she cradled the baby for hours, waiting for it to open its eyes or cry or move, but it never did.
Finally, Kim said, Richardson grabbed a garden spade from the garage and retreated to the far end of the family’s expansive backyard. She dug a hole between two pine trees.
“It is so hard to believe that I had a grandchild that I never got to hold,” Kim told the Enquirer.
When Richardson returned to the gynecologist for birth control later that summer, she told the doctor what happened — and before long, police had questions.
At first, Rittgers said, police were not challenging Richardson’s explanation that the baby was stillborn. But then came a doctor hired by the prosecution. She examined the skeleton — and said the bones appeared “charred.”
That’s when Fornshell revealed to a room of reporters in August 2017 that authorities believed Richardson burned the baby. Asked for the motive, he pointed to the family’s alleged concern about appearances, which the family has adamantly denied.
“She’s a cute recent high school graduate, she was a cheerleader, described as a ‘good girl’ by her attorney,” Fornshell said. “And I think that kind of perception is one that Skylar wanted to perpetuate and her mother wanted to perpetuate.”
Fornshell said he couldn’t say how the baby was burned or how the baby was killed.
Rittgers said Tuesday that’s because the baby wasn’t killed. What the prosecution didn’t disclose to jurors Tuesday, he said, was that the doctor who thought the remains were burned later recanted that testimony and said she made a mistake. (Fornshell has previously disputed Rittgers’s characterization of the experts’ opinions.)
By then, Richardson was already indicted — based in part on the erroneous charred-bones details, Rittgers said. Those details also led detectives to try wrangling a confession out of Richardson throughout hours of questioning. Holding her hands at the table in an interrogation room, “as if they were her friends,” Rittgers said, the police told her it would be better if she said she was trying to cremate the body. Eventually, Rittgers said, after denying she burned the baby 17 times, and after describing the baby being born dead 29 times, she seemed to relent, saying she did try to cremate her. Rittgers said they “broke her down.”
“What happens when that doctor who made this horrible mistake changes her mind and tells everyone I was wrong, the bones weren’t burnt?” Rittgers said. “What happened? The police didn’t hit a reset button. The prosecutors didn’t hit a reset button. … They disregard all truth that does not fit into their story. And that’s why we’re here today.”
Kraft conceded that the prosecution lacks “medical and scientific” evidence about the baby’s cause of death, but said prosecutors also collected a trove of electronic messages that investigators took from multiple devices in the home that will help prove the case. She said those details would come later.
In addition to aggravated murder, Richardson is also charged with involuntary manslaughter, endangering a child, tampering with evidence and gross abuse of a corpse. The trial is expected to last two weeks.
If convicted, Richardson could face life in prison.