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Salt force-fed to tot before death?

May 04, 2001|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

The Imperial County District Attorney's Office has alleged Hillary John Titsworth force-fed her 2-year-old daughter table salt to punish her and in doing so caused the toddler's death.

Titsworth and her husband, John Anthony Titsworth, both of Westmorland, have been charged with first-degree murder in connection with the April 9 death of their daughter, Kateland Marie Titsworth.

Both have pleaded not guilty to that charge and to a charge of assault on a child resulting in death.

The Titsworths have been in custody since April 11, two days after Kateland was pronounced dead in Pioneers Memorial Hospital in Brawley. They are being held in county jail with bail set at $1 million each.

On Thursday, officials close to the case started to release more details on the investigation that led to the arrest of the Titsworths and the decision to charge them with murder.

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Imperial County Sheriff's Sgt. Rick Macken, chief deputy coroner, said preliminary reports from Pioneers show Kateland had an abnormally high sodium level in her blood.

He said it is thought that may have been the cause of her death. Toxic amounts of sodium in the blood can cause the body to shut down and lead to death, Macken said.

An autopsy on Kateland revealed what appeared to be granulated salt-like material in her stomach. He said there was an excessive amount of the material — so much so, he said, that it could not have come from seasoning on food or even by gargling saltwater.

He said based on the amount found in her stomach, the material would have had to have been ingested by itself.

The county Coroner's Office is awaiting toxicology results to either confirm the material in the stomach was salt and to confirm the cause of death.

The D.A.'s office also is awaiting the results.

However, Deputy District Attorney Deborah Owen, who is prosecuting the case, said there now is evidence to merit a murder charge.

While Owen said she could not release all the details of the investigation, she did say authorities interviewed the Titsworths' 5-year-old son, who reportedly told authorities his mother had force-fed Kateland table salt to punish her.

Owen declined to release the reason Hillary Titsworth, 22, might have been punishing her child. Owen said there are taped interviews with the 5-year-old boy and the mother.

Owen would not comment on what Hillary Titswowth said when questioned.

Owen did allege, "The evidence indicates the child was forced to ingest table salt in large quantities. The evidence indicates the child did not die of just natural causes."

She added there were no signs Kateland had other health problems that could have caused her death.

While the D.A.'s office has alleged Hillary force-fed salt to her daughter, Owen said it is not thought John Titsworth, 23, helped his wife administer the punishment.

It is thought the husband was in the home when the alleged crime took place and he did not attempt to stop it.

Owen said the murder charge against him is tied to aiding and abetting his wife.

El Centro attorney Poli Flores Jr., assigned to represent Hillary Titsworth, said he cannot comment in detail about the case. He added he has not had a chance to review the taped interviews with his client and the boy.

He did say Macken is not a doctor and "he is not equipped" to render a conclusion on the salt issue.

Flores added he has seen no official report that shows salt was the cause of death.

"We are hoping once everything is analyzed clearly we can move forward," Flores said.

He added it is important to remember at any point in the case the murder charges against his client could be reduced.

A reporter asked Owen if there was any history of child abuse in the Titsworth home.

Owen said authorities are investigating the Titsworths' past, but there was no immediate information available on any past abuse issues.

She said the County Counsel's Office has prepared a court order asking that a judge allow the D.A.'s office to have copies of any Child Protective Services reports related to the Titsworths. That order likely will be presented to a judge for signature next week.

Owen did say the Titsworths' 5-year-old boy appeared to be in good condition. He is now in protective custody. Owen also said there were no outward signs that Kateland was physically abused prior to her death.

By filing first-degree murder charges, the DA's office is alleging the death of Kateland was intentional, Owen said.

She said the lesser charge of assault on a child resulting in death could result in a long prison sentence if there was a conviction. She said such a conviction could lead to a sentence of 25 years to life.

Staff Writer Darren Simon can be reached at 337-4082.

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