Mercedes Spirit Wise Died Needlessly in a Hot SUV
Being a blogger when you’ve been a reporter—specifically a crime reporter—can be challenging. The newshound me wants to know who did what when and how, and why did they do it? It also chaffs at authorities when they refuse to provide those details, and at other reporters who don’t make waves to get them.
The blogger me wants to just blurt it all out, everything I suspect or everything I know.
Take the case of four-year-old Mercedes Spirit Wise. Her name won’t mean anything to you unless you live in Parkersburg, W.Va.. Apparently everyone there has known almost from the outset who Mercedes was.
Even if the news hadn’t spread faster than a Wyoming wildfire in the small town, there was always the public funeral notice. That meant something. People tend to notice things like that, and it doesn’t take a journalism background to connect the dots between a funeral for a four-year-old and whispers about a local child being found dead.
Mercedes is the child who died after being left inside a hot, unlocked Ford Explorer Aug. 30. She died on a day when outside temperatures reached 89-degrees. Mercedes also died within feet of Lynn’s Little Wonders Daycare Center.
Because I believe in the public’s right to know, so they can offer help to grieving parents or be alerted to danger if their own child might be at risk, I started chasing down the story. Where I found my answers isn’t surprising: I found them online, in the reader comments posted at WTAP and the Parkersburg News and Sentinel.
What I found was more surprising: I learned Mercedes’ first name, that her mother was a college student who got rides to class from other people, that earlier that morning, Mercedes had gotten into the same vehicle that commonly takes neighborhood children to the daycare center, and that Little Wonders itself may have been responsible for her death.
All or some of those details could have been fact. Or fiction. I wouldn’t know until I did some more digging. By last Sunday evening, I knew her name and her parents’ names. They are Michael Young and Shawna Wise. According to the facts I uncovered, they’re no longer a couple.
By Monday I knew almost everything I needed to, for this piece. But my internal editor still wouldn’t let me share it. “What if you’re wrong? What if there’s other information you don’t have? Wait, you still haven’t called the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, to verify certain details.”
From the time I learned Mercedes’ name, I waited for one week: seven very long days. And said nothing. I waited for the police to release her name, like the authorities have in eight other similar cases that occurred around the country in August. I waited for the DHHR to make a statement.
When neither thing happened, I opted to take off my reporter’s cap and don my blogger’s fedora. So here goes:
Mercedes’ father is black and her mother is white—which is totally irrelevant except photos of her show a beautiful little biracial baby with the skin tones every white teenage girl spends hours in the sun hoping to have. And when Wise called the daycare center about 5:30 p.m. that terrible Thursday, to inquire why her daughter wasn’t home, no one knew.
The daycare folks thought Wise had Mercedes.
But Wise thought the daycare had her.
Wise was told Mercedes hadn’t come to daycare that day, because she was sick. But Wise said her daughter had gone to daycare. And that’s where this story takes an incredibly heartbreaking wrong turn.
Because you see, Mercedes did go to the daycare center that morning, somewhere around the time Wise left for her only college class that day, at 9:30 a.m. Mercedes rode there in the same vehicle she did every other day: the SUV driven by the same elderly man who picked up her and other children in the Aqua Isles Trailer Court. And then drove them around the block to daycare located at 41 Dempsie Avenue.
Here’s what I know: he’s not believed to be a daycare employee, but is associated with it in some way. He’s said to lack all of his mental faculties. He’s also 61, so it’s possible he has some dementia.
But he does remember Mercedes getting into the car. He told the daycare owner Mercedes stayed home because she was ill. At some point, he told someone Mercedes got back out of the car, while he was still picking up children in the trailer park.
It’s anybody’s guess why she didn’t get out, but the driver was apparently distracted—possibly by the other children getting into the car with her—and he thought she got back out again. She didn’t. And by the time the SUV arrived at the daycare, Mercedes was apparently on the floor of the vehicle. Everyone got out, failed to realize she was still inside, and went on their way.
This is bad enough but the story gets worse: Lynn’s Little Wonders wasn’t even supposed to be open for business. It was operating without a license. (Most likely as a favor to the poverty-stricken parents in that area who work or attend school but who can’t afford the prices at licensed daycare centers.)
I didn’t call the DHHR to verify this, since my information came from a reliable source. But I did check with the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office and the Bureau for Children and Families and there is no record of Lynn’s ever having been a legitimate business establishment. It’s possible it may have changed names, but using the key words “daycare,” “child care,” “Lynne’s” and any variation thereof, I couldn’t find a single daycare center officially registered in Wood County. None.
An aside: I’ve been waiting five months for the DHHR to return my call about Shannon Stafford’s daughter, Faith, so I figured it was no use to call them about Mercedes. In addition, I learned that after Mercedes’ death the agency closed the daycare permanently. That would explain why the daycare phone number has been disconnected.
Wise hired an attorney not long after Mercedes was found. Reliable rumors place her in a bar that night. Mercedes’ body was sent for an autopsy, which will no doubt include a toxicology report.
Now here’s some questions to mull over, for which I do not have the answers.
Since Wise only had one college class that day, why did she wait until 5:30 p.m. to call and check on her daughter? Especially since Mercedes was known to be ill?
Why would Mercedes not be able to climb out of the unlocked vehicle herself, when she became so hot that her body’s natural defenses kicked in?
Why did the authorities—DHHR and the local police—allow a questionable daycare facility to remain open?
Was it ever (EDIT: officially open for business)?
If you’re a parent with a child in daycare, when was the last you thought to check and see if it’s licensed?
Several years ago daycare providers in West Virginia started facing more stringent licensing requirements, as a result of tighter laws designed to ensure the safety of children. You can see from this page what type of things the state looks at, and what you as a parent can do, if you have concerns about your child’s provider.
Finally, I’d just like to say that since the late 1980’s, when I wrote a blistering diatribe about a felon father who parked his car in the hot sun and fled from police, leaving his son inside to bake, life has gotten much more challenging for parents.
Let’s all do our part to help them protect their children. Maybe, just maybe, we can avoid needless deaths like that of Mercedes and the other children who died in August around the country. Because let’s face it, when a child dies like this, it isn’t only good people like Rutherford County (Tenn.) Sheriff Robert Arnold whose heart breaks.
All our hearts do.
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Daleen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: Daleen Berry will join a Sept. 16 discussion about the topic of child sex abuse at Webster’s Bookstore in State College, Pa. Berry is the first recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change, for her second book, Lethal Silence, to be published sometime in 2012. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country.
Her memoir (paperback and as an e-book) can be found at bookstores everywhere, or ordered online. To read the first chapter free, please go to Goodreads. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.” To read her award-winning memoir, Sister of Silence, in e-book format (or any other e-book), download a free app from Amazon for your phone, tablet or computer.