The Bellefontaine mom accused of fatally smothering her three young sons told her mother she didn’t commit the crimes, but other family members don’t know what to believe.
Brittany Pilkington, 23, is charged with three counts of murder. She was silent during her first appearance Thursday morning in a Logan County courtroom. Her bond was set at $1 million.
Bond set at $1M for mom accused of killing 3 children
Pilkington told mother she is innocent
Prosecutors said she confessed to killings
Pilkington’s mother, Lori Cummins, said she spoke to her daughter from jail by phone on Wednesday. Pilkington told her mother that she’s innocent.
Her father, Ed Cummins, said he has yet to speak with his daughter.
Prosecutors who have charged a Bellefontaine mom with murder in the deaths of her three sons said Wednesday that everyone is distraught but stopped short of saying the system failed the children.
Logan County Children’s Services, police, coroner’s officials and prosecutors had worked for a year to determine why two of Brittany Pilkington’s children died under strange, almost identical circumstances about nine months apart.
“Did the system fail? The system failed to see the unforeseeable,” Logan County Prosecutor William Goslee said.
But many investigators admitted they had their suspicions about the 23-year-old mother.
“I had a terrible gut feeling,” said Melanie Engle, executive director of Logan County Department of Job and Family Services.
But when both boys’ autopsies revealed no evidence of foul play and a doctor testified that the children could have a rare genetic disorder, a judge released the remaining two Pilkington children to their parents.
Six days later 3-month-old Noah Pilkington was dead.
His mother has confessed to killing all three of her sons, placing a blanket over their faces and holding them until they died, Goslee said.
The deaths have shocked the community, with even hardened detectives shaken.
“No community should ever deal with what we’re dealing with right now,” Bellefontaine police Lt. Rick Herring said. “This shouldn’t happen. There’s not answers for it.”
‘Did the system fail?’
DJFS is examining all of its interactions with the Pilkington family to see if any policy or procedural changes should be made, Engle said.
Everything that could have been done was done, according to Goslee.
“No one could predict the behavior of this mother,” he said.
Numerous officials involved in the case admitted their intuition told them that something wasn’t right.
“Everyone had a gut feeling, but how do you articulate the gut feeling? How do you prove a gut feeling with evidence that’s not there?” Assistant Prosecutor Natasha Wagner said.
DJFS first had contact with Brittany Pilkington and her husband Joseph Pilkington, 43, in 2012 after a tip about the conditions of their home. Their oldest son, Gavin, was about 2 years old. Social workers visited and said the couple complied with a plan to clean up the house.
After three months the case was closed, Goslee said, and the county didn’t have further contact with them until last summer.
On July 22, 2014, 3-month-old Niall Pilkington was found dead by his father when he came home from work. The cause of death was undetermined, based on testing and a lack of evidence at the scene.
The baby was at the common age for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which many times can’t be detected or explained during an autopsy. It was considered a tragedy for a young mother, Goslee said, but at the time no criminal investigation was warranted.
Then on April 6, 4-year-old Gavin was found dead by his father — again when he came home from work.
Police investigated but found no evidence to suggest how the child died. The autopsy was again inconclusive.
“At that point my office, the police department and Children Services all had suspicion triggered probably at wide open throttle,” Goslee said.
But he said their hands were tied.
They enrolled the Pilkingtons in a voluntary program that allows case workers in the home to observe and see if more action is needed. The purpose, Engle said, was to find out what was going on in the home.
“We feel like we fought hard for these kids,” she said.
Brittany Pilkington was eight months pregnant at the time of Gavin’s death, so Children Services sought an emergency custody order. When Noah was born he was placed in foster care, along with the couple’s 3-year-old daughter, Hailey.
“Noah never left the hospital with his parents,” Goslee said.
The actions of the prosecutor’s office and the county kept Noah alive for three months, Wagner said.
A court hearing this summer lasted a contentious three days instead of the normal few hours, Goslee said. A Lima doctor testified they could have a rare genetic disorder that affects young boys.
Officials planned to test the other children for the defect. Investigators also wanted to do psychological evaluations on both parents, but they refused.
Family Court Judge Dan Bratka decided the case warranted further involvement, but that there wasn’t enough evidence to keep the children from their parents.
“There really was no evidence of foul play at that time and I’m going to be fair to the judge. The judge had the evidence that was available, just as we presented the evidence that was available to us,” Goslee said.
Bratka was distraught along with everyone else when news of Noah’s death reached him Tuesday, Goslee said. Bratka declined to comment, citing the ongoing case.
The law prevents removing children from their home if prior deaths are undetermined, Engle said, which she’d like to see changed.
“When there’s multiple fatalities, yes, I think that we should be able to intervene and remove children,” she said.
Isolated and depressed
Investigators said they saw some red flags over the past year. After the deaths of her sons she had a, “rather flat affect,” according to Goslee.
“That did give everybody some cause for concern,” he said.
And the Pilkingtons’ relationship was a bit troubling, Goslee said.
Joseph Pilkington is 20 years older and had a relationship with Brittany Pilkington’s mother. He lived in her home in a stepfather role while she was a teen, Goslee said.
She became pregnant when she was 17 and they married two months after she turned 18 and three months before Gavin’s birth.
She told police that she’s estranged from her family and called her 3-year-old daughter her best friend.
“He kind of kept her at home taking care of the children … He managed to keep her very isolated and therefore she had no friends,” the prosecutor said.
She indicated that she killed her sons because she was jealous of the attention they got from their father compared to Hailey, Goslee said.
Attempts were made to contact Joseph Pilkington through his lawyer, but he couldn’t be reached. His daughter is in the care of family members.
It’s possible the young mother could have had postpartum depression, Goslee said, or other psychological condition.
“She indicated that she wanted very much to go to counseling after the death of the first child because she felt that, she said she was depressed,” he said, but her husband may have prevented her from seeking help.
Postpartum depression affects between eight and 19 percent of mothers, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can range from a mild sadness some call the “baby blues” to clinical depression and even psychosis, said Dr. Boyd Hoddinott, Logan County health commissioner.
The district has a program to watch for it, thanks to a $7,500 grant from the Mental Health, Drug and Alcohol Services Board of Logan and Champaign Counties.
All women who give birth are called and offered a free “welcome home baby” visit. Home visits can spot health issues, safety problems or psychological issues and refer a mother to additional services.
“We spend a lot of time in the home. We look for certain things,” Hoddinott said.
Women with postpartum depression are at greater risk for harming themselves or their children, he said, and psychosis seems to be more common in such patients.
Last year, the district performed 66 visits and made 13 referrals for treatment, he said. After adding a free diapers incentive this year, it has already served 66 families through July and made 13 referrals.
The district couldn’t release whether Brittany Pilkington participated and it’s unknown whether she’d been diagnosed with depression. She gave birth four times in just over five years.Some evidence suggests she may have been abused when she was younger, Goslee said, and she comes across as immature.
“She presents like a 14-year-old,” he said.
Because of this, he said he’s unlikely to seek the death penalty.
“Given the facts, I have yet to find a woman who is a mother who would give her the death penalty,” Goslee said.
The Springfield News-Sun examined court documents and police records, spoke to prosecutors and Children’s Services leaders, and sat down with health experts to bring you this story.
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