When an officer found Brianna Gussert dead in a room upstairs, curled up at the foot of her bed, the 13-year-old girl’s diaper weighed 1.25 pounds.
The entire house was filthy, littered with garbage and riddled with fruit flies. In the bedroom where Brianna was found dead, an officer wrote in a criminal complaint, the air reeked of “rotten food, human waste and death.”
The disabled girl may have lain dead in her Appleton, Wis., bedroom for as long as five days before police showed up on Memorial Day of last year, the Outagamie County Coroner’s Office told the Post-Crescent.
The only other person in her home was her mother and primary caretaker, Nicole Gussert, according to the criminal complaint. Gussert told police she could not recall the last time she fed her daughter or changed her diaper, a prosecutor said in court this week. Brianna had not been bathed in over a week and for days had not been checked on.
On Monday, Gussert was charged with one count of neglect resulting in death, as well as three counts of possession with intent to deliver amphetamine. If convicted of child neglect, she could face up to 25 years in state prison. Each of the drug charges carries a maximum penalty of 12½ years.
She is being held on a $300,000 cash bond. Her lawyer, public defender Robert Welygan, said that “the criminal behavior has not been proven by the state. It’s simply allegations,” according to WLUK.
“This an extremely tragic incident where Nicole had primary care of her daughter,” Outagamie County District Attorney Melinda Tempelis said in court. Because of her disability, Brianna was “unable to walk, unable to talk,” Tempelis said. “She was unable to care for herself and really functioned much like an infant.”
When the officer found Brianna during a welfare check, the skin in her diaper area had already begun to decompose, according to a criminal complaint cited by WLUK. The bag for her feeding tube was almost empty, according to the Post-Crescent.
An autopsy determined she died of sepsis, Tempelis said in court, “because of the horrific sores” and other complications of being neglected over the course of many days. Tempelis described Brianna’s last days as a “slow death.”
“This is not something that would have happened in a 12-hour period but would have happened in the course of many, many” days, Tempelis said, citing a doctor on the case, according to WLUK.
Her father, who spoke to local news outlets, said that Brianna lived with Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome, which is caused by a chromosome deficiency and characterized by delayed growth and development, intellectual disability, low muscle tone, and seizures.
Gussert had primary custody of Brianna, according to Tempelis. The girl’s father, Gussert’s ex-husband, Greg Gussert, told the Post-Crescent that Brianna lived with her mother because Nicole Gussert’s home had more space for her adjustable bed. A second child lived in Nicole Gussert’s home, while a third child of the couple lived with Greg Gussert.
When police spoke with Nicole Gussert after finding Brianna dead, the mother said she was home and asleep for much of the past two days because she did not feel well.
She told police that she kept Brianna in bed because the child had a diaper rash and couldn’t sit up, according to the criminal complaint. She said Brianna had been “real whiny” and had not wanted to be around anyone. Asked by police whether it was possible that no one had been up to see Brianna for the past three days, Gussert said it could be, but she wasn’t sure. Asked whether there was anyone she had called or texted, she said “no” and that she doesn’t really talk to anyone.
The last time Brianna had left her room, her mother told police, was perhaps the previous Tuesday or Wednesday — almost a week earlier. When a police sergeant asked Gussert whether she remembered the last time she fed Brianna, or how many times she fed her, Gussert starting crying. “I don’t,” she said.
Authorities later learned that Brianna was frequently absent from school. She missed 162 days of school in her final year and sometimes went to school only a day or two a month, according to the criminal complaint cited by the Post-Crescent.
Despite the concerning number of absences, Gussert always managed to give school officials a reason to excuse her. Wisconsin state law does not limit the number of days a student may miss from school because of an illness, the Post-Crescent reported. In the weeks before her death, Brianna was sick with a respiratory infection and appeared to be losing weight, one of her teachers told authorities.
When her father, Greg Gussert, found out about Brianna’s death, he thought it was due to medical complications, he told WLUK. “I immediately thought it just was a bad dream,” he said.
“It’s unbelievable what she had to go through,” Greg Gussert told WGBA.
Brianna’s obituary described her as a “beautiful, bright, and charismatic young lady” who loved watching football, spending time with family and taking photos with her grandmother. She particularly loved the Milwaukee Brewers and the Green Bay Packers, and her family asked those attending her funeral to wear the teams’ apparel in her honor.
“She knew the difference when the Packers were playing and when a different team was playing, and she just started screaming at you, looking at you like ‘Why aren’t you changing the channel?’ ” her father told WLUK.
Despite her disabilities, her father said, “she didn’t let anything hold her back.”
She loved penguins, her dog Blaze and “going fast,” according to a GoFundMe memorial for Brianna. She also played baseball through the local Miracle League for children with cognitive and physical disabilities.
“She normally hated getting dressed but when she was getting her baseball uniform on she was grinning ear to ear,” the memorial said. Her family hopes to memorialize her by planting a tree near the field “so she can watch future athletes play her favorite sport.”
“She was such an inspiration and a wonderful child. And happy, she was happy all the time,” Greg Gussert told the Post-Crescent. “I would like people to remember her for being a child that was loved.”