Courts & Crime

Stalled probe of foster child's death failed to answer basic questions

Nearly seven weeks after the tragic death of 4 1/2-year-old Amariana Crenshaw in January 2008, Sacramento police made a somber announcement.

"We're basically at a brick wall," said Detective Brian Dedonder, one of two lead detectives in the homicide investigation.

Projected on a large screen behind Dedonder was the smiling face of the little foster child, clutching a chocolate chip cookie. The girl's badly burned body had been removed from her foster mother's rental property near South Natomas before dawn Jan. 11, 2008, after at least one Molotov cocktail erupted in the living room.

"This victim has a face," Nina Delgadillo of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told reporters assembled at police headquarters. "And we want the public to know that. We want the public to see why we're out there, trying to do something on this case – that we're not going to stop."

Today, two years after the arson inside the five-bedroom home on Sweet Pea Way, there are no new developments, no leads and no suspects, a police spokesman said.

No one has laid claim to the $10,000 reward offered that February day, when officials of the Sacramento city police and fire departments and the ATF convened the news conference to try to generate leads. At the time, police spokesman Matt Young described the "thousands of man-hours" that had gone into the hunt, and the "very thorough, very comprehensive" investigation that had ensued. Initial strong leads had been discounted, he said.

But a Bee investigation into Amariana's death has found that many questions never were fully explored, including the most basic question: Why was a 4 1/2-year-old foster child left sleeping alone on the living room floor of a vacant home in the middle of the night?

Amariana's attorney, Terry Holt – appointed to represent her interests in dependency court – never was contacted by investigators. And, Holt said, neither was a key government worker who had intimate knowledge of the foster home and felt the official version of events didn't add up.

That source, who declined to be interviewed, did confirm that she had contacted local law enforcement and ATF and left a name and number, but never got a callback. Documents obtained by The Bee support the source's story.

Amariana's foster mother, Tracy Dossman, who later adopted Amariana's older half sister, remains certified as a foster provider and now cares for five children, ages 10 to 18. Dossman agreed to talk with The Bee last month but skipped the appointment at her home. Reached later by phone, she said she would not be interviewed because the newspaper did not "tell the truth" about her in its coverage of the fire.

"None of it was true, and none of it was nice, and nobody ever came back and apologized," she said.

A new California law that took effect in 2008 was supposed to make it easier to scrutinize the records of children who die while under the county's protection, in the hope of preventing more deaths.

But for months, the county's Department of Health and Human Services vigorously fought The Bee's efforts to publicly open Amariana's child welfare files, stating that "the benefits to keeping the child's confidentiality outweigh the public interest in details of her case."

Deputy County Counsel Scott M. Fera argued in juvenile court that the law enforcement investigation into the child's death was "concluded." Amariana Crenshaw was the victim of a "random act of violence," the attorney said, and no purpose would be served by putting her life "on public display."

In December, juvenile court referee Natalie S. Lindsey disagreed and released more than 200 pages of confidential documents about Amariana's 2 1/2-year journey through the foster care system.

The records, with names blacked out to protect the identities of other foster children, are "directly relevant to issues of the public interest," Lindsey ruled.

Holt, the attorney appointed to represent Amariana before her death, praised the judge's decision. Holt said he was moved to tears by the child's autopsy report and is left with aching questions.

Read the full story at the Sacramento Bee.