What happened to Ada Louise Neilson

From The Oregonian, Wednesday, July 30, 1997

A woman accused of strangling her 22-month-old daughter told doctors she tried to kill herself after the child drowned in a bathtub , a witness testified on Tuesday.

Ada Louise Neilson told a doctor at Tuality Community Hospital she had taken a lot of pills, according to a Hillsboro police officer testifying at a hearing in a Washington County court to determine whether Neilson will be released on bail or remain in jail pending her Sept. 17 trial.

She is charged with murder in the Oct. 20 death of her daughter, Caroline Victoria Sidney.

Neilson, who has a history of mental illness, was taken to the hospital after police found her unconscious on the bathroom floor of her Hillsboro apartment next to the dead child.

Caroline was with her mother for a short, unsupervised home visit. She had been in and out of foster care since August 1995, after her mother was arrested for bizarre behavior that endangered the child.

Neilson, dressed in an orange jail uniform, broke down in tears as the first witness testified. Judge Timothy P. Alexander granted a short break during which she pulled herself together.

Robert Hermann, chief deputy district attorney, called two witnesses — both Hillsboro police officers who performed a welfare check at 627 S.E. 13th Ave. after Caroline wasn’t returned to her foster parents.

Sgt. Vernon Schroder said he arrived at the apartment just before 8 p.m. After repeatedly ringing the doorbell and pounding on the door, he went in through a back door.

The apartment smelled like mothballs and was very warm, he said. The heat was turned up to 75 degrees in the living room and 70 degrees in the child’s room.

Schroder walked through the apartment until he found Neilson lying naked on top of the child in the bathroom. Neilson’s eyes were fluttering, he said, and she appeared to be semiconscious.

Caroline was lying on her back, wrapped in a white towel. Her face was pale, her eyes fixed and she was cold to touch, he said.

Schroder and another officer moved Neilson to the couch. Officer Germaine Martinez stayed with her and took notes at the hospital as Neilson answered doctor’s questions about medication.

“The doctor asked Neilson if she had taken a lot of pills and she said, `yes.’ He asked if she tried to kill herself and she said, `yes,'” Martinez testified. “He asked if she tried to kill herself because of the baby and she said, `I don’t want my baby.'”

Later, Martinez said, Neilson began to cry and ask nurses what happened to her baby and if they had revived the child.

Robert M. Elliott, Neilson’s public-appointed defense attorney, emphasized through witness testimony that his client was too incoherent to make any relevant statements.

He also concentrated on repeated observations by witnesses that Caroline had fluid in her mouth, was partially wet and that the bathroom floor was wet — suggesting a drowning scene.

On cross-examination, Schroder said Neilson was huddled over the child in a fetal position that could be interpreted as a “protective position.”

Martinez said Neilson made no statements while on the couch at her apartment. She responded to questions in the hospital by opening her eyes, initially, and she spoke in a low, slow voice.

Two medics with the Hillsboro Fire Department testified that Neilson was “unresponsive” and “not totally unconscious” at her apartment. They noted the medications in Neilson’s bathroom — lithium, Zoloft and others she used to treat a bipolar disorder — and assumed she had overdosed.

Detective Lawrence Harris of the Hillsboro Police Department said that several hours after police found Neilson, she was still in a sleeplike state at the hospital and difficult to wake up.

From the Oregonian, October 1, 1997

Pinpoint hemorrhages around 22-month-old Caroline Victoria Sydney’s throat indicated she was strangled and did not drown, a deputy state medical examiner said Tuesday.

Clifford C. Nelson described the wounds during the first day in the trial of Caroline’s mother, Ada Louise Neilson, 37, of Hillsboro, who is charged with her murder. The girl died in the bathtub on Oct. 22, 1996, during a one-hour home visit with her mother, who had recently been released from hospitalization for emotional disorders.

Attorneys for the prosecution and the defense agree that Neilson suffers from severe psychological disorders. She has been hospitalized 10 times since 1991 under “serious circumstances,” her attorney, Robert Elliott, said Tuesday during his opening statement.

But Elliott maintained that the child’s death in the bathtub was accidental, possibly by drowning.

“You’ll see that Ada Neilson’s conduct, although explained by insanity, really falls for a sane person into the area of criminal negligence,” Elliott told Judge Timothy P. Alexander. “She failed to appreciate the risks.”

But Nelson, the deputy state medical examiner who conducted the autopsy, said the hemorrhaging showed otherwise. There were signs of pressure around tissue in the throat, including near the voice box, he said.

“We have nothing else besides these injuries,” he said. “This of itself is enough for us to reach a diagnosis of strangulation. I have no alternative cause of death.”

Elliott tried to get Nelson to concede that drowning was at least a possibility. But Nelson disagreed. There was no water in the stomach, and her lungs were normal, he said.

“I don’t have any evidence that the baby drowned.”

At issue in the trial, said Robert Hermann, chief deputy district attorney, in his opening statement, is not so much whether Neilson was responsible for her daughter’s death but her level of legal culpability.

Alexander, who is hearing the evidence in a bench trial without a jury, could find Neilson guilty of lesser crimes, among them first- or second-degree manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide.

“From the evidence I expect will be presented,” Hermann said, “I suspect the argument will be narrowed down to issues in that range.”

In his opening statement, Elliott outlined a series of bizarre events leading up to Caroline’s death. Ada Neilson, he said, moved to Oregon from the Southeast in 1992 with an abusive husband.

In the days leading up to Caroline’s death, Elliott said, the child was often being cared for by foster mother Gail Harris. But about two weeks before her daughter died, Neilson started falling into another “psychotic episode,” as Elliott called it.

“Ada was slipping,” Elliott said, “and when she slips, she becomes hyper religious.”

She telephoned a religious organization she saw on cable television, which sent two representatives to Neilson’s apartment. They began praying and speaking in tongues, conducting what Elliott described as an exorcism to cast out demons. At one point, he said, Neilson started foaming at the mouth.

“She continued to deteriorate rapidly, deeper and deeper into psychosis,” he said. A neighbor one night saw a bonfire of Neilson’s belongings, including books, a recliner and Tupperware.

“She was burning things that seemed possessed,” Elliott said, “burning her own belongings in the belief it would extract the devil from her and Caroline’s life.”

On Oct. 22, Caroline’s foster mother dropped her off for what was to be a one-hour, unsupervised visit with her biological mother. Neilson had been released from a brief hospital stay four days earlier.

That day, Elliott said, Caroline seemed very happy and wanted to take a bath. Neilson adjusted the water and put Caroline in the tub. But “terrible things are happening to her ability to concentrate and supervise.”

She left the bathroom and went to the locked cabinet containing her medications. Upon her return, Elliott said, the child was dead. Neilson then took her clothes off and got in the tub in a suicide effort.

“Ada wanted to go with her so her child wouldn’t go to heaven alone,” Elliott said. “The thought is that she will slip down into the water.”

Harris later returned to pick up Caroline and the police were summoned. Neilson was unconscious but alive. Caroline, however, was dead.

From The Oregonian, October 9, 1997

Saying “who knows what was going on in her mind,” a judge Wednesday found Ada Louise Neilson guilty of killing her 22-month-old daughter but ruled she was insane at the time.

Washington County Judge Timothy P. Alexander concluded that Neilson, while in a psychotic state on Oct. 20, 1996, held Caroline Victoria Sydney under water for the three to five minutes necessary to drown or strangle her in their Hillsboro bathtub.

However, Alexander said that prosecutor Robert W. Hermann, chief deputy district attorney, did not present enough evidence to prove that Neilson was intentionally trying to cause her daughter’s death. So he found the 37-year-old mother guilty of first-degree manslaughter, but insane, and ordered her to the state mental hospital in Salem for not more than 20 years.

“There are a lot of religious overtones” to submerging in water, Alexander said, “a cleansing or baptism type of thing.”

Much of the testimony during the six-day trial centered on Neilson’s strong religious beliefs and paranoia about the devil or some vague evil “they” she thought was out to harm her and her daughter.

A couple who formerly lived in Beaverton testified that they heard Neilson speak in two separate voices and exhibit two different personalities, as if she were possessed, when they went to her apartment to pray with her eight days before her daughter’s death.

In her normal voice, Neilson was a caring mother worried about her daughter’s well-being. “They are going to kill my daughter,” she told Karen and Dane Dawson. Then, turning red in the face and foaming at the mouth, Neilson screamed in a guttural voice, “I am going to kill my daughter.”

Neilson also showed the Dawsons furniture that she had moved into a utility room and out into the back yard because she thought it was possessed. Later that same night, Neilson set fire to the furniture. A neighbor, Gil Chapman, testified that he called the fire department because the flames were shooting above the eaves of Neilson’s apartment.

He said she sounded sorry about causing a problem, but didn’t seem agitated or out of control at the time. Instead, Chapman testified, Neilson said that she probably was in trouble and that the state would take her daughter away again.

Neilson already was on probation for endangering her child by swimming with the then-9-month-old baby in the Columbia River and staying on an island for three days in August 1995. She told psychiatrists that some men were after her.

The state Office of Services to Children and Families, then known as the Children Services Division, took custody of Caroline Sydney at the time. The girl was on an unsupervised home visit at the time of her death.

Neilson has been diagnosed with a bipolar disorder as manic-depressive and had been hospitalized at least 10 times for psychiatric treatment. She tried to kill herself as many as six times, including when her daughter died.

Police found Neilson curled in a fetal position over her daughter’s lifeless body after the girl’s foster mother became concerned that Neilson didn’t answer the door when the visit was supposed to be over.

Hermann, while agreeing that Neilson was insane, contended that she killed her daughter intentionally and sought a verdict of murder. During questioning Wednesday, Hermann got Dr. Scott Reichlin, a forensic psychiatrist at the Oregon State Hospital, to testify that even during a psychotic episode, a person knows what he or she is doing physically.

Robert Elliott, Neilson’s court-appointed attorney from the Metropolitan Public Defender’s Office, argued that Neilson left her daughter unattended in the bathtub and was horrified to return and find that she had drowned. He said that constituted criminally negligent homicide.

Dr. Clifford Nelson, deputy state medical examiner, ruled that Caroline Sydney died of strangulation and couldn’t have drowned because there were marks around her neck and no water in her lungs or stomach. But defense expert Dr. William Brady, a private pathologist who was formerly Oregon’s medical examiner, said the girl died of a “dry drowning.”

After court, Elliott said Neilson was clearly relieved not to have been found guilty of murder.

Hermann noted, however, that because of the manslaughter verdict, Neilson will have to admit to her responsibility in killing her daughter — and not continue to maintain that she accidentally drowned — before psychiatrists can declare that her treatment is working.

Experts at the state hospital will determine what Neilson’s treatment will be and a psychiatric review board will periodically hold hearings to determine if she is a danger to herself or others or whether she can be released before 20 years.