District Judge Bob Sherling has found enough probable cause for a grand jury to consider moving forward with charges against the former van driver for an unlicensed day care center in Mobile accused of causing the death of 5-year-old Kamden Johnson last month.
Johnson was found dead on the side of Demetropolis Road on Aug. 21 after police say he was likely left in a van driven by 46-year-old Valarie Rena Patterson. The day after Johnson’s death, Patterson was charged with manslaughter and abuse of a corpse.
At the time, Patterson was employed as a driver at the Community Nursery and Preschool Academy on Hillcrest Road — a facility operated by Community Church Ministries Inc. that is not licensed or regularly inspected by by the state due to Alabama’s religious exemption law.
At a hearing this week, Mobile Police Det. Nick Crepeau offered new insight into what police believe happened on the day Johnson died. On the stand, he discussed interviews he conducted with people who say they saw the boy that day, including his mother, day care employees and young children who were on Patterson’s van.
Crepeau said he spoke with one employee who said she personally put Johnson in the van Patterson drove that morning to drop off children at various area schools. Johnson is believed to have been in Patterson’s van and was supposed to be dropped off at Collier Elementary.
In his testimony, Crepeau said there was no log made of the child passengers in the van that morning. Surveillance footage shows the van arriving at Collier around 8:16 a.m., Aug. 21. He said several children can been seen exiting the bus, but not Johnson.
Crepeau discussed interviews he conducted with the other children — including Patterson’s 11-year-old daughter — who said Johnson was in the van that morning. However, Crepeau said he had “fallen asleep” in the “very back seat” on the way to the school and “didn’t get off.”
He went on to discuss what detectives know about Patterson’s whereabouts that day. Phone records indicate she sent a text message to another day care employee notifying her the kids had been dropped off at their schools before driving to a hotel in the Beltline area.
Crepeau said keycard information indicates Patterson entered a room at the the Fairfield Inn at approximately 8:37 a.m., where she’s believed to have stayed until security footage shows her leaving the hotel roughly four hours later at 11:54 a.m.
Though there was never any indication given about when or where investigators believe Johnson died, Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Wright asked Crepeau about the temperatures in Mobile on that day. He said highs that day went into the mid-90s.
After leaving the hotel, Patterson went to a nearby gas station where she spent 10 to 15 minutes in the parking lot before leaving and then returning again, according to Crepeau.
At 3:22 p.m., he said, Patterson returned to Collier to pick up the children. This time she created a log of her passengers. Crepeau, who reviewed the passenger log, said Patterson had written “out” beside Kamden Johnson’s name, indicating he never boarded the van that day.
At Wright’s prompting, Crepeau also discussed the multiple interviews he conducted with Patterson before and after she was charged with any crime. In their first meeting, which occurred at Community Nursery and Preschool Academy, he said Patterson seemed “a little nervous” and was reluctant to come in for an interview before “eventually agreeing to.”
Patterson (pictured above) was interviewed a second time at MPD headquarters, and this time, Crepeau said, seemed more emotional, in his opinion.
“She asked me to apologize to Kamden’s parents on her behalf,” he added. “I also asked her if there was anyone else she thought I needed to talk to, and she indicated there was not.”
During cross-examination, however, Patterson’s attorney, Christine Hernandez, prodded Crepeau into discussing several of the things MPD detectives don’t know about Johnson’s death — such as where he died, how he died, when he died and how his body got to Demetropolis Road.
While there have been statements suggesting Johnson died after being left in a hot van for an extended period of time, detectives are still awaiting the results of an autopsy from the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences to determine his actual cause of death.
On cross examination, Crepeau also revealed investigators have seen no video footage or heard any witness claims indicating there were any passengers in Patterson’s van after she dropped the children off at school. There’s also no known footage of Patterson moving a body out of the van that day and no witness statements describing anything similar.
“What we discovered today is that officer Nick Crepeau cannot tell us how Kamden died, when Kamden died or where Kamden died,” Hernandez said after the hearing. “He can’t tell us how Kamden was placed in that location on Demetropolis Road, and he can’t tell us if the white van that’s been indicated to be Mrs. Patterson’s actually transported Kamden anywhere.”
Hernandez said her client checked into the Fairfield Inn on Aug. 21 because “her air conditioning had been out the night before.” When asked about other children who claimed they saw Johnson’s on Patterson’s van that day, Hernandez said “those are some very young children, and we have information to the contrary.”
“We’ll be pursuing that Kamden did not get in the van at Hillcrest and was not transported anywhere in that van,” she added.
Prosecutors with the Mobile County District Attorney’s office will present evidence to a grand jury, though it’s unclear exactly when that might occur as grand jury proceedings are not disclosed to the public. From there, the grand jury can elect to indict Patterson on any number of charges related to Johnson’s death or no-bill the case — effectively erasing the charges related to her arrest.