An Illinois woman is facing life in prison after being convicted in the death of her 8-year-old stepdaughter, Bloomington station WGLT reported.
Cynthia Baker was found guilty of murder on Nov. 19, a jury also convicting her of aggravated battery of a child, domestic battery and endangerment of a child following years of abuse that claimed the life of Rica Rountree, her boyfriend’s daughter
Baker was arrested in April, three months after Rountree died from internal injuries prosecutors said the young girl sustained after repeated kicks and blows to her stomach. She was rushed to a Peoria hospital in late January when she became unresponsive and was complaining of stomach pain for several days, according to Illinois Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) records obtained by the station.
“The minor arrived to the hospital [with] a large bruise to her abdominal section and went immediately into surgery for internal injuries,” the report read, noting the trauma was “life-threatening.” “She was unresponsive and ultimately died from her injuries.”
Baker denied hurting the child. However, a police investigation uncovered video evidence of the woman physically abusing Rountree. In one instance, Baker forced the girl to hold cans in her outstretched arms for long periods of time, and if she let them fall, Baker would choke her and say, “Do I need to put a collar on you?”
In a separate clip, Baker is seen slamming Rountree’s head against a wall and slapping her naked body. That video was later shared with the girl’s father, Richard Rountree. At this time he has not been charged in his daughter’s death.
Evidence presented to jurors at trial showed Richard condoned Baker’s abuse of his daughter. According to texts obtained by police, the couple often complained about Rica, 8, and had a mutual desire for her to live elsewhere.
The abuse was so commonplace, the couple’s other children didn’t think much of it. One of Baker’s own daughters testified to seeing her mother abuse Rountree, describing a household where the girl was whipped and tortured at the hands of her white stepmother.
Taking the stand, one of the girls, 7, said she witnessed Baker kick Rountree in the stomach on multiple occasions and detailed a separate incident when her mother “laughed” after Rountree hit her head on the TV stand.
McLean County Assistant State’s Attorney Erika Reynolds called the abuse “unthinkable.”
[Rica] “was battered and abused in front of every kid in this house,” Reynolds said. “She was treated as less than as this defendant’s punching bag and her pain served as entertainment for the entire family.”
Rountree would die as a result of peritonitis, a condition caused by ruptures of her intestine, an autopsy report showed. A pathologist also noted over 60 marks and bruises to the child’s body as a result of the ongoing abuse.
Following her arrest, prosecutors said Baker slipped her boyfriend a letter urging him “to lie and take the blame” during his testimony. Richard Rountree would never testify.
The girl’s mother, Ann Simmons, said her daughter was let down by those meant to protect her and placed partial blame on DCFS.
“Everybody failed her. I failed her,” Simmons, who’s currently serving a 2.5 year prison sentence, told local station WFLT. DCFS records show Rountree was placed in her father’s custody in September 2016 after a drug raid on her mother’s home.
The child’s tragic death has underscored issues within the state protection agency. According to WGLT, Rica was one of 103 children who died in the past year while involved in some way with DCFS. The agency has defended itself against criticism, saying Rountree’s case was being investigated prior to her death.
Addressing the controversy in a statement, it said:
“DCFS is deeply saddened by the loss of Rica Rountree,” the agency said. “During her time with her father, DCFS conducted multiple investigations into allegations of abuse and found these allegations to be unfounded. There is currently a pending investigation into this death and we are committed to understanding exactly what happened in this case and being fully transparent with the public.”
Baker’s sentencing is set for February.
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