Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Murder charges filed against Joplin man for death of abused three-year-old; no bond allowed

The Jasper County Prosecuting Attorney's office has filed second degree murder charges this afternoon against Leonard Valdez, 21, Joplin, for the November 12 death of three-year-old Jonathan Munoz-Bilbrey.

Judge Joseph A. Hensley ruled that Valdez, whose bond had been set at $150,000, will be held without bond.

Valdez also faces the original charge of child abuse or neglect. He pleaded not guilty to that charge during a video arraignment this morning in Jasper County Circuit Court.

The three-year-old was taken to Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City after he suffered brain injuries, facial bruising and a laceration at his home at 1502 S. Michigan Avenue November 10.

The boy died 22 days after the Joplin Police Department arrested Valdez for domestic assault at the same addres, 1502 S. Michigan Avenue, where police say the child abuse took place. The victim was the boy's mother, Natasha Michelle Bilbrey, 22, according to the JPD incident report.

The next hearing will be held 9 a.m. December 13.

Trial date set for former North Middle School reading teacher on statutory rape charge

Three days have been set aside beginning April 11 in Jasper County Circuit Court for former North Middle School reading teacher Amanda Schweitzer's trial on a felony statutory rape charge.

Judge Dean Dankelson will preside.

Schweitzer, 38, allegedly had sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old student at her home March 29.

Schweitzer is also charged with three felony charges, kidnapping, statutory rape, and statutory sodomy in Newton County for allegedly taking the same 13-year-old boy to the Water's Edge Camp Ground and having sex with him.

Schweitzer, who was placed on administrative leave by the Joplin R-8 School District, has since resigned.

Joplin man pleads not guilty to abuse that led to death of 3-year-old

Leonard Valdez, 21, Joplin, waived his arraignment this morning and pleaded not guilty to felony child abuse in connection with the death of three-year-old Jonathan Munoz-Bilbrey.

The probable cause statement said the boy suffered head injuries, bruises and a laceration when he was brought to Mercy Hospital November 10. The boy died November 12 at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City.

The next hearing will be held 9 a.m. December 13. Valdez is being held in the Jasper County Jail on a $150,000 cash only bond.

You are invited to my holiday book signing- plenty of bargains available

For those looking for Christmas gifts for the reader in the family (or for t-shirts that are sure to irritate the Joplin Globe), I am having my holiday book signing 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, December 2, at Changing Hands Book Shoppe, 528 S. Virginia Avenue, Joplin.

I will have copies of all of my books available at special reduced prices.

Plus, the Turner Report t-shirts will on sale at a reduced price of $15.

Books that will be available include the following:

Silver Lining in a Funnel Cloud: Greed, Corruption and the Joplin Tornado- $15 (normally $20)

Classroom Confidential- $10 (normal $15)

Sports Talk Memories $10 (normal $15)

Devil's Messenger $10 (normal $15

No Child Left Alive $10 (normal $15)

Let Teachers Teach $10 (normal $15)

Scars from the Tornado: One Year at Joplin East Middle School $10 (normal $15)

Spirit of Hope: The Year After the Joplin Tornado $15 (normal $10)

5:41: Stories from the Joplin Tornado $15 (normal $10)

Newspaper Days $5 (normal $15)

The Turner Report $5 (normal $15)

Small Town News $5 (normal $15)

Turner Report reaches milestone- Thanks for 10 million visits

Sometime Tuesday, the Turner Report reached the 10 million visitor mark.

The milestone comes just a few days after the blog's 27,000th post was published.

The Turner Report almost never came into existence. After working in newspapers for 22 years, I was teaching at Diamond Middle School when Christian Wall, an eighth grader, suggested I create a website.

I told him I would love to, but I did not have the technological capability, the money, or the time to do it.

Christian quickly set me straight. I did not need money, I did not need to know anything about computers and we could set up a website in a half hour. I was skeptical, but he was correct. Using a company called Homestead that I am not sure even exists any more, we set up a basic website for my writing class.

A few months later, sometime around the summer of 2000, using the same rudimentary technology, I created the original Turner Report, a news site that featured investigative reporting and commentary. While it had some good material on it, the website never attracted many visitors, probably no more than a few hundred in the seven or eight months I did it. Since it was a pain to maintain it and was not achieving any positive results, I eventually stopped updating it.

At that point, I thought that was it for my connection with journalism, though I was writing some Diamond school news and covering Diamond sports events for the Newton County News.

During my last year in the Diamond R-4 School District, two of my former students, Michelle Nickolaisen and Alicia Bradley, stopped by my classroom to talk with me. They told me about high school and how they wanted to keep writing, but were looking for something to write about. I suggested they should keep a journal of their high school experiences.

The next day, they stopped by my classroom and told me they were so excited about the idea, they had already started their journals, but they were doing them as blogs.

I had no idea what a blog was and I conducted an internal debate on whether I should admit that and I finally did.

They commandeered my computer and showed me their blogs and showed me that the internet had advanced to the point that web logs had been created that allowed people to publish their own thoughts or news or information for free.

I liked the price.

A few months later, as I was beginning my first year in the Joplin R-8 School District, I repeated a promise I always made to my students- if I was going to make them write every day (and I did), then I would write every day, too. Only this time I decided I would do it as a blog.

So in October 2003, the Turner Report was born. Initially, the only thing the blog had in common with the original Turner Report website was the name. My early offerings were a hodgepodge of everything from book and movie reviews to updates on what was going on at South Middle School. Gradually, I moved to the news and commentary format that I still use.

The readership was small, usually reaching only 35 to 50 readers a day and it did not increase much for years, though it developed a following among Missouri journalists and politicians.

The event that changed the direction of the Turner Report was the same event that changed the lives of everyone in Joplin- the May 22, 2011 tornado. After the tornado, I began collecting every bit of information I could find and publishing it, everything from City of Joplin news releases about the tornado to links to news reports, to the obituaries of all of those who lost their lives.

Readership increased and I began to see a new path for the blog. While most of my earlier investigative reporting had centered on state politics and court cases, I began paying more attention to what was going on in the City of Joplin and this area.

The first example that comes to mind was in April 2012 when the Turner Report revealed that the firm the City of Joplin was considering hiring as its master developer, Wallace Bajjali, had a history of bankruptcies and had been clamped down on by the SEC.

The first Wallace Bajjali report came before the Joplin City Council hired the firm. Sadly, the hiring took place anyway.

Unfortunately, the next major event that affected the blog was when the Joplin R-8 School District fired me in 2013. While I knew the school district was a mess while I was working there, it was not until I was fired and started going through records, documents, e-mails and talking to teachers and parents, many of whom I had never met before, that I realized how much of a mess it was.

After that, I reported on the financial problems of the district, C. J. Huff's speaking tour across the United States, the problems with the opening of Joplin High School, the infamous $100,000 bleachers, and then Huff's fall and his "retirement."

As I wrote about R-8 and Wallace Bajjali, the blog's readership grew, so when C. J. Huff and David Wallace departed the local scene (newswise, at least in Huff's case), some wondered what would happen to the Turner Report and I was one of those who wondered.

I did not need to worry. The news keeps going, it is just the stories that change.

Instead of writing about David Wallace, C. J. Huff and Mike Woolston, I was writing about the Jasper County judicial system, Dean Dankelson's campaign contributions, Ace Mohr's run-ins with the law and even the Rangeline Sonic lawsuit story that resulted in my September 11 trip to the Freeman emergency room.

So I no longer worry about where the material will come from, I keep looking for it and then writing about it.

The best part of the 14 years of the Turner Report has been building a community with the readers It is you that have kept me writing and made the experience so enjoyable. I will work to keep providing you with reasons to return.

Thanks for 10 million visits.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Arraignment scheduled for Joplin man accused of abusing 3-year-old boy who died from injuries

An 8 a.m. arraignment is scheduled Wednesday before Judge Joseph Hensley in Jasper County Circuit Court for Leonard Valdez, 21, Joplin, who is charged with felony child abuse in connection with the death of three-year-old Jonathan Munoz-Bilbrey.

The probable cause statement said the boy suffered head injuries, bruises and a laceration when he was brought to Mercy Hospital November 10. The boy died November 12 at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City.

The person who was supposed to be providing care to him at the time he was abused was Valdez, 21, who is is jail in lieu of $150,000 cash only bond.

Jonathan Munoz-Bilbrey's death occurred exactly three weeks and one day after Valdez had been arrested for domestic assault at the same address, 1502 S. Michigan Avenue, where police say the child abuse took place. The victim was the boy's mother, Natasha Michelle Bilbrey, 22, according to the JPD incident report.

Joplin man pleads guilty to child porn charge; Affidavit indicates Neosho man molested 7-year-old for years

A Joplin man who viewed pornography featuring children as young to one to two years old, pleaded guilty to child pornography charges today in U. S. District Court in Springfield.

Court records indicate Ronald Lee Fields, 56, entered his guilty plea during a 12-minute session.

A federal grand jury indicted Fields after a Southwest Missouri Cyber Crimes Task Force investigation uncovered child pornography on his computer. During an interview, Fields acknowledged viewing the child porn, referring to it as the "titillating, forbidden thing."

An SD card from a Sony camera taken from Fields' home revealed nude photos of another man and a boy who appeared to be between the ages of three and six, with the boy sitting in the man's lap.

Fields said the photos were taken in a room at Fields' home and identified the adult as Shannon Calhoun, 32, Neosho.

The probable cause affidavit for Calhoun said subsequent images were uncovered showing Calhoun performing sexual acts on the boy over a period of several years. The boy is currently seven years old.

Homeland Security helped locate Calhoun, who had moved from Neosho to West Virginia.

Calhoun is scheduled to plead guilty 2 p.m. September 27 in Springfield to sexual exploitation of a child.

Watch the Joplin R-8 Board of Education meeting live at 7 p.m.

Exploration Station owners: Two-year-old was at fault

Owners of the Exploration Station Pre-School, 3132 E. 12th, Joplin, deny any fault in connection with the child abuse allegations lodged against them in a lawsuit filed October 20 in Jasper County Circuit Court.

In a typical response to any such lawsuit, the response, which was filed today, not only denied all allegations, but claimed the two-year-old whose parents brought the lawsuit was at fault.

"Plaintiff J. W. (the two-year-old) assumed the risk of removal from the classroom when he was disruptive to other children in the classroom," the response said.

J. W.'s parents, Nick and Adrienne Weston, Oronogo, allege that Exploration Station owners Charyl and Chad Copher and co-defendant Kayla Copher were responsible for false imprisonment of J. W., intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress and negligence due to child endangerment and abuse, with the alleged circumstances spelled out in the petition:

The petition spells out what the Westons claim happened during the short time J. W. was at Exploration Station and how they came to learn about the extent of what had been done to their son:

(O)n or about July, 2017, Nick and Adrienne Weston, legal parents of J.W., engaged the services of Exploration Station Preschool and Childcare for the care of J.W. during the workday. J.W. was a typical two-year-old child that occasionally cried when his parents dropped him at the facility, but according to all written reports the child would be fussy at drop off or nap time, but would be “great” the remainder of the day.

Nick and Adrienne Weston were told by Charyl Copher and Kayla Copher that if a child became too upset, they would contact the parents to come to the facility and calm the child. Over time, the parents noticed that J.W. seemed more upset than usual at drop off and Nick Weston called the facility to discuss how to best address the issue.

Kayla Copher said she appreciated the parents' willingness to work with them, and felt that the child would adjust over time. On one occasion, when Adrienne Weston picked up the child she was informed by two teachers outside the classroom that J.W. was having a “breakdown.”

Upon entering the room, Ms. Weston noticed that Kayla Copher was frustrated with J.W., and she commented that the child seemed to get upset when the teacher in his classroom was switched out during the afternoon.

Again, the Westons discussed with the staff how to address the issue, and Ms. Weston began leaving work early to pick the child up prior to the teacher change in mid-afternoon.

On September 25, 2017 Adrienne Weston received a call from Charyl Copher that J.W. had a “bad fit” right before nap and hit his head and face on his cot, but they didn’t notice any injury until after his nap. There appeared to be some bruising and they were treating it with ice, but didn’t want her to be alarmed at pickup about his condition. Charyl went on to say she had never seen a child act so badly. This confused Ms. Weston, as the written reports on J.W. were always good other than fussy at drop off and nap time.

Ms. Weston arrived at the facility to pick up J.W., and was surprised at the severity of injuries to the face, head and neck of J.W. from hitting a nap cot, and was going to take the child to the doctor immediately. Cheryl, Kayla and the teachers did not have matching accounts of the incident.

She immediately requested a copy of the incident report from Ms. Copher to provide to the doctor. An incident report was reluctantly provided. En route to the doctor, J.W. was unusually clingy and lethargic, and kept complaining he was hungry. The doctor noted the abrasions and scratches, but felt that those would properly heal over time, and the bigger concern was the social aspect of what happened at the facility.

Ms. Weston made the decision to terminate services at Exploration Station, as she felt she was not given an accurate account of the incident with J.W. that resulted in such injuries.

On October 6, 2017, the Westons learned that Exploration Station was closing because all of the childcare teachers voluntarily terminated their employment with the facility.

On October 7, 2017, the Westons were invited to a private Facebook group by former teachers at the facility, and learned that J.W. was emotional and crying the morning of September 25, 2017 in the classroom. The teacher was working to soothe the child when Kayla Copher removed J.W. from his classroom. Kayla returned with him a short time later, and he began to cry. This took place three or four times in a short period of time. The last time the child was not returned to the classroom.

The classroom teacher stuck her head out the door of the classroom to look for J.W., and she could hear him screaming her name. She went toward the child and found he was being forced to lay on the lunchroom floor. The child attempted to get to his teacher, and Charyl and Kayla would not allow it.

The child was removed behind closed doors with Charyl and Kayla, so that no other staff members could witness their actions. The child was then locked in a dark room alone until he could calm down, and was not fed any lunch.

The child was returned to the classroom for nap time where he appeared so scared he would not even move on his cot, and it was at this time that the injuries were noted by the teacher.

Charyl Copher typed an untruthful statement regarding the incident, and told each staff member they were required to sign the statement, so they “would all have the same story in case the State comes in to investigate.”

The teachers/staff members all chose to voluntarily terminate their employment based on this incident, and the facility closed October 6, 2017.

(S)ince September 25, 2017 J.W. has suffered from severe separation anxiety if one or both the parents leave his presence, and suffers from fear of the dark at bedtime and night terrors which were not present prior to actions of the Defendants. The child is in need of psychological care and therapy as result of the Defendants’ actions.

Nick Weston and Adrienne Weston have suffered and continue to suffer emotional distress because of the injuries and suffering of their small child at the hands of Defendants.

The Westons, who are represented by the Tracey Martin Law Office, Joplin, are seeking at least $25,000 in actual damages, punitive damages and costs. They are asking for a jury trial.

In the response, the Cophers said that they, too, want a jury trial.

The Cophers' attorney is Olivia McNair of the Springfield firm of Franke, Schultz & Mullen.

Missouri Department of Revenue compliance officers to carry firearms

(From the Missouri Department of Revenue)

Missouri Department of Revenue Director Joel Walters today issued the following statement:

Effective today, the Department of Revenue is implementing policy in accordance with the original intent of legislation enacted by the General Assembly, giving our 12 compliance investigators the ability to carry firearms in the line of duty. This action is necessary to help ensure agent safety in our Compliance and Investigation Bureau. 

This policy was modeled after, and brings the department into alignment with the Department of Corrections’ Probation and Parole, a comparable state agency whose policy allows its investigators to carry firearms.