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Staff sgt. seeks answers after death of toddler

Sep. 18, 2013 - 07:42PM   |  

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The last time Staff Sgt. Nikki Dudley talked to her 21-month-old son, she told him she’d be home soon.

It was late last October. The single mom had deployed from Dover Air Force Base, Del., to the Middle East nearly six months earlier, keeping in touch with her growing son through regular Skype calls.

In that final call just weeks before she was set to come home, Dudley was struck by his development. Evan clapped his hands and grinned. He mimicked his mother. “Mommy come home soon!” he squealed.

The reunion would come early. And it would be tragic.

On Nov. 3, Dudley learned Evan had been airlifted to a hospital and his condition was critical. She reached his bedside Nov. 5. For two more days, Evan lingered on life support as doctors searched unsuccessfully for signs of brain activity. He died Nov. 7.

One of the boy’s caregivers, a fellow airman in Dudley’s unit, told authorities Evan had fallen down a flight of carpeted stairs. His injuries, according to his death certificate, told a different story. Evan had suffered blunt force trauma to the head, and he was the victim of a homicide, the medical examiner determined.

After more than 10 months and no arrest, Dudley is growing impatient. She has taken her story to Facebook and to the online petition platform Change.org, where she calls on Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden to bring her son’s case to resolution. She describes weekly calls to the prosecutor’s office that have largely gone unanswered. Called “Justice for Evan,” the petition has more than 10,700 supporters.

“I feel that my son’s case is being put on the back burner, and it is truly not acceptable,” Dudley writes. “Rather than coming home to my child alive, I instead had to plan his funeral without even knowing what happened.”

In the care of friends

Evan was 11 months old when Dudley learned she would deploy to southwest Asia with the 436th Logistics Readiness Squadron in May 2012. She said the boy’s father was not involved in his life. Dudley’s parents live in Iowa, and other relatives are scattered across the country. She turned to Evan’s godparents, who live nearby.

They would be his primary caregivers. An Air Force couple agreed to help out.

Dudley and Staff Sgt. Justin Corbett belonged to the same squadron. Dudley had gotten to know his wife, Aubrey, when she and Corbett worked nights together. The Corbetts had two small children of their own, including a son about the same age as Evan.

The Air Force approved the plan.

Evan had learned to walk by the time Dudley deployed. The easy baby had grown into a giggling, good-natured toddler, she said. He didn’t have tantrums.

“He loved to hug and kiss people on the cheek,” Dudley said, and seemed to understand when the adults in his life were having a bad day. “He’d give you a hug and a kiss and go back to his toys.”

Dudley said she had no qualms about her son’s caregivers.

“It was the first time I had left him, ever,” she said, and the separation was painful.

Dudley watched him grow through the Skype calls. The base day care center he attended sent progress reports. Evan’s godparents described him as a pleasant child who always went right to sleep at night.

Occasionally, Aubrey Corbett picked up Evan from day care and took him to their home on base for a few hours. When his godparents had to travel to Pennsylvania late in Dudley’s deployment, the Corbetts offered to keep him for a few days.

In southwest Asia, Dudley counted down the final days of her deployment.

“Everything was set and ready,” Dudley said.

She picked up a souvenir for Evan, a T-shirt that said “My mommy was in Qatar.”

'Evan is not going to make it'

Dudley was hanging out with friends after hours the night of Nov. 3 when she saw her first sergeant. She figured somebody was in trouble.

The first sergeant called her name. “I thought, ‘I didn’t do anything.’ ” He pulled her aside and told her Evan was being airlifted to a hospital. He didn’t know anything more.

Dudley said she reached Aubrey Corbett on the phone. She’d been on an errand when Evan was injured and knew only what her husband told her: The boy had fallen down a flight of stairs.

It took Dudley almost two days to get home from halfway around the world. There were multiple connections and flight delays. For two days, she didn’t eat or sleep.

“I tried to stay calm for him,” she said. “I knew I had to be strong for him. He may be little but he’s smart. He wouldn’t want me freaking out.”

Dudley said it never occurred to her that Evan might not survive.

The doctor at the children’s hospital delivered the blow. “He said, ‘We’re doing everything we can, but Evan is not going to make it.’ ”

His injuries were so severe that he would have to have fallen out of an eight-story window, Dudley said the doctor told her.

She shouted. She kicked a chair. She demanded to see her son.

Amid the machines and wires and tubes lay Evan, surrounded by stuffed animals. Dudley tossed them aside and lay next to him.

She stayed through the futile neurological tests. When it was time to remove his breathing tube, Dudley insisted on doing it herself. When his heart stopped beating, she gave him a bath, dressed him in pajama pants and the souvenir T-shirt she’d brought and placed him in a body bag. She laid him in a red wagon and covered it with a blanket, the hospital’s procedure for transporting dead children out of their rooms.

Investigation continues

As Dudley made her way back from the Middle East, Delaware state police began their investigation. Justin Corbett called 911 at 4 p.m. Nov. 3, according to a search warrant.

He told police Evan “fell down eight carpeted stairs.”

Corbett has not been charged with a crime. He declined comment through a spokesman at Dover, where he and Dudley continue to serve in the same squadron.

They no longer work in the same building, she said, but Evan’s death has been divisive. “Some people won’t look me in the face,” Dudley said, and she has stopped attending squadron events to avoid the whispers.

In the last few weeks, as word of what happened to Evan spread beyond base — neither Air Force nor Delaware law enforcement announced his death — a group of Air Force spouses started a blue ribbon campaign to show their support for Dudley.

The case is being handled by civilian authorities because the base housing where Evan was injured is privatized, a Dover spokesman said. Base officials are cooperating fully with the investigation, Col. Randy Huiss, vice commander of the 436th Airlift Wing, said in a statement.

Prosecutors investigating Evan’s death told The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., that such cases are complex and can take months to complete. “It was classified as a homicide, and we’re pursuing it as such,” Deputy Attorney General Josette Manning, head of the Child Victims Unit, told the paper.

Dudley said she met with Manning after the story appeared in The News Journal. “She made it clear it’s not being put on the back burner.”

Dudley said she is cautiously optimistic.

On bad days — and there are still many — she says it’s Evan who keeps her going. “His spirit lives on. He’s living on through me.”

The News Journal contributed to this story.

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