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Nickolas Oatley / Staff photo by Nickolas Oatley  

The Kansas River is illuminated by the sun setting over the Flint Hills on Monday night.

JC man sentenced to 20 years for role in 2017 murder

A Junction City man will serve 20 years for his connection to the 2017 murder of a Junction City woman.

On Monday, Riley County District Court Judge John Bosch sentenced Steven Meredith, 33, to 240 months in prison on the charge of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder in the shooting death of Carrie Jones in October 2017.

Meredith pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charge in July, days before his trial was set to begin. He initially was charged with first-degree murder for Jones’ death.

Jones’ body was found in rural Riley County in October 2017. Prosecutors alleged Meredith shot her because Jones was a confidential informant, and he feared she would reveal that he was selling drugs. Witnesses testified at a preliminary hearing in January that Meredith had confessed to shooting Jones.

Meredith is serving time on drug charges, and his sentence will be served consecutively. He said he completed a four-month drug treatment program since he’s been in prison.

Meredith acknowledged in testimony Monday that he was present when Jones was shot, but said he was not the one who shot her. He apologized to Jones’ family and friends for his role in her death.

“I know Carrie would do a lot to help anybody out,” he said. “I’m sorry. I did what I could.”

Jury deliberates after man accused of murdering baby testifies

A Manhattan man accused of murdering an infant said Monday he did not hurt nor know what happened to the baby when it started having trouble breathing while in his care.

D’Khari Lyons, who is charged with first-degree murder and abuse of a child, testified Monday afternoon. He is accused of causing the injuries that led to the death of 2 1/2-month old Michael Calvert Jr., his former girlfriend’s son.

On Nov. 8, 2018, police and emergency medical personnel responded to a report that Michael had trouble breathing that morning. Emergency responders eventually life-flighted Michael to Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, where he died three days later. Officials determined Michael died from blunt force or abusive head trauma after sustaining injuries and bruises around his chest, head, face, spine and skull, as well as internal bleeding around his brain and spinal cord.

The jury in the case began deliberating Monday afternoon after listening to about three days of evidence and testimony. It was still deliberating at press time on Tuesday.

While being questioned, Lyons said he met Jessica Hudson, who was pregnant with Michael at the time, through work shortly after moving to Manhattan in summer 2018.

Lyons described how he had been around young children and babies for most of his life, and he had never seen anything like what Michael experienced during the incident.

He said he went to Hudson’s apartment after work early Nov. 8, around 2 a.m., and he noticed Michael was fussing and throwing up. He said he hung out in the living room, and Hudson came out of the room to smoke marijuana with him a couple times until they both went to rest around 6:30 a.m. Lyons said Jessica got up about an hour later to get her other children ready for school.

While he was lying in bed, Lyons said he heard Michael “cry out” twice but did not check on him. Before Hudson left, Lyons said he was half asleep when she brought him Michael and a bottle to feed him. He said he tried to feed Michael but didn’t actually see him drink.

Shortly after she left, Hudson returned for her coat and asked Lyons where it was. Senior Deputy Riley County Attorney Barry Disney asked Lyons how he was able to respond consciously to Hudson if he was half asleep. Lyons said he woke up more because Hudson did not usually return immediately after she left with the kids.

When they were alone, Lyons said he and the baby were lying in bed together when Michael began making choking and gurgling sounds. Lyons said he tried adjusting Michael and patting his stomach when Hudson returned. Lyons said he was scared when it happened.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” Lyons said, breaking into tears. “I’m worried for Mikey. I hadn’t seen nothing like that.”

Lyons said he didn’t know what happened, and Hudson probably didn’t know what happened either.

In closing statements, defense attorney Cole Hawver asked the jury to consider whether there was enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, the highest standard of evidence, that Lyons was responsible.

Hawver said Michael’s injuries worsened over time, and experts had said some people who sustain head trauma can experience lucid intervals, a temporary period where symptoms are not apparent and the patient seems improved.

Hawver pointed to earlier studies and testimony that usually the perpetrators who caused abusive head trauma were “frustrated,” and Lyons was not experiencing any hardships in his life at the time. He also said a large part of the case relied on what Hudson told officials happened before the incident and showed inconsistencies in previous statements.

Disney said Hudson had been in shock and experiencing inner turmoil, especially after finding out the severity of Michael’s injuries.

He also said he thought Lyons may not have intended to hurt Michael but submitted that Lyons did it out of frustration to stop the baby from crying.

“This is not a planned attack; this is an act of frustration,” he said.

Testimony during the defense’s arguments Monday morning presented another possibility for Michael’s injuries.

Pediatric trauma expert Dr. John Galaznik said he doesn’t think a fall can be ruled out as the cause of the injuries seen on Michael.

The defense previously asked Galaznik to review Michael’s medical and autopsy records to see what was or was not consistent with published literature on physical injuries in children.

Galaznik is a former practicing pediatrician who has testified in other cases about physical injuries in children. He said studies have recognized that a fall from a short distance can induce death.

Galaznik said blunt-force trauma can be caused from a short fall, and research and studies have shown that a 2- to 4-foot drop on a hard surface is “more than enough” force to cause a skull fracture in a child’s head.

Galaznik said someone can look and behave outwardly “normal” after a head injury, but symptoms can manifest themselves over the course of 24 hours. Symptoms can include headaches, crying, irritability, lethargy, seizures and vomiting.

With bleeding around the brain, which was seen in Michael’s case, Galaznik said someone can experience lucid intervals, or a temporary improvement in a patient’s condition after a traumatic brain injury.

He said lucid intervals have been documented in cases of short-distance falls.

Previous witnesses in the trial had said Michael appeared alert and normal in the days before the incident, and some reported fussy behavior.

“Infants can have an intracranial injury and can appear ‘normal’ even to medical personnel,” Galaznik said.

He said it’s possible that although someone may say that a baby is “fully awake” at some point, it doesn’t mean that the baby is injury-free. He said he thinks a baby could appear lucid, awake and even reflexively suck on a bottle, cry or smile while suffering from an injury.

Disney called into question Galaznik’s expertise in the case because he had not treated a child with a traumatic brain injury before, and the American Academy of Pediatrics cited him as an example of someone writing unsubstantiated theories regarding physical injuries in children.

OUR NEIGHBORS | Retired teacher still educating through tutoring program she began

Sometimes a kid just needs a helping hand to do better in school.

Marianne Cullers started the Hand to Hand program more than 20 years ago to give back and give just a little extra help with tutoring after school. Over the years, she has led a program that gives kids one-on-one attention, which she said benefits them both academically and emotionally.

“What brings kids back is they do better in school, and they eat up that attention from an adult that’s caring,” she said.

Cullers, 81, was a substitute teacher in Wisconsin before moving to Manhattan in 1971 when her husband took a job at K-State. She taught at the junior high and high school levels in USD 383 but left the district in 1995 because of some chronic health problems.

“At first I was overjoyed, but then I became very depressed,” she said about leaving her job.

Around that time, she was asked to tutor at the Douglass Center. That grew into the Hand to Hand program, which she started in early 1996 with the late Don Slater, who became her assistant director.

Cullers started with a notebook and two pencils. Now, an average of 15 students come to each session. The program offers tutoring to kids in at-risk categories, including low-income or single-parent families, minority and immigrant families, and students with learning disabilities. They meet twice a week, when students get one-on-one time with a tutor for homework help and test preparation. Tutors are recruited from retired teachers, K-State students and the Flint Hills Volunteer Center.

Lori Bishop, executive director of the Volunteer Center, said Cullers has logged more than 11,000 hours of volunteer work through the center since 1996. She said Cullers is passionate about helping youth and dedicates a lot of work to setting up Hand to Hand and its volunteers.

“I can’t imagine the number of children she’s helped, and the number of families,” Bishop said.

The program recently won the 2019 With Our Youth Award from the National Retired Teachers Association.

Cullers said she realized at a young age there might be a need for this kind of a resource. Her older brother was struggling in school and started having behavior problems.

“I always felt he was smart enough, but he never had the chance to develop that intelligence,” she said.

When she was in college, a professor asked the class to write a life plan. Cullers wrote that she wanted to have a family, teach and offer tutoring from her home in math, which was her specialty. She got a B on the assignment.

“There are not a lot of grades I remember, but I do remember that one, with the comment ‘Very interesting,’” she said.

During her time as a teacher, she saw the number of students who could benefit from a program like the one she eventually created. She said she would stay after school to be available for those who needed extra instruction, but there were always kids who were not able to come.

“When I was teaching, there were always kids I couldn’t reach,” Cullers said. “I always helped as many as I could after school, but there were always some who couldn’t come after school. I felt like there should be someplace where low-income people could go to get the same help the richer kids could get.”

Cullers said some of the current high school students have been coming to Hand to Hand since they were in third grade. She said it is rewarding to see kids need less help over time. One student used to get frustrated by long division and now will be starting a doctorate after studying chemistry and biochemistry at New York University. Cullers said individual time with a tutor explaining the method behind long division helped get the student past that barrier.

Cullers said her own grandson had been behind in reading and came to the program for the summer. By the time he went back to school, he no longer needed a reading teacher at school.

“It was a matter of finding his weakness and carrying him forward through it,” she said.

She said tutors keep records of what students work on each session to maintain some sort of consistency. Recruiting tutors is one of the biggest challenges, Cullers said, so there is some turnover. They reward kids for work by placing stickers on a sheet, and when they reach certain goals, they can get a prize, like a bag of chips or an eraser.

Cullers said curriculum, the students, families and volunteers have all changed since the program started. She said she thought a lot of changes in curriculum were beneficial for student learning, but that it seems more difficult for people to find the energy to volunteer or even get their children to activities after school.

“The younger retirees are just burned out,” Cullers said. “I don’t think teaching is the only job that’s happening to. It’s harder for parents to get their kids here. They’re exhausted from their own jobs.”

She’s looking to take a step back in the near future. She’d like to get someone, or a few people, in to take a few of the responsibilities off her plate. She’d also like to see more retirees volunteering with the program, because it makes for more consistency among the tutors.

But for now, Cullers is still at the Douglass Center every week, organizing students and tutors to help kids learn.

“You never know what good you’re going to do getting a kid over that little hump,” Cullers said.

Jarrett William Smith