2 charged with murder after boy they abused as infant 21 years ago dies

A North Carolina woman and the former boyfriend who helped her abuse her 15-month-old son so severely 20 years ago that the boy was left unable to walk, talk or see have been charged with his murder after the now-grown son died last month.

Robyn Lynn Noffsinger, 41, and David Raefore Tripp Jr., 45, were indicted Tuesday on first-degree murder charges in the death of David Cody Rhinehart, WECT in Wilmington reported. The charges were announced a day before the 21st anniversary of the incident that left the boy permanently disabled. 

Rhinehart, whose name became David Elei Stuart after he was adopted by a Durham couple, died March 6 at the age of 22.

A medical examiner found that Stuart died of the injuries he sustained as an infant, the news station reported. Noffsinger and Tripp, who each spent nearly 12 years in prison for child abuse, are now being held in the Brunswick County Jail in lieu of $1 million bond each.

Stuart's obituary said that his legacy will be one of a "well-lived life."

"(David) will be remembered for his boundless spirit and precious energy that he provided to anyone who knew him," the obituary read. "David loved being on the go and very much enjoyed being around friends and family."

He was a member of the Miracle League of the Triangle, which posted about his death a few days after he died.

"We will miss his smile and love of the league," the Facebook post read.

Stuart’s 12-year-old cousin started a GoFundMe page called “David’s Miracle” the day after he died to raise money for his beloved baseball league, which he played in for 12 years. As of Wednesday, it had raised more than $5,000 for the organization.

"David enjoyed playing baseball so much, and we know he would love the idea of giving to this organization so families can experience the same joy he always did," Charlotte Stuart wrote on the fundraising page.

In a news conference held Tuesday morning, Brunswick County District Attorney Jon David called the murder case "unfinished business," Raleigh's News & Observer reported.

“This young man did have a remarkable quality of life, notwithstanding the grievous injuries that were inflicted on him so long ago,” David said.

The News & Observer reported that the case file from the 1997 abuse case stayed on detectives' desks for 21 years. Tripp's indictment indicated that he placed Stuart, then just an infant, under scalding water, causing second- and third-degree burns, permanent injuries and disfigurement of the child's genitals.

Noffsinger’s indictment said she assaulted her son, resulting in serious injuries. It was not clear Wednesday if Tripp was the boy’s biological father.

WECT reported that documents from her appeal in the original case stated that Stuart was not breathing when he arrived by ambulance at Columbia Brunswick Hospital on April 12, 1997. Emergency room doctors found that, besides the burns to his groin area, the baby had a skull fracture, abnormal pupil response, bruises to his face and deformities to an arm and leg.

The volunteer ambulance driver who took Stuart to the hospital told police that she saw Noffsinger and Tripp “talking and laughing” outside the emergency room as doctors fought to save the boy’s life, the news station reported.

Stuart was transferred to Duke University Hospital, where a pediatrician diagnosed him with battered child syndrome.

Noffsinger and Tripp told the doctor at Duke that the baby was accidentally injured when Tripp bathed him, and that the boy fell from a chair onto a vacuum cleaner, the news station reported. They also claimed that Tripp accidentally hit the baby in the eye with his elbow.

Both were convicted of and served prison time for child abuse. Stuart eventually recovered enough to be released into foster care, from which he was later adopted.

David praised the two women who adopted and raised Stuart.

"They took on a child who needed round-the-clock care," the prosecutor said, according to the News & Observer. "They provided the best quality of life he could've hoped for under the circumstances."

Noffsinger and Tripp had an initial court date Tuesday, the newspaper reported. They will return to court in June to find out if prosecutors will seek the death penalty.

Prosecutors said that double jeopardy, a rule that keeps people from being tried for the same crime twice, does not apply to Noffsinger and Tripp because they were charged in 1997 with felony child abuse.

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