Chelsey Cook let a 4-year-old girl in her care freeze to death out of “pure and utter selfishness,” a Douglas County prosecutor said Thursday.
In a preliminary hearing Thursday afternoon, prosecutor Molly Keane said Cook committed child abuse resulting in death last month because she didn’t seek medical attention when Alicia Morrow was cold and barely breathing in the hours before she died.
Cook’s attorney, J. William Gallup of Omaha, argued that Cook had fed and clothed Alicia, took her to school and doctor’s appointments and cared for her like her own child. He said there was no evidence that Cook had injured Alicia prior to her death.
Keane disputed Gallup’s claim that Cook didn’t harm the child.
“You don’t get an award for not beating a child,” Keane said in court. “She watched as this child’s life slipped away from her and did nothing.”
Douglas County District Judge Greg Schatz ruled that there was sufficient evidence to send the case to trial.
Cook, Alicia and Cook’s 2-year-old son had been living in a frigid house with a faulty furnace at 3025 Franklin St. Cook knew Alicia needed help but didn’t call 911 because there was a warrant out for her arrest, Keane said, and she feared her son would be placed in foster care if she went to jail.
Alicia died Jan. 3 of hypothermia, which caused her heart, other organs and nervous system to shut down, according to autopsy results. Prosecutors initially charged Cook with child abuse, but upgraded the charge to child abuse resulting in death after the autopsy was complete.
Under the charge — which carries a penalty of 20 years to life in prison — prosecutors have to show only that Cook intentionally abused Alicia, not that she meant to kill her.
Alicia’s body was found about 10 p.m. Jan. 5. Cook had wrapped her in a plastic bag and hidden the body in the basement because she was worried it would start to smell, Omaha Police Officer Wendy Dye testified.
Omaha police have described the house as “frigid.” The thermostat was set at 50 degrees. Cupboards were barren, save for two packages of ramen noodles. Fast-food wrappers and leftovers were found in the trash. Cook had Alicia and her own child sleep with few or no clothes on, saying she didn’t believe clothes kept people warmer, Dye said.
Cook told police that when she found Alicia early Jan. 3, the girl was unresponsive, blinking and barely breathing.
Instead of seeking help, Dye testified, she took out a Bible and began to pray over Alicia. The next morning, after she hid the body, Cook told police she went to church twice, seeking guidance.
“She said she didn’t know what to do with a dead baby in the house,” Dye said.
Rather than coming clean, Cook told family members that Alicia was staying with another friend, Dye said. Cook also lied to Alicia’s day care, Dye said, saying someone else was going to care for the child from that point on.
In December 2014 Cook had taken care of Alicia after Alicia’s mother, Lakisha Morrow, put the girl in her care. At the time, Morrow was on the brink of homelessness.
By the fall of 2015 the women had argued over who would get custody of Alicia. Cook said the dispute was based in part on who would receive assistance payments from the state, according to a police report.
Alicia remained with Cook. By winter, Cook was not keeping the house warm, despite a report from Cook’s mother that she was paying for utilities for the recently renovated house.
Cook’s mother, Delena Winston, testified that her daughter gave Alicia “shelter, nurturing and stability” in the months before she died.
Gallup told the judge that Cook had cared for Alicia the best she could.
“My client took a child nobody wanted,” Gallup said. “She is a decent person who wanted to help somebody out.”
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