Anthony Edwards / Staff Photo
An outraged family member of Dezirae Sheldon darts toward Dennis Duby at the end of Monday's court hearing.A Poultney man on Monday denied killing his 2-year-old stepdaughter in a case that has sparked a firestorm of emotion.
Dennis Duby pleaded innocent to second-degree murder in a Rutland criminal courtroom packed with people who turned out to support Dezirae Sheldon, who was pronounced dead on Friday, days after her second birthday on Feb. 18.
Bail was set at $250,000 for the 31-year-old, who faces a minimum 20-year sentence and potential lifetime sentence if convicted of the killing.
Before the hearing ended, chaos erupted in the courtroom when Dezirae’s mother, Sandra Eastman, charged the defense table screaming “What did you do to my (expletive) baby?”
Eastman was intercepted by court officers who were in the courtroom in added strength due to the nature of the case and the general hostility exhibited toward Duby throughout the proceeding.
Most of the people who attended the hearing Monday were family members or friends of Dezirae’s biological father, Willis Sheldon, who believe that Eastman is also culpable for the girl’s death.
As Eastman, who was convicted of abusing Dezirae in July, was leaving the courthouse, a crowd chanted “Kill her.”
But while those in the crowd called for Eastman to be held accountable, no criminal charges have been brought against her and court records filed by Vermont State Police investigators indicate the mother wasn’t at her College Street home in Poultney when the toddler was fatally injured.
Duby told investigators that he believed the child had fallen off a table and said he’d seen her fall from a toilet and a sink on the afternoon of Feb. 19.
But physicians who treated Dezirae at Rutland Regional Medical Center and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., told police they suspected the child was abused.
A doctor at RRMC told police that CT scans of the girl revealed skull fractures to both sides of her head suggesting “that someone held her head so tight, her skull cracked.”
An autopsy further concluded that Dezirae died as a result of blunt force trauma and the manner of her death was a homicide.
Duby, who submitted to a polygraph test, told investigators he was home alone with the toddler and his and Eastman’s 6-week-old daughter when the fatal injury occurred.
He said he was caring for the newborn when Dezirae wandered into a bedroom. Minutes later he said he heard a “thud.” When he went to investigate, he said he found his stepdaughter lying on her back with her eyes open but she didn’t respond when he tried to talk to her.
When investigators challenged him on his story, he allegedly changed some elements. In the altered version he said he fell asleep and woke up to see his stepdaughter in the bathroom, where she fell from the toilet and the sink.
The girl didn’t appear injured, was not crying and walked out of the bathroom, he said.
In both versions, Duby maintained that the fatal fall occurred in the bedroom while he was in another room.
Detective Sgt. Albert “Butch” Abdelnour wrote that police investigated Eastman as well after doctors and nurses at the two hospitals said the mother appeared to be “inappropriately unemotional.”
One doctor told police that Eastman seemed “out.”
A nurse at RRMC said the lack of emotion, along with the time Eastman spent talking or texting on her cellphone, “weirded” him out.
But video recordings from a laundromat and supermarket in Poultney confirmed that the mother was out of the home last Wednesday afternoon. She left the Shaw’s supermarket at 3:18 p.m. — five minutes before the 911 call, Abdelnour wrote.
Eastman told police that Duby called her at the supermarket and told her there had been an accident. She said 911 wasn’t called until after she returned home.
Eastman, who was placed on probation and ordered to participate in violence counseling for anger management last summer, was charged with abusing her daughter in March 2013 after Dezirae was treated for broken bones in both legs.
Eastman was also convicted in 2008 of a felony count of lewd and lascivious conduct. A court affidavit filed in that case indicates the charge was brought after Eastman, who was 24 at the time, became pregnant during a relationship with a 15-year-old. She received an 18-month-to-seven-year sentence which was all suspended and she was placed on probation.
Eastman does not have custody of that child, who is now 5 years old. State police said Monday that her 6-week-old child was removed from her home and placed in the care of the state Department for Children and Families.
Duby, who has no prior criminal history, has been placed on administrative leave at the Pittsford Fire Department where he worked as a volunteer for 11 years. The Pittsford town manager said the town is also reviewing with legal counsel Duby’s job as the town’s part-time animal control officer and deputy fire warden.
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