Near the back of Riverview Cemetery stands a glossy black headstone. Two hearts, chiseled into the granite, flank the epitaph. It reads “Melissa Marie Mathes, Feb. 22, 1992 Jan. 23, 1993.”
On a bleak Sunday afternoon, just days before the 20th anniversary of the 11-month-old’s death, the stone is lonely but not forgotten. Wind has dusted a plastic teddy bear wearing a Santa hat with snow; now it spins a pinwheel listlessly. The red and yellow flowers on either side of the monument are still vibrant with life. They stand as a ray of color against the otherwise gray winter pallet.
Mary Weaver is one of the many people who will never forget Jan. 23, 1993. It was she, the child’s caregiver, who called 911 when the toddler’s eyes rolled back into her head, and it was her who police would later arrest for the girl’s death.
Weaver remembers every detail of the events leading up to and following Melissa’s death in vivid detail. She remembers how police immediately suspected her of shaking the baby to death. She remembers how police interrogated her relentlessly. She remembers the dread she felt when they accused her.
Paramedics flew Melissa to Iowa City for treatment. The following day, Weaver had planned to go the hospital to visit the girl, expecting that doctors would have learned what was wrong by time she arrived. Before she could make it to Iowa City, police paid her a visit at her home on 3001 Nelson Road where Melissa had fallen unconscious. They questioned her, and it was then she learned the girl had died.
The news hit her like a sledge hammer in the stomach. She never thought for a minute Melissa was going to die. In addition to the intense sorrow that she felt over the loss of the infant, it was clear that the police suspected her of hurting Melissa.
They asked Weaver a litany of questions, telling her that they knew she caused the girl’s death. She wanted to cooperate but didn’t appreciate the accusation. She told them that if they weren’t going to charge her, to leave her alone. The cold sting of fear invaded her emotional landscape, drowning her angst over Melissa’s death.
“I felt like I couldn’t grieve for her,” Weaver said.
An autopsy showed that Melissa had a two-inch skull fracture at the time of her death. Prosecutors would later argue that injury was in the process of healing when, they said, Weaver violently shook and killed the baby. Doctors for the prosecution claimed Melissa was a victim of Shaken Baby Syndrome.
Weaver contacted her attorney, Stephen Brennecke. Winter gave way to spring, and Weaver waited for the other shoe to fall.
She knew she was the police department’s prime suspect, she but hadn’t heard a word from them since she told them she planned to contact her attorney. Finally, in May 1993, police arrested her for first-degree murder. In a way, she was relieved.
“Up until that point it was like this cloud over my head,” Weaver said. “The storm had broke.”
She could now set about proving her innocence.
Weaver first met Tessia Mathes when the young mother was pregnant with Melissa. Melissa’s father, Brad, was a distant cousin of Weaver’s husband. Weaver was good friends with Brad’s mother, Becky.
At the time, Weaver was a part-time daycare provider. When Tessia and Brad began having problems with their babysitter and asked Weaver to look after Melissa on a regular basis, she was reluctant.
“It really wasn’t my plan to be a full-time daycare provider,” she said. “To take an infant into the house is a commitment.”
It was August 1992. In six months, Melissa would be dead.
At the first of Weaver’s three trials, the responding officer would testify that Weaver was unusually in control of her emotions when paramedics arrived, which he took as an implication of guilt. A couple months prior, the officer had investigated a similar case where the babysitter had a similar demeanor, he told Weaver. Police concluded that that babysitter had killed the child.
In his notes, he wrote “Calm,” referring to Weaver.
“I was in shock,” she said of her affect.
Years later, Capt. Mike Hanken, with the Marshalltown Police Department, still remembers the case. Hanken was working as a patrolman at the time, so was not involved in the investigation, but he remembers how it tore the town asunder.
Medical advancements have helped police correlate evidence better in the years since Melissa’s death. Cases such as this have caused police to guard information about their investigative methods better, he said. But investigator’s process hasn’t changed much even if the technology that drives it has.
“We try to correlate as much medical evidence as possible,” Hanken said. “Certainly, we are in no hurry to rush to judgment.”
Investigators still try to answer one crucial question when piecing together a crime scene: does the story match the injury?
In his nearly 29 years with the MPD, Hanken said the Weaver case sticks out as one of the largest and most divisive because of how much it divided the town into two camps. It took its toll on everyone, he added.
“It is a case you will always remember,” he said. “They don’t get any easier as time goes on.”
Whenever Tessia Mathes hears “Rock My Baby” by Shenandoah, she falls to pieces. She used to play the country song for Melissa. It was like her theme song, she said. The little girl would dance; she would wiggle, and the light in her eyes was evident whenever those notes surrounded her.
It’s hard, she said, whenever she thinks about what she has lost. Weaver may have been incarcerated for two years, but Tessia said she and Brad are still in prison. They never got to see Melissa graduate high school or go to college. They will never get to her marry or have children of her own. All that has been taken from them.
“It’s hard every morning you wake up and your child is not there,” Tessia said. “It’s the most horrible thing in the world.”
Tessia now lives in Nebraska, having moved shortly after Weaver’s exoneration. She and Brad had been looking for jobs prior to their daughter’s death. She said she feels as though Melissa’s identity has been lost in the shuffle of Weaver’s case. So much focus was placed on Weaver – her trial, her conviction, her retrial and eventually exoneration – that the public seemed to forget about Melissa. The papers referred to her simply as “Baby Mathes.”
She pointed out that the jury found Weaver “not guilty” not “innocent.”
Melissa’s death has engendered in her a suspicion, she said. During her son Nathan’s youth, it was hard for her to allow him to be in the company of strangers.
“You lose your faith in humanity,” she said. “You find yourself second guessing everyone.”
She has dealt with her own problems – being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis – and faced adversity in other forms, but coping with her daughter’s death trumps all other maladies. She would rather deal with all those other things – her sister’s cancer, her divorce – than even have to bear witness to someone else losing a child.
Nathan is now 17 and getting ready to head off to college. Tessia said she feels like she should be equipped to prepare him for that experience. But she isn’t. Being robbed of the ability to raise Melissa tears at her every day. She can’t put it into words.
“It’s gone, and it will always be gone,” she said. “All you have left is heartache.”
Throughout the course of the investigation, police set about proving Weaver had killed the child. When they questioned Brad and Tessia, they allowed the couple to remain in each other’s company. The case file does not indicate that police had any other suspects.
The Sheriff’s Office conducted polygraphs on Weaver, Tessia and Brad. Those results implicated Weaver in the killing, but were “inconclusive” on Brad and Tessia. A 2004 study by the National Academy found evidence obtained using lie detectors to be “scanty and scientifically weak.”
Still, police persisted. Despite their insistence, they could get no one to come forward to testify against Weaver. Police interviewed multiple people who knew her. In the officer’s notes, below the summary of each of the discussions, the words “nothing derogatory” are written.
Despite a seemingly underwhelming amount of evidence against Weaver, a trial began. The State Medical Examiner, Thomas Bennett, and the prosecution’s team of doctors all testified that the skull fracture previously suffered was healing and that the trauma that caused her death must have occurred while in Weaver’s care. Weaver’s doctors disagreed. The jury was hung.
Weaver’s attorney set about getting her another trial. Brennecke had known Weaver casually for some time. They had met at Center Street Baptist Church, and he knew her to be a gentle and caring person. He never asked Weaver if she killed Melissa. To him, her innocence was implicit.
This time, they thought, they would simply bring the case before a judge instead of having a jury trial. He was confident that the evidence did not implicate Weaver. Judge Carl Peterson, the same judge that presided over the first trial, would hear Weaver’s case.
On March 22, 1994, he found her guilty and sentenced her to life in prison.
While Weaver spent two years in the Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville, earning 38 cents an hour washing dishes, her support network continued to grow. They wrote letters to Gov. Terry Branstad and to area newspapers on her behalf. They sported yellow ribbons and signs in the back of their cars that read “I believe in Mary Weaver.”
Weaver never sought compensation from the state for the two years she was imprisoned.
Meanwhile, her attorneys continued to appeal her case, but in September 1995, the Iowa Court of Appeals upheld the conviction. They persisted.
“It’s one of those where you put everything on the line,” Brennecke said of the case. “If you could, you would move heaven and earth to get it done. That case brought me to the brink of human effort.”
During her first two trials, the court would rule that claims that police had reason to consider Tessia a suspect were hearsay. One such testimony came from a cemetery worker who told the court Tessia had asked her about the cost of burying an infant and whether cemetery workers still dug graves in the winter.
“I never ever believed I would be in prison for the rest of my life I never lost faith,” Weaver said. “I was away from my family. It was a hardship on me. That was the hardest part of it.”
Weaver recalled the details of the ordeal surrounding her arrest at Hardee’s just days before the 20th anniversary of Melissa’s death. The restaurant has significance to Weaver. It’s the location of a big break in her case.
While Weaver was locked away, three women came forward claiming that, according to their affidavits, they had information about the case. While they were having their weekly coffee at Hardee’s, they offered their waitress, Tessia, condolences for the loss of her daughter. Tessia’s response shocked them. She told them Melissa had hit her head on a coffee table, not a padded recliner as she had previously testified, the day prior to her death.
Because the three women’s statements matched up, the testimony would not be considered hearsay. It was grounds for a new trial, one over which Judge Peterson would not preside.
Bolstering Weaver’s case was Dr. Thomas Carlstrom, a neurosurgeon from Des Moines. He had heard about the accusations against Weaver and contacted Brennecke offering his expert opinion – for free. His testimony, along with the trio of woman who claimed that Tessia told them the girl banged her head on the coffee table, swayed the jury.
On March 5, 1997 the jury acquitted Weaver.
Following Weaver’s exoneration, State Medical Examiner Thomas Bennett came under heavy fire. Investigation of several of his cases turned up dubious results, and when it came out that he had been using state resources for his private consulting business, he resigned.
Years later, Brennecke, who no longer practices law, still can’t believe police ever charged Weaver.
“It’s nuts,” he said. “There is a level of absurdity to it.”
Perhaps the most vexing part of the whole ordeal, Brennecke said, is the mystery of it. To this day, police have yet to arrest anyone else for the girl’s death.
Weaver, who now lives in Steamboat Rock, said she laments that her arrest pushed Melissa’s death into the background. The girl would have been 21 this year. She visits her grave often.
“That is a tragedy that we should never forget,” she said. “This time of year is kind of hard for me because of what happened.”
Tessia remembers. On Feb. 22, she will do what she does every year for Melissa’s birthday: she will release 11 balloons into the sky – one for every month of Melissa’s short life.