Cousin charged in Bemidji child's death by exposure

  • Article by: JENNIFER BROOKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 17, 2014 - 11:21 PM

Her 22-year-old cousin is charged with manslaughter.

Six-year-old Mercedes Mayfield froze to death on the front steps of her home on a frigid Bemidji night.

Her cousin, Rachel Stacey Downer, was supposed to be baby sitting her that night. Now Downer, 22, stands accused of driving off without waiting to make sure the little girl made it back through the locked security door of her apartment building.

Downer was arraigned in Beltrami County District Court on Monday morning on charges of second-degree manslaughter. The complaint against her paints a heartbreaking picture of miscommunication and missed opportunities that led to a child dying alone in the cold, within sight of her mother’s bedroom window, on a night when temperatures dropped to almost 20 below.

Emergency workers were called to a Carter Circle apartment building early on the morning of Feb. 27. In the entryway they found Malika Peoples frantically trying to revive her daughter, who was curled, stiff and unresponsive and dressed in a winter coat and hat with one boot on her left foot. Mercedes’ right boot and mittens were found on the staircase outside.

The child was last seen the evening before, walking her cousin to her car. Her mother, Peoples, had been hurt at work that day and had taken pain medication and gone to bed early, leaving her niece Downer to watch Mercedes and another of her children, a 3-year-old. Downer’s 2-year-old son was also at the apartment.

According to the police report, Downer “said that she saw her aunt’s arm in a sling, but did not know how she was injured. … She said that she told her aunt she was going to take Mercedes with her to stay at her apartment. She said that she later changed her mind but did not tell her aunt about the change in plans.”

Instead, Downer told police, she bundled up her son and left the apartment, trailed by Mercedes, who helped Downer carry her belongings to her car.

“Downer stated that Mercedes closed the outside door to the building lightly, so that it would not latch,” the police report continued. “She said that after the car was loaded up, that she watched Mercedes enter the building and that she then got in her car and left.”

Temperatures in Bemidji that night hovered around 19 degrees below zero, with a windchill of 30 below.

When Peoples’ alarm rang at 6 the next morning, she realized that neither Downer nor Mercedes was in the apartment.

“Ms. Peoples said that she then called Downer and asked her why she had taken Mercedes home with her when she knew Mercedes had school,” the complaint reads. “Ms. Peoples said that she then looked out her front window and saw her daughter lying on the front step. She then went outside and pulled her into the entryway and called 911.”

Rescue workers attempted to revive her, but Mercedes was declared dead at the scene. The Ramsey County medical examiner’s office concluded that she died from hypothermia due to exposure to frigid temperatures.

Downer was released on $100,000 bond. Her next court appearance is scheduled for Monday. If convicted, she could face a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

 

Jennifer Brooks • 612-673-4008

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