Recognizing signs of physical child abuse
On Aug. 14, 2009, 4-year-old Kelis Rucker was found lifeless in a closet in Bradenton. Her body temperature indicated she’d been dead for a while. Her jaw was stiff, and hospital workers found marks on her neck that suggested she’d been strangled. Her death remained unsolved.
Ten years later, the mystery became a murder.
On Tuesday, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office charged Kelis’ mother, Dominique Brewer — who long had been a suspect in the girl’s death — with killing the youngster.
“The mother,” a statement from the sheriff’s office said, “was the only one in the house with the child, and gave several inconsistent statements during initial interviews. She also admitted to drug use prior to the incident.”
“The mother also gave no viable explanation as to injuries that the child received,” the statement said.
In 2009, when Manatee sheriff’s deputies asked Brewer to explain exactly how 4-year-old Kelis had died, the apparent victim of strangulation, she offered a buffet of explanations: The girl, she said, had been pretending to be a ballerina, and was playing with a pink and purple scarf “that she loved to wear,” a child welfare report said.
Brewer said the scarf was found on the floor with nothing around her daughter’s neck. But she also said Kelis was found with the scarf tied around her neck. And that the scarf was lying next to Kelis. Or, that Kelis was found hanging in the closet, with the scarf still tethered to her head.
Deputies were skeptical. The scarf, which Brewer suggested her daughter had used to hang herself, later was found hidden under a comforter on Kelis’ bed — not near the youngster, “as one would expect when discovering an unresponsive child,” a child welfare report said. Though Kelis had wet herself when she died, police found urine only on her bed, not the closet where she was found.
And Brewer’s relatives were doubtful, as well. When deputies questioned them, an aunt and uncle “were suspicious of Kelis’ death, stating that, although Ms. Brewer took good care of (her), a lot of things ... don’t add up,” the report said.
Even the Manatee County medical examiner was unconvinced by Brewer’s account of her daughter’s death. The medical examiner told investigators the autopsy findings suggested “it was likely the mother played a more active role in the child’s death.”
Nevertheless, Kelis Rucker’s death remained unsolved for nearly a decade. Then, on Tuesday, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office booked Brewer into jail on a charge of murder.
The autopsy of Kelis Rucker concluded she had died of asphyxia and neck compression, and also had sustained “blunt impact” to her head. Associate Medical Examiner Suzanne R. Utley left undetermined whether Kelis died as a result of homicide, suicide or an accident, records show.
The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, in its statement Tuesday, said detectives began to re-examine “all aspects of the case” two years ago, and held “numerous meetings” with prosecutors, who had declined to press charges against Brewer in 2009.
Last month, “following years of collaborative investigation, a decision was made to file charges,” the statement said. “Over the course of the next two weeks, more interviews were conducted, along with a full review of the evidence and initial statements.”
During a first appearance hearing in court Tuesday afternoon, Assistant State Attorney Suzanne O’Donnell said the medical examiner and a medical expert will both testify that Kelis was strangled to death.
“There is no way that this child in the apartment strangled herself,” O’Donnell said the expert will say.
One element has changed in 10 years: a new witness in the case. But the woman, a friend and neighbor of Brewer’s at the time of Kelis’ death, didn’t see what happened when Kelis died.
The woman had been at Brewer’s home and smoked marijuana with her, before going back home around 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., she told detectives. Kelis was alive and well. Brewer’s neighbor did not see the girl again until she heard commotion outside and saw her unresponsive on the living room floor.
Assistant Public Defender Franklin Roberts argued that the state is building a case on circumstantial evidence 10 years later — even though there are no new facts, and the only new witness hadn’t actually witnessed what happened to the girl.
“There is no evidence to support in any way that Ms. Brewer is responsible for her injuries,” Roberts said.
Manatee County Judge Mark Singer did not decide on Tuesday whether there was enough probable cause to charge Brewer or if the “proof of guilt is evident and the presumption great” — a standard set by case law in what is known as the Arthur rule, based on a 1980 Florida Supreme Court ruling — in order to hold her without bond.
Instead, Singer ordered that the hearing continue on Wednesday and said he would set aside enough time for those issues to be addressed and for the reports or testimony of expert witnesses to be presented.
“This is too important to go about this in a haphazard way,” Singer said. “This is a circumstantial case and we are going to need evidence.”
Outside the courtroom, Jatoria Morgan, Brewer’s cousin, breathed a sigh of relief after hugging one of the detectives working the case.
“I always suspected her. Who else was there?” Morgan said. “My family has been hurting for 10 years.”
The family still wants to know “why,” Morgan said, and what could a 4-year-old have done to make Brewer hurt and kill the girl.
Brewer has been estranged from her family since Kelis’ death, said Morgan, who has since adopted Brewer’s youngest child, an 11-year-old daughter.
Morgan never witnessed her cousin abusing her children, but always suspected it, she said.
“I don’t understand how she just fell through the cracks,” Morgan said as to why she was never charged back in 2009.
Brewer and her family were well-known to Florida child protection administrators. A six-page review of Kelis’ death, performed by the Department of Children & Families, said child abuse investigators had looked into the welfare of Brewer’s family seven times between 1996 and 2009. Three of the cases were commenced after Kelis was born.
Four of the investigations appear to involve Kelis’ older brother, Robert, who spent much of his childhood in the custody of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. The details of those probes are redacted from the death review, making it difficult to determine what occurred between Robert and his mother.
In January 2017, Robert Eugene Brewer, was shot dead after getting into an argument over a woman outside an east Palmetto home. Just a few months before his death, Robert Brewer had been facing murder charges in a December 2015 shooting in East Bradenton, but the case against him was dropped.
The first investigation that included Kelis began in December of 2007 with a report to the state’s hotline that Dominique Brewer had tested positive for both cocaine and marijuana. At the time, Brewer was living in a Salvation Army homeless shelter, she was pregnant with her third child, and Kelis was 2. DCF closed the investigation after only one week by offering Brewer parenting services that she refused.
Less than a year later, DCF’s hotline received a report that then-28-year-old Brewer had been in a “physical altercation” with a 66-year-old man with whom she was living. During the investigation, workers were told Brewer had been “kicked out of the shelter,” and “staying with people who were doing drugs.” This investigation was closed after only five days, with Brewer being given “a community resource pamphlet.”
The next year, DCF was told Brewer had gotten into another domestic altercation with the man who had allowed her family to live with him, and that, this time, he “pulled out a knife and cut Ms. Brewer’s throat.” Once again, the DCF death review said, Brewer “declined the need for any additional services.”
The death review described the prior investigations into Brewer as “superficial,” though they did “reveal a continuing pattern of housing instability, lack of employment, and, in at least two reports, positive drug test results.” Had the investigations been “more thorough,” the report said, “it is possible the family could have benefited” from more help from the state.
In October 2012, Brewer was charged with domestic battery against that same man, whom, according to a probable cause affidavit, she had been dating for a while but never lived with. He was a Manatee County bus driver at the time. Brewer got onto his bus and began cursing him out until he got to a stop and stepped out for a smoke break.
Brewer followed him off the bus, according to the report, still cursing and screaming, and spit in his face. She then grabbed him by his shirt, threw him to the ground, got on top of him and ripped his gold necklaces from around his neck.
The bus driver was given a protective order requiring Brewer to stay away from him. The criminal charges against Brewer were later dropped.