RALEIGH, NC --Her life is a series of excruciating moments, day after day waiting for the moment when she will once again see her young son, Micah.
It's been a year and a half since Mary Peele, who goes by Marty, held her baby boy in her arms. A year and a half of sitting in his room, untouched since the day he was taken away from her, praying someone would hear her, would believe her when she said she would never willingly harm her son.
As for Peele, she faces felony and misdemeanor charges of child abuse. Police say she broke twelve of her four-month-old son's ribs, bit his shoulder, and left him with injuries some doctors say are akin to trauma from a high-speed car accident.
But while authorities may be convinced Micah's first months of life were spent being brutally abused at the hands of his mother, Peele has a very different story to tell.
'I've waited my whole life to be a mom.'
Micah Xavier Dover was Marty Peele's miracle baby.
Before her fiance, before her son, before the elation of becoming a mother, Peele underwent miscarriage after miscarriage during her previous marriage - she said she had eight.
Micah, she said, was a bit of a surprise, but a happy one, one she had waited for her entire life. Peele said she and her now-fiance, Derrick Dover, didn't tell anyone about the pregnancy until after the first trimester because of how many losses she'd had in the first trimester.
She couldn't believe she was going to be a mother until she saw him for the first time.
"I think I was fearful until, until we heard him crying," she said.
After a grueling 40-hour labor - Peele was at first determined to deliver her son naturally - Micah came into the world via emergency C-section. The newborn spent his first five days in the hospital suffering from jaundice. A bili-blanket to treat jaundice was even sent home with Micah.
Finally Peele was able to take her newborn home. There awaited him a small square nursery, painted a bright blue and lovingly decorated with pictures and wall hangings Peele and Dover created themselves.
"I was just so elated to be a mom and create this beautiful nursery for him," she said.
Dover, too, said he was overjoyed to be a father. Childhood memories of days spent playing at sports with his brother made him especially eager to have a son, he said.
"I always told Marty when we first start talking all I wanted to do was make her happy. I would do anything in the world for her," said Dover. "Then when we had Micah, I told her she was number two now.
While Peele said she loved every moment of motherhood, she admits it wasn't always easy. Micah cried often - screamed, Peele said - particularly when he was laid on his back or put in his car seat. "We just thought we had a fussy baby," she said. Micah would always keep his hands clasped tightly in front of him she said, and he would often scratch at himself.
Peele's care for her son was painstaking. At the time she was working as a nanny, a job she was happy to have, she said, so she could keep her son with her at all times. She opted not to vaccinate him, and she said she did not even circumcise him because she did not want him to feel pain.
Also, she breast-fed him almost exclusively - a choice that may have led to very unfortunate consequences.
'All hell broke loose'
The months leading up to July 19th, the day Marty Peele's life was turned on its head, were spent taking Micah to the park, sitting with him on the porch, documenting every moment of his young life.
There were doctors' visits, lots of them because of Micah's jaundice, lactation consults, and one frenzied hospital visit when Micah was almost two months old. Peele said something seemed wrong with her son's arm - he wouldn't move it and if she lifted it, he just let it fall to his side.
At the hospital, doctors examined Micah's arm and took x-rays. The doctor noted in his report that there was no evidence of fracturing to his arm. The report also notes that "no signs of possible abuse and/or neglect were noted at the time of this assessment."
Saturday July 19th, 2014 - just over two months later - was meant to be a big day. They were celebrating Dover's birthday, his first as a father. They'd planned a day spent together as a family, and later, a big homemade seafood dinner.
But that's not the way it happened.
Dover said he woke that morning and tended to his son before heading out to pick up the ingredients he needed for dinner. The baby fell back asleep and when he woke up later, Peele went to him.
"When I picked him up I felt something underneath his left arm that just didn't feel right to me," she said. "When he would fuss you could feel a little popping, but unless you messed with him he was fine."
Still, Micah's parents decided it was best to call the after-hours nurse line, to check and make sure everything was ok. Peele said it took them several hours to reach Micah's pediatrician, and when she finally did she suggested they go to the hospital and have him checked out.
"We walked in as a family, with our son in the car seat," said Peele. "I remember sitting him on the desk, you know, hey, we're here, we just want to check and make sure our baby is ok. And it was like right after, all hell broke loose."
Peele said Micah was whisked away to have x-rays taken. Peele and Dover were left waiting in the hallway and Peele said she was in hysterics. From inside the x-ray room, she said she could hear her son screaming.
Finally Micah was brought out and returned to his parents. Peele said she wrapped her anguished child in her sweater to soothe him. The doctors returned, wanted to do more x-rays. After, Peele and Dover said they were approached by a social worker.
"He tells us that Micah has multiple fractured ribs and we were just flabbergasted," she said. "What do you mean he has fractured ribs?"
According to medical records, the x-ray scans showed acute fractures of the left first through sixth ribs, healing fractures of the right sixth through tenth ribs - some of his ribs showed multiple fractures. The doctors' reports also say there were possible signs of a healed fracture to the ulna and radius of his left arm, and they point to a mark on his shoulder they note as a bite mark.
Peele says she never bit her son.
"He would grab, like he had started to roll and he would get his hand caught under his shoulder and he would grab himself. His skin was very fragile," she said.
The original ER reports noted bruising and scabbing to the left upper arm resembling bite marks. The next day, that same report was modified by lining out that comment.
However, on Micah's discharge summary from the hospital the doctor noted the puncture wounds in a distribution suggesting that they resulted from a bite over the left shoulder area.
Micah's doctors suspected abuse, the reports say, and contacted the Raleigh Police. During one of the interrogations Peele underwent, a detective on her case said to her:
"You've got a 16-week-old in there who's had the s--t kicked out of him his entire life."
Indeed, the doctors' reports are condemning. Phrases stand out from the discharge summary: "Nonaccidental trauma...unquestionable injuries inflicted by an adult..." The social worker assigned to Micah's case wrote in his file that one radiologist said Micah's injuries were the worst skeletal trauma she had ever seen.
'I feel like I'm in a nightmare'
Peele, Dover and Peele's father, Allen Coleman, sat through a routine interrogation with the police at the hospital. Peele and Dover ran through the events of the previous day with the detective, both asserting they had no idea how Micah received fractures to his ribs and that they would never willingly hurt their son. Initially, Peele and Dover both agreed to take polygraph tests and bite impressions.
Coleman was also interviewed by a detective. Coleman told the detective he had only watched Micah twice. When the detective asked Coleman if anything unusual happened while he was watching Micah, Coleman admitted that once he slipped on a rug in the kitchen while holding his grandson and fell backwards. He said Micah remained on his chest when he fell and he did not believe Micah got hurt.
"I was standing in the kitchen," said Coleman. "I was standing on that rug and the rug is on hardwood, and it's a rag rug and it slips pretty easy. And I went to turn around, and I turned around and my feet got tangled in it. The rug slid and I just fell. Not on him, no. With him."
Peele and Dover went through a second interrogation, this time much less cordial and routine. Peele said one thing was clear - the detectives had already made up their mind that either she or Dover was responsible for Micah's injuries.
LISTEN: MARY PEEL INTERROGATION (CAUTION - GRAPHIC LANGUAGE)
"We can sit here and play this game back and forth and you know nothing, and to me, someone who does that is the devil. They can throw you under the f-----g jail," said one detective, five minutes into the interrogation.
The recorded interrogation reveals what the detectives seem to find most troubling: Peele's calm during the investigation. Peele maintains that after caring for children as a nanny for nearly 20 years, her instinct is to remain calm in a crisis. She said she was also set on explaining to the detective who she was and what Micah meant to her.
The detective suggested to Peele that she had gone through postpartum depression, but Peele denied this. She told the detective she would run into the street to protect anyone's child, his child, reminded him that she had labored for 40 hours to bring Micah into the world.
The detective's reply;
"I don't give a f--k about you going through labor or nothing. I give a f--k about Micah right now."
Another detective, yelling, said, "There is a four-month-old baby in there that has every single rib broken. Four months old. And what I can empathize with is if you gave a s--t about that. Your husband sat here, (Micah's father), he sat here and showed more emotion than you are showing right now and that is pathetic."
Dover's interrogation was less vehement. The detective told him it had to be either him or Marty and encouraged him to tell the truth so he could help their family.
LISTEN: DERRICK DOVER INTEROGATION (CAUTION - GRAPHIC LANGUAGE)
After a long moment of silence, Dover told the detective: "I'm sorry sir, I can't confess. Like you said, stress, struggling, it's all that. But I can't confess to you that I did something that I know I didn't do."
Just a few hours later, Peele and Dover were sent home without their son. Child Protective Services took emergency custody of Micah.
'I came home and I started Googling'
Micah left the hospital on the 22nd of July, and was released into foster care. He was in the hospital for a total of three days - three days of wide-eyed, frantic worry for his parents.
Besides the fractured bones, according to medical records Micah had a Vitamin D deficiency, and had some abnormally high values in his bloodwork. Doctors ordered additional scans to evaluate any additional injuries Micah might have, and the reports say that a CT scan, a brain MRI, and an abdominal ultrasound all proved to be clear of further injury. Records show that doctors also looked for signs of a bone condition, such as osteogenesis imperfecta, better known as brittle bone disease, and rickets, but notes in the report say they found nothing.
READ: DISCHARGE SUMMARY (.PDF)
At home, Micah's mother was still trying to provide for her child.
"I still was providing breast milk," Peele said. "I came home that night and I don't think I slept for several days. I literally, I was so terrified I would lose my supply, because I'm like, they're going to realize they've made a mistake. I have to keep my supply up. I have to figure out what's wrong."
Thus began Peele's desperate search to figure out the cause of her son's injuries. A member of several online 'mommy groups,' Peele had reached out to her online friends for prayers - first for her son being in the hospital and then later, once Child Protective Services showed up, for her family.
Her friends came through for her. They started posting stories about families torn apart because of suspected child abuse. Young children with unexplained fractures and bewildered parents vehemently denying harming them. Frighteningly similar stories to Peele's.
It was from these stories that Peele said she realized her son might have a rare bone disease. She said she immediately began to collect hospital and doctors' records and reaching out to specialists across the country.
Meanwhile, Micah was released from the hospital and into foster care. Peele was allowed just one, one-hour supervised visit with him, on July 28th, five days after he had been released from the hospital. In Peele's memory, this is a day full of devastation.
It was the last time she would see her child.
And that night, the police came.
'How do you prepare yourself to be arrested for something you didn't do?'
She remembers Wheel of Fortune was playing on the television and she was pumping breast milk for Micah when there was a knock at the door. Things happened quickly after that. The detective, the one from the hospital, came in, told Dover to sit down while he arrested his fiance.
"To see her, for him to come in here and arrest her and tell me to sit down, I don't like to feel helpless," said Dover. "And I just couldn't, I couldn't do anything. I mean, if I would have tried to do something, then both of us would have been in jail."
The police arrested Peele on one charge of felony child abuse and one charge of misdemeanor child abuse. She was placed into the police car and cut off from Derrick. From the life she had waited so long to have. The detective took her to his headquarters, to give her one last chance to confess, she said. She refused to speak without her attorney.
READ: ARREST WARRANTS (.PDF)
Then Peele found herself, for the first time in her life, on the way to jail.
"I just remember seeing such an amazing sunset and being like, I don't know when I'm going to see this again," she said. "I don't know what's going on. I'm so confused."
The next day Peele had her first court appearance, a preliminary hearing. Her attorney pointed out that Peele has no criminal history and has worked for years as a nanny, without complaint. He asked the judge to consider lowering the $250,000 bond.
But Wake County prosecutor Melanie Shekita argued for the judge to raise the bond.
"For the first 16 weeks of this child's life someone tortured him," she said. "I have grave concerns that if this woman had not presented him to the hospital, and I have no reason to believe that she didn't do that, that he could have ended up dead."
To Peele's dismay, Judge Jacqueline Brewer raised the bond to $400,000.
"And I remember that moment, there was a man that came up and moved a chair to my left as this was happening," said Peele. "I remember almost asking him if I could please sit, I was so close to passing out."
It would take everything Peele and Dover had, everything they had saved, to pay it and set Peele free.
'I did not abuse my child'
Four days later, Peele was released and she got busy.
There were doctors at WakeMed who said in reports that her son had unquestionably sustained serious injuries at the hands of an adult. Micah had a follow-up exam in early September at SAFEchild Advocacy Center in Raleigh. The attending physician found that Micah was healing "tremendously" and referred that he see a genetic specialist at Duke Medicine.
The geneticist reviewing Micah's case at Duke Medicine wrote in her reports that she was not given his original hospital evaluation and did not have access to the x-rays showing the fractures at the time of Micah's evaluation.
Still, the social worker writes in Micah's file after his evaluation at Duke that the geneticist stated "unequivocally" that Micah's fractures are not consistent with a bone abnormality.
The Duke report also states that Micah's mother is Caucasian and that his father is biracial, when actually Peele is biracial and Dover is African American. It's also noted in the report that Peele's pregnancy history and Micah's birth history are unknown.
At Duke, Micah was tested for the two most common genes known to be involved with osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease). The results showed no mutation, but a variant was found and the geneticist could not definitively conclude what it meant without further testing.
Information from the Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation cautions that because osteogenesis imperfecta is so complex and variable, it requires a geneticist who is familiar with all forms of the disease and who has full access to all relevant medical reports in order to distinguish osteogenesis imperfecta from child abuse.
While reports from Micah's hospital visit claim there's no evidence of metabolic bone disorder, Peele has collected letters from five specialists who have reviewed Micah's case and concluded that it's likely he has a bone condition.
Orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Doug Benson of Chico, California, said in his letter that after looking over Micah's medical records, his family history, his lab work and his x-rays all point to signs of a metabolic bone disease. The fact that Micah's fractures were not accompanied by external damage or internal organ damage is not consistent with trauma of any sort accidental or otherwise, he wrote.
Benson concludes the letter:
"The diagnosis of child abuse because of "multiple unexplained fractures: is unsupportable."
READ: BENSON'S LETTER (.PDF)
Benson suggests in the letter that Micah may have infantile rickets - a disorder found in children that involves the weakening of their bones, caused primarily by a lack of vitamin D.
Peele said she exclusively breast-fed Micah as an infant, and, unbeknownst to Peele, breast milk has no vitamin D, unlike formula which is fortified with the vitamin.
"I didn't know there was no vitamin D in breast milk," said Peele. "Nobody ever told me that. I thought it was whole nutrition for my newborn."
Peele was told to give Micah vitamin D drops, bought at the grocery or drug store, while he was being breastfed, but Peele said she wasn't so diligent about it. She said she spent a lot of time outside with her infant and she thought that would be enough.
Reports suggest a vitamin D deficiency in newborns can also be caused when a pregnant mother takes TUMS, something Peele said she did often during her pregnancy.
Peele also travelled to Boston to consult with specialist Dr. Michael Holick. Holick has previously been involved with similar cases to Peele's and has come under fire from child abuse experts for testifying on behalf of parents on trial for mistreating their child.
Holick diagnosed Peele with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a group of disorders that affect the joints and skin. Holick states in the letter that it's likely that Micah also has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome - likely combined with infantile rickets.
READ: HOLICK'S LETTER (.PDF)
"The combination of infantile rickets and Ehlers-Danlos/hypermobility syndrome can markedly increase bone fragility to the point that it is likely he was fracturing his rib cage during the birthing process and that some of the fractures observed would likely be due to the handling of the infant immediately after birth."
There's even more.
Peele consulted Drs. Marvin Miller and David Ayoub. Miller is a professor of pediatrics at the Boonshoft school of Medicine at Wright State University, and Ayoub is a radiologist who has written extensively on the subject of mistaking metabolic bone disease for child abuse.
The doctors conclude in their letter that there is evidence for metabolic bone disease in Micah's family history and in his x-rays.
READ: MILLER'S LETTER AND ANNOTATED X-RAYS (.PDF)
While none of the above doctors actually saw Micah in person, Dr. Deanna Adkins of Duke's Children's Hospital did.
Though Adkins initially visited first with Peele, without Micah present, she looked at his records and said in her letter that she believes Micah had neonatal rickets and was at risk for fragility fractures. She also mentions the fact that Micah was only breastfed as an infant, as well as the fact that African-American children are more at a risk for vitamin D deficiencies.
READ: ADKIN'S LETTER (.PDF)
Adkins saw Micah in January of 2016 and ran blood tests as well as conducted x-rays. She writes in the report that Micah's x-rays show signs of healed rickets, but no active rickets. She also recommends Micah be on a vitamin D supplement.
'I am still a mom'
In some ways, it's as if time has stopped inside their house. For only having had guardianship of their son for four months, Peele and Dover's walls are covered in pictures of Micah as a new born. There are pictures of him with his father, nestled against his mother, in his crib, in his swing, on the porch, at the park. And then suddenly they stop.
In the nursery there's still a crib. Little baby footprints hang on the walls. There are diapers in the rack - even a dirty one Peele couldn't bear to throw away after her son was taken away sits on top of the changing station.
In other ways, there are painful reminders that time has indeed kept moving. Over the television hangs a recent picture of Micah, sent to Peele from Dover's mother - Micah's guardian now. He's walking, and in the picture he's laughing.
Everywhere there are presents piled for Micah. His birthday is coming up soon and in the mail he'll get a train set from his parents. His mother buys him clothes, new ones for every season and every size her growing boy will reach. His father shops online for toys, says he's already bought Micah all the Ninja Turtles and the Marvel superheroes.
"We can never get back this time," said Peele. "We can't get back his first words, or his first steps. His first teeth. His first Christmas. He called somebody else 'mama' and 'dada.' We didn't get to hear that. We can't get that back."
But Peele and Dover are anything but beaten. They say they continue to provide for their son financially, and have done so ever since he was in foster care. Micah was moved out of foster care and into the custody of his paternal grandmother. His parents say they signed over permanent custody of Micah to Dover's mother and were able to keep some of their parental rights intact.
Still, they are not allowed to see him, but Peele says Micah's grandmother shows him pictures of his parents. Sometimes the boy kisses the photos and tells the flat likeness of his mother that he loves her.
Through it all Peele and Dover refuse to believe their son may never come home.
"We're not going to move anything until he comes home and he moves them himself," said Dover. "Once he comes home, everything will be set for him. He won't want for anything."
"My son will come home," Peele said. "This is a nightmare that unless you have lived it, you can never ever comprehend this. And if we did not have our faith in God we would not have made it this far to continue to fight. My God will have my son home."
Peele has yet to go to trial. Though she has devoted her life to collecting support for her case, she says she doesn't know if her lawyer, a public defender, has brought anything before the prosecutor. ABC 11 reached out to Wake County Prosecutor Shekita, but she declined to comment.
In the meantime, there's nothing left for Peele and Dover to do but wait. Wait to go to trial. Wait to be heard. To face the verdict. And maybe, one day, to see Micah again.
Sitting in his nursery, reliving the quiet nights she spent nursing her young son, this is what Marty Peele prays for.
"They've robbed us," she said. "Stolen so much from us and I just want it to end. I just want it to end. They've made a mistake and I just want it to be over.
More fights for the truth
Peele and baby Micah are not alone in their battle. Cases have been popping up across the U.S. about parent's losing their child to rare bone diseases.
Two Maine parents were reunited with their children after 18 months of battling child abuse allegations.
Ryder's dad, Brandon Ross, was accused of harming his then 2-month old son and was charged with 12 counts of child abuse.
Ryder's mom, Cynthia Ross, made it her mission to find out what was going on.
Ryder and his sister were taken away from their home.
"This is my new job. My new job is to re-unite my family," Cynthia Ross, 24, told ABC News' "20/20."
After several months, Ryder was seen by Dr. Michael Holick, the same doctor Peele presented Micah's case too. Holick diagnosed Ryder with a rare syndrome called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which can cause flexible joints that are prone to dislocation. But the state refused to believe that was what caused Ryder's injuries.
According to reports, feeling as if he had no other options, Brandon accepted a plea agreement and the state dropped the felony charges for two simple assault charges, Class B misdemeanors.
A judge dismissed the child-protection case against the parents and they were finally able to see their children without being monitored.
The Hubers' story is very similar to the Ross' and Peele's. In August 2012, Andrew Huber said he was changing baby Kenley's diaper when he heard a pop in her leg.
He and wife Bria Huber rushed Kenley to the hospital only to find out that wasn't her only injury.
Doctors at the Children's Medical Center of Dallas told them she had eight additional fractures and possible rib fractures.
Andrew was arrested weeks later and charged with second-degree felony injury to a child.
After Andrew was released under bond, the couple hired an attorney and started their journey to finding out what could have happened to their baby.
The Hubers' also met with Dr. Michael Holick of Boston who diagnosed Kenley with EDS.
"I got to see Kenley in my clinic and there was no question, in my opinion, that she has classic EDS," Holick told "20/20." "It can present with fractured bones -- what we call bone fragility -- fractures of their long bones or their rib cage with minimum handling of the infant."
The diagnosis played a key role in the assistant district attorney in Texas dismissing the charges against Andrew and reuniting the family.
Report a Typo