Onaway man, woman face charges in death of baby

ROGERS CITY – An Onaway man charged in the death of a three-week-old baby is headed to circuit court, and the infant’s mother likely will plead guilty to a lesser child abuse charge.

Joshua Tough and girlfriend Kirsten Richardson, both 18, are facing charges following the April 5 death of Kirsten’s son, Ashton Richardson. Both were arrested at the end of July after an autopsy report on the infant classified his death as a homicide. Eighty-ninth District Court Judge Maria Barton ruled that Tough should stand trial on a charge of felony murder and child abuse. She also agreed to bind over Richardson, whose attorney said she will plead to a lesser charge of child abuse and testify in Tough’s trial.

Police investigated the baby’s death after he was taken to Alpena Regional Medical Center on April 3, according to a Presque Isle County Sheriff’s Department release. Emergency responders were called to a Bismarck Township home after the baby stopped breathing. Tough and Richardson were the only ones home at the time.

The baby died on April 5 after being transferred to a hospital in Saginaw, according to the release. A doctor who treated him called his injuries “non-accidental.”

Mike Vogler, Tough’s attorney, said the baby’s death was an accident and that no testimony in Tough’s preliminary hearing pointed to an intentional act. However, Presque Isle Prosecutor Richard Steiger referred to testimony from Dr. Kanu Virani, who performed an autopsy on the baby a day after he died.

The baby had suffered head trauma that caused bleeding and brain swelling, Virani said via courtroom speaker phone. While such trauma could be caused by the baby’s head hitting a hard object, the injuries weren’t consistent with those caused by a fall, and at 24 days old the baby was too young to lift his own head.

Virani also found the baby had suffered some kind of abdominal trauma that had ruptured his small intestine. Judging by the resulting infection, Virani said the abdominal trauma happened prior to the head trauma. The child also had three fresh bruises on his face, none of which had caused the internal bleeding.

Presque Isle County Sheriff’s Department Det. Joe Mulka testified about the times he spoke with Tough while investigating Ashton Richardson’s death. Tough’s explanation for what happened to the baby changed over the course of four or five interviews, saying at first that he had no idea what happened. Mulka said in a subsequent conversation that Tough said he’d tripped and fell forward while holding the baby and possibly caused whiplash to the infant. In a later interview, Tough said he tripped and dropped the baby while falling backward, with the baby’s head hitting the crib railing as a result.

Barton cited these inconsistencies, along with Virani’s testimony, when giving her ruling.

“The defendant by my count has told three different versions of what happened to this child,” she said.

Afterward, Vogler said he wasn’t authorized to comment on anything. Tough is being held without bond.

Tough told Barton he wanted to hire his own attorney because he didn’t believe Vogler had his best interests in mind. When Barton asked for a reason, he told her Vogler had explained to him a plea deal offered by Steiger.

Steiger said he had offered to let Tough plead guilty to second-degree murder, and Barton said defense attorneys are legally obligated to explain such offers. She opted to go ahead with Tough’s preliminary exam.

Richardson, of Wolverine, waived her preliminary exam, and appeared via video link from the Alpena County Jail where she is lodged. Attorney Terri Tringali said her client would accept a plea deal offered by Steiger where in exchange for her plea of guilt to third-degree child abuse, Steiger would drop a charge of first-degree child abuse. He’d also ask for a jail term not to exceed the county jail limit, and she must testify should Tough go to trial.

Barton denied Tringali’s request to release Richardson on personal recognizance. She’s being held on a $50,000 bond. Although Tringali said Richardson could stay with family in the area and had agreed to speak with detectives during the investigation, Steiger said he was concerned Richardson posed a flight risk.

“Although she did talk with detectives, she was evasive and not honest,” he said. “That’s why we came to this plea agreement that she provide full, candid and incriminatory testimony.”

Tringali could not be reached for comment on Richardson’s case. Steiger declined to comment on Richardson’s and Tough’s cases.

Barton set Richardson’s and Tough’s arraignments in 53rd Circuit Court for Sept. 15.

Jordan Travis can be reached via email at jtravis@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5688. Follow Jordan on Twitter @jt_alpenanews. Read his blog, A Snowball’s Chance, at www.thealpenanews.com.