A northwestern Minnesota couple were charged Wednesday in Otter Tail County with murder and malicious punishment of a child in connection with the death of a 6-year-old boy they were caring for at the request of his grandmother, who lives in Montana.
The boy, Justis Burland-Arnett, suffered a series of horrendous injuries over time, including from what appeared to be beatings with a stick or rod, hair torn from his head and possible scalding to his skin, according to court records.
Bobbie Christine Bishop, 40, and Walter Henry Wynhoff, 44, both of Fergus Falls, were each charged with five felonies ranging from malicious punishment of a child that caused great bodily harm to second-degree murder, without intent, while committing a felony. They each gave statements to law enforcement.
Bishop said in family court filings that the mother of the boys had relinquished parental rights years ago. She said that Justis and his brother were taken in by their grandmother, Norma Burland, of Polson, Mont., but that she could not handle them.
Bishop told investigators that she agreed to care for the boys, and that Burland dropped them off at her home in Otter Tail County in August. Bishop later moved with them to Fergus Falls, according to a police statement.
Burland could not be reached Wednesday for comment. The Ramsey County medical examiner is conducting an autopsy of Justis.
Fergus Falls police responded to a report Monday that Bishop brought a limp, lifeless boy to Lake Region Hospital. He was wearing only a torn diaper. Detective Andrew Renner took photos and noted that his "appearance was disturbing with marks from head to toe, sores, cuts and scratches all over," the criminal complaint said.
He reported that the boy's hair looked as if it had been pulled out or wasn't growing, and a linear mark, 2 to 3 inches wide, was noted on his left shoulder "with scratches that looked like fingernail markings. His face was scabbed over and scarred with multiple injuries in different phases of healing," Renner reported.
Kayla Carlson, a nurse, said the boy's left foot was covered with some sort of bandage and looked like a potato. His wounds, she said, were "very infected." Nurse Kevin Hines said his arms and legs were mottled and his abdomen was rigid and hard, possibly from internal injuries.
Dr. David Kaplan said Justis' high count of white blood cells was consistent with an overwhelming infection. Dr. Angela Folstad, a pediatrician, noted the remarkably different ages of the wounds, the complaint says.
Wynhoff, described in the complaint as a friend of Bishop's who spent time at her residence, told police that she sometimes would whip the boys with a belt because they would soil themselves "to be defiant." At one point, the complaint says, "he alluded to the fact that Bishop may have lost it and claimed he did not." He said he recognized that Justis needed medical attention but that he failed to provide it.
Wynhoff said that within the previous four days Bishop had strapped the boy to a wall using duct tape.
Bishop initially told police that Justis had been acting normally or she would have brought him to the hospital sooner, the complaint says. She said she awoke about 3:30 a.m. Monday and noticed that he was not breathing and had turned blue. She said she hollered for Wynhoff and they took him to the hospital.
Bishop said when she first took custody of the boys in August, "they were violent and did weird things," so she punished them by having them stand in a corner or sit on the bed and by spanking them. On Tuesday, Bishop was interviewed again by police and she said the discipline of the children had escalated in the last month, the complaint said.
She said it followed a March 12 custodial hearing, which did not go as planned. Family court records show that Bishop filed for temporary custody of the boys the day after the hearing, until permanent custody could be arranged. Burland filed a notarized, temporary custody agreement supporting the arrangement.
"I have loved them since they were born & we do lots of things together & I tell that I love them everyday," Bishop wrote in her initial custody petition, filed last October.
The criminal complaint says that Bishop admitted to using duct tape on Justis to fix him to the wall and to beating him about 20 times over the course of the month. She said she beat him with a belt and most likely hit him with a belt buckle after an outburst that took place Sunday.
The complaint says she also admitted to beating his brother about seven times.
Police say Bishop told them that she knew she should have brought Justis in for medical treatment, adding, "I didn't want them to take him away."
She said she spoke to Wynhoff about the need to further discipline Justis, and he went into the boy's room early Monday morning. She said when Wynhoff returned, he told her that he had never been so mad at a child and that he had slapped the boy. She said when she checked on him, he had a red mark on the left side of his face. He was "groggy" and had slurred speech, she said, according to the complaint.
"He then handed her his tooth, and she saw a broken piece of a 1-by-1 inch board/stick laying on the bed next to him. Officers later located two wood pieces with a red-like substance that field tested positive for blood," the complaint says.