Stepfather's child-abuse trial starts

Jim Grant/Nevada Appeal

Jim Grant/Nevada Appeal

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Justin Carrigan told several different stories in the hours after his 3-year-old stepdaughter was found not breathing in the Long Street home he shared with her mother and half-brother, witnesses said Tuesday.

Five prosecution witnesses took the stand before Judge Todd Russell in the first day of Carrigan's jury trial. He's charged with child abuse causing substantial bodily harm, and child neglect and endangerment.

He stands accused of causing Rochelle Ellis, 3, to stop breathing and of failing to immediately get her help.

In opening statements, Assistant District Attorney Gerald Gardner described the toddler as "severely brain damaged" as a result of not having oxygen to her brain for more than the 13 minutes it took paramedics to reach and revive her.

"She literally came back from the dead, but she'll never live life like a normal child or adult," he said.

According to Gardner, a friend of Carrigan's had to demand four times that he call 911, because Carrigan was concerned there'd be a mark on the child from a spanking he dealt her the previous evening.

Defense attorney Ben Walker said his client's actions weren't criminal.

"This is a case about the way people react to emergency situations that they've never been thrown into before," he said. "He didn't appreciate or understand the seriousness of the situation."

According to police, Carrigan, 28, was home alone with his wife's daughter, Rochelle, on Sept. 27, 2010, when he called 911 to report that the child had stopped breathing.

Carson City Fire Capt. Dan Albee said that when he spoke with Carrigan at the home, Carrigan told him Rochelle had fallen off something and hit her head.

"He told me that he had been attending to the infant that was in the other room and that he believed ... she'd climbed up on something, fallen off and hit her head. She cried momentarily, and when he came out to the living room, she was lying on the floor unconscious," said Albee.

Albee said Carrigan told him he'd done CPR and called 911 and was directed by dispatchers to continue CPR.

Both Albee and firefighter/paramedic Torrey Riches testified that when they entered Carrigan's home, he was kneeling over the unconscious, non-breathing child, doing chest compressions.

Riches said that rescuers were at the home within five minutes of being called. He said he and another paramedic spent eight minutes trying to get Rochelle to breathe again. When she began to breathe on her own, they took her to Carson Tahoe Hospital to meet a helicopter for a flight to the trauma center in Reno.

Shawna Kennedy, niece to Carrigan's daughter from another relationship, said she and her husband rushed to Carrigan's home upon learning of the incident. She said she and Carrigan were close because of the familial relationship and because they carpooled to work together.

"We pulled up and Justin walked out of the house and he gave us all hugs and he told us that he was laying in bed and he heard Rochelle wake up, and he told her to go to the bathroom because she wasn't quite potty-trained ... and he realized after a little bit it was quiet. So he went to the bathroom and he saw her on her knees slumped over in front of the toilet and she wasn't breathing," said Kennedy as she began to cry. "So he tried CPR on her."

Kennedy described Carrigan as "antsy and panicked." She said she was "100 percent positive" that her recollection of the conversation was correct.

Kennedy went on to say that as she and Carrigan walked to a vehicle to go to the hospital, Carrigan asked her if "this is what they did with Tracy."

Carrigan's daughter and Kennedy's niece was the victim of child abuse at the hands of her mother's boyfriend Tracy Becker, in 2007. Becker, 29, was sentenced in August 2007 to 18 to 60 months in prison, and was released in December 2009.

"Did that seem strange to you?" asked Deputy District Attorney Dan Adams.

"At the time with everything going on, I didn't think, 'Why's he asking this?' It took a couple of days for everything to sink in," said Kennedy.

She also testified to overhearing Carrigan tell someone Rochelle had been on the couch with him when she stopped breathing.

"I did hear him tell someone on the phone about a story that he was sitting on the couch and Rochelle was laying across his lap. He was, like, playing with her hair and he noticed she wasn't breathing," said Kennedy.

After the phone call, said Kennedy, Carrigan seemed angry.

"He just said they were trying to blame him, but I don't know who 'they' were," said Kennedy.

Testimony resumes today.


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