Man charged with felony child abuse after 4-year-old flown to hospital with fractured skull

Composite image | Background photo by Peter Csaza/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — A local man was arrested Wednesday afternoon for allegedly inflicting serious injury upon a 4-year-old who he claimed fell down the stairs when paramedics responded and found the child unresponsive in March.

Joseph Caruso, 28, of St. George, was charged Thursday with one second-degree felony count of child abuse – inflict serious physical injury intentionally, and a third-degree felony charge of failure to stop at the command of law enforcement.

The incident

The arrest stems from an incident March 22 when paramedics were dispatched to a residence on 540 North on a report of a child falling down the stairs of the home. Upon arrival, they found an unresponsive 4-year-old boy lying on the floor in between a recliner chair and a pull-out bed.

The child was transported to Dixie Regional Medical Center for evaluation and treatment. From there, the toddler was flown to University Medical Center’s trauma unit in Las Vegas due to the severity of his injuries, which included a skull fracture and brain bleed, as well as a retinal injury to his left eye, according to the affidavit filed in 5th District Court in support of Caruso’s arrest.

Joseph Kerry Caruso, 28, booking photo taken in Washington County, Utah, April 29, 2020 | Photo courtesy of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, St. George News

Meanwhile, paramedics at the scene learned that the only adult in the home with the child at the time of the incident was Caruso, who was babysitting the toddler while the child’s mother, the girlfriend of the suspect, was in Mesquite.

While being questioned, Caruso’s “behavior was concerning to the paramedics” who described the suspect as being “apprehensive to answer questions about the incident,” the officer recounted in the report.

The suspect told paramedics the child went upstairs to get some seashells and then fell down the stairs, a fall the suspect claimed to have witnessed. The reference to seashells made no sense to paramedics as the shells in question were sitting on the back patio of the home. Their concern mounted when the suspect told them he waited 5-10 minutes before calling 911.

Due to the suspect’s behavior, inconsistent statements and delay in calling 911, paramedics requested assistance from law enforcement on suspicion of child abuse.

Statement to police 

Officers arrived and met with the suspect, who allegedly provided a number of accounts regarding “what occurred and what he had observed,” the officer noted, one of which referred to Caruso’s statement that he witnessed the child’s fall down the stairs.

His account to police was that he first saw the dog jump on the child who was still at the top of the stairs, which caused the child to fall “all the way down the stairs.”

He also told officers that he attempted to stop the child during the fall, “but wasn’t able to,” the report states.

In another statement, according to police, the suspect told investigators he was downstairs sitting in a recliner chair when the fall took place. He also said that just before the alleged fall, he heard the dog yelp or whimper, as if the child had done something or stepped on the dog. He then said he heard the child fall down the stairs, adding that he tried to get to the boy to break the fall, but was unable to, “because of his broken foot,” the report states.

Officers found the statement suspicious since it would have been impossible for the suspect to have seen the child either at the top of the stairs, or falling down them, as the chair he said he was sitting in blocked any view of them.

In a third account, Caruso said he saw the child falling “head over feet down the stairs,” and that the child hit his head a couple of times on the stairs, hit it again on a child safety gate, and then again on the ground.

The officer also recounted Caruso saying that he “watched the whole damn thing unfold.”

During the interview, officers asked Caruso about the seashells being on the back patio area and not upstairs. The suspect responded by saying the shells had fallen down the stairs along with the child and claimed he “might have picked the seashells up and put them outside” because he didn’t want the child to trip over them and cut himself, the report said.

According to police, Caruso told them he had called two other people, his roommate and the child’s mother, before calling 911. This was confirmed during statements from both individuals to police who both had told the suspect to call 911.

The investigation 

Detectives noticed a strong smell of alcohol coming from the suspect during questioning, and while Caruso admitted to drinking alcohol, he said he drank one beer that he left unfinished. When asked, the suspect declined to take a portable breath test at the scene and denied that he had anything to do with the child’s injuries when confronted by detectives.

Detectives also noted in the report that the stairs in question are carpeted, with laminate wood flooring at the bottom. They also found a child safety gate at the bottom of the stairs that was believed to be opened at the time of the incident and was unsecured when paramedics arrived at the scene.

At the hospital, detectives met with the child’s mother, who told police she was on her way to Beaver Dam, Arizona to see a friend and had just reached the Cedar Pocket exit when she received the call from Caruso. She told detectives she “hadn’t been gone for more than 20 minutes,” when the incident took place, not the “couple of hours” Caruso claimed during his interview with officers.

University Medical Center, Las Vegas, Nevada, date not specified | Photo courtesy of the University of Las Vegas, St. George News

When asked to recount the conversation that took place right after the incident, the mother told police that Caruso told her he was upstairs doing something when he heard the child call the dog’s name twice. She said he told her that when he came out of the bedroom, he saw the dog jump up and then the animal “knocked the child all the way downstairs.” Caruso also allegedly told her that he ran down the stairs to try and catch the child, which the officer noted was inconsistent with what he told police and paramedics.

The child’s mother also told detectives she had asked the suspect to watch her son while she went to visit a friend and inferred that Caruso would never hurt her son, which police found suspicious since they hadn’t accused the suspect of doing anything to the boy.

Moreover, the child’s mother also gave varying accounts of the incident, allegedly telling one family member that she was downstairs when the incident occurred. During a conversation with another family member, she reportedly said she was at the store, thus contradicting the statements reportedly given to police shortly after the incident occurred.

Three days after the incident, the mother’s cell phone was seized and electronic analysis of the phone revealed a text thread between the mother and one of the roommates in which she asked them questions about what happened to her son, as well as what Caruso was doing when the incident happened.

She told the roommate in the thread that she needed to know immediately, the report states, as she was getting ready to talk with a social worker at the hospital, and texted, “I need the story so they match up.”

Additionally, while the child was being treated at the hospital in Las Vegas, his mother told police that she asked her son if the dog had knocked him down the stairs, which, according to the mother, the child confirmed. And when asked if the suspect hurt him, he said, “No,” she told detectives.

The child’s biological father was also at the hospital in Las Vegas, and during a conversation with the child, which he recorded and later provided to detectives, the child denied falling down the stairs.

According to statements received by police from one of the neurosurgeons at University Medical Center, along with statements from several other medical professionals involved in the child’s care, the boy’s injuries “were not consistent with a fall down the stairs,” and all expressed concerns the child may have suffered “a nonaccidental head trauma,” the affidavit states.

On April 7, the child was interviewed at the Children’s Justice Center in St. George and told social workers that “Joseph hurt his head.”

Later that same day, detectives went to the suspect’s residence where they spoke to the roommate who confirmed Caruso was inside of the residence, but said the suspect was sleeping and then refused to wake him up, telling officers he wouldn’t let them in until “they come back with a warrant.”

A warrant was obtained, and on Wednesday, officers returned to the residence where they saw the suspect on the back patio and called him by name, at which point Caruso “quickly went into his home.” Detectives then knocked at the front door while calling out the suspect’s name and advising they had a warrant for his arrest, which is when the door was opened by the suspect’s girlfriend.

Caruso was taken into custody and transported to Purgatory Correctional Facility where he was booked on the charges. He is scheduled to make an initial appearance in 5th District Court on Friday and remains in custody on $25,000 bail.

The child’s mother has not been charged in the case.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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