'Baby Grace' case sees first trial this week

January 24, 2009 4:21:20 AM PST
Even the most grizzled investigators were reduced to tears by the disturbing details of 2-year-old Riley Ann Sawyers' murder. [SIGN UP: Get headlines and breaking news sent to you]

The toddler was dubbed "Baby Grace" in late October and November 2007 when authorities feverishly worked to identify the badly decomposed remains that had been stuffed into a plastic container, dumped into the murky waters of Galveston Bay and discovered by a fisherman on a tiny island about a mile from shore.

Jury selection in the capital murder trial of Riley Ann's mother, 20-year-old Kimberly Dawn Trenor, was set to begin Monday. Trenor and her husband, Royce Clyde Zeigler II are accused of beating to death the toddler in July 2007 and hiding the body for a month or two in a storage shed at their home in Spring, a northern Houston suburb, before dumping it in the bay 70 miles away.

"I saw a lot of real tears from a lot of old-time, seasoned detectives who took this home with them every night," said Tim Miller, director of Texas EquuSearch, a volunteer search organization that helped in the investigation.

The break in the case came when a woman named Sheryl Sawyers in Ohio, who had seen an artist's sketch of the girl and believed it was her granddaughter Riley, called authorities.

If convicted, Trenor faces up to life in prison without parole. The jury could also convict her of a lesser charge. Trenor last week pleaded guilty to a charge of evidence tampering and will be sentenced for that after her murder trial. Zeigler will be tried later.

Prosecutors declined to seek the death penalty against either her or Zeigler, 25, because they didn't think they could prove that the pair would be a future danger, a requirement for such a punishment.

Trenor told police the beating began during a discipline session when the toddler forgot to say "please" and "yes, sir" to Zeigler, her stepfather.

According to the arrest affidavit, Trenor said she and Zeigler used two leather belts to beat Riley and also held her head under water. But she claims it was Zeigler who grabbed Riley by her hair and flung her across a room onto a tile floor, fracturing her skull in three places and killing her, an autopsy concluded.

Trenor and Riley moved from Mentor, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb, to Texas in June 2007 to be with Zeigler, whom she met playing an online game, World of Warcraft.

"The charges against her are she intentionally killed her daughter and we contend that is not what happened," said Trenor's attorney, Tommy Stickler Jr.

Zeigler's attorney, Neal Davis III, points the finger at Trenor.

"Royce didn't kill, didn't murder Riley," Davis said. "I think her trial will hopefully refute some of her story."

Sheryl Sawyers, Riley's grandmother, is scheduled to testify at the trial.

"It is a small relief to hear Ms. Trenor is taking some responsibility for her role in this tragedy," said Laura DePledge, an attorney for the Sawyers family, referring to Trenor's admission that she tampered with evidence. "Most of the shock having passed, the family has been focused on dealing with their loss. The onset of trial, however, will force them to relive the trauma and expose them to extraordinary pain again."

Galveston County District Attorney Kurt Sistrunk declined comment about the case before the trial starts.

Trenor and Zeigler remain in the Galveston County Jail under bonds of $850,000 each.

In June 2008, Trenor gave birth to a boy, Shawn, while awaiting trial. The boy is living in the Dallas area with distant relatives of Trenor, who relinquished her parental rights. Zeigler has not relinquished his rights, child welfare officials said.

Riley's murder and its investigation garnered much media coverage and Galveston County District Judge David Garner tried to weed out people in the initial jury pool who already had made up their minds about the case.

"The infection of the publicity in the case will make it very difficult for anyone to be fair and impartial," said Joel Androphy, a Houston attorney not connected to the case.

Androphy also said Trenor's case is hampered by the fact that people generally want to punish someone for a child's death. "That gives the prosecution a tremendous advantage," he said.

The island where the toddler's body was found was officially renamed "Riley's Island." A wooden cross bearing a plaque with her name was placed there as a memorial, but Hurricane Ike washed it away when it came ashore near Galveston on Sept. 13.

Miller, who made the original cross, said he is making a new one and hopes that he and Riley's family can place it on the island at the end of Trenor's trial.

"It's sad the cross is gone. But as much damage as the hurricane did, I was afraid the whole island would be wiped away," he said. "God did not want that to happen. The cross will be put there again in her honor."

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