On a morning last month, Robert Ritchie III awoke to find that his son was not breathing. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that he sobbed into the phone to the police dispatcher: “I think my son died.”
The dispatcher asked Ritchie to try resuscitating the 4-year-old. “He is stiff as a board,” Ritchie cried.
His paternal instincts were right. Upon arrival at the hospital in Atrium, Oh., Austin Derreck Cooper was pronounced dead of shock from blood and fluid loss.
On Monday, Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell announced at a press conference that Austin’s 25-year-old stepmother, Anna Ritchie, has been indicted on charges of murder, involuntary manslaughter, felonious assault and endangering children.
Robert Ritchie had told police that the last he saw of his son was before his wife went to give him a “hot bath.”
Prosecutors now believe that “hot” was a grotesque understatement — the water in which Anna Ritchie placed Austin, they allege, was scalding.
Fornshell told reporters on Monday that Ritchie was resentful of being the primary caretaker of a child who was not biologically hers (she and Robert assumed guardianship of Austin in January). Ritchie allegedly considered the scalding bath a punishment, holding Austin in waters of approximately 134 degrees for up to 25 minutes.
“Just to be in that tub for a minute or two would have to be the most excruciating pain,” Fornshell said. “As a father, it makes you angry that somebody can do that to a child.”
By the time Austin was allowed out of the water, “half of his body was substantially burned to the point that the skin’s hanging on the body.”
His skin was falling off of his legs, prosecutors said, and he was bleeding significantly. But they allege that Ritchie did not seek medical treatment, and instead placed him in pajamas and socks and put him to bed. Had Austin been hospitalized immediately, there is a high likelihood that he would have survived, Fornshell said.
According to the Associated Press, an investigator in Franklin, Oh., where the family lived, said Ritchie could hear Austin crying through the night. She allegedly ignored him and told his father not to check on him.
Seth Cantwell, an attorney for the accused, declined to comment on the case to the AP on Monday.