Episode 82-Deaths of Children with Special Needs

A young boy dies at the home of his adoptive parents in what is later found to be the result of swaddling. The boy was only four years old, and his parents had been attempting a controversial parenting therapy before his death. A 10-year-old girl from North Carolina is taken out of state by her adoptive mother in another case of attachment therapy, and also dies at the treatment center. Two boys with special needs die in what appears to be tragic accidents, and one case helps investigators change the protocol for future searches. And finally, a couple from South Carolina are arrested in the death of their son, who went missing for 48 hours in 1989 before being found on their property. They never showed signs of wanting to find his killer, and a video of the father finding his son was archived by a local news channel. Will it be used in the murder trial as evidence?

Skyler Wilson

On January 5, 2023, the Surry County EMS was dispatched to the home of Jodi and Joseph Wilson in Mt. Airy, North Carolina. A call had come in reporting a child had a seizure in the home. When the first responders arrived, they found four-year-old Skyler Wilson unresponsive and not breathing on his own. Four days later, the boy passed away at Brenner Children’s Hospital in Winston-Salem. According to Fox 8 news, his cause of death was listed as a hypoxic brain injury caused by restriction that prevented oxygen to the brain. His doctor at the hospital told police that these brain injuries were consistent with “too much restriction” during the swaddling technique.

Most of us are familiar with the term swaddling in regards to using it with infants. It involves wrapping a baby snugly in a blanket. But rolling over while being swaddled has been linked to an increased likelihood of SIDS deaths, so it is not encouraged for an infant that is old enough to roll over on its own.

\When police began investigating Skyler’s death, they issued a court order requesting records from the Surry County Department of Social Services for Skyler and his brother. Both boys had been placed with the couple in September of 2021, and the Wilsons had “fostered” three children prior to the boys.

Investigative reporting by the Mt. Airy News discovered that Skyler’s former foster mother had grown concerned about the safety of the boys and reached out to the Surry County DSS on December 7, 2022. She told detectives that Jodi Wilson, then age 38, had discussed using the swaddling technique known as “pouching,” food restriction, gating Skyler in his room for extended periods of alone time, and exorcisms of both the children. Court records did not indicate a follow-up visit from Social Services, or an investigation that took place as a result of this former foster mother’s concerns.

Police obtained a search warrant of the Wilsons’ home that included computers, multiple cameras, duct tape wrappings, and Skyler’s medical records, among other items. They found wrist and ankle braces as well. Joseph later claimed the straps were used to keep Skyler in place during the swaddling sessions. Evidence from both Jodi and Joseph’s cell phones showed messages she sent through Facebook that read, “see video . . . about to tie him up and swaddle him again.”

Joseph Wilson, who was 41 at the time, worked as a chiropractor at a business in Mt. Airy called Affordable Wellness. His clients knew him as Dr. Joe. It appears that business has now permanently closed. Employees at Affordable Wellness told police that Joseph would look at video footage from his home on his cell phone. They had also witnessed him using office computers to search for “alternative” parenting techniques, and he had been recording Zoom sessions with a woman named Nancy Thomas, a woman who bills herself as an expert in attachment therapy and holding therapy. Nancy Thomas is not a licensed medical doctor, psychiatrist, or therapist. Her methods were shared in a 1990 HBO documentary titled “Child of Rage.” She shared her experience with her adoptive daughter Beth Thomas, who she says had Reactive Attachment Disorder. According to the Mayo Clinic, Reactive Attachment Disorder is defined as “a rare but serious condition in which an infant or young child doesn’t establish healthy attachments with parents or caregivers. Reactive attachment disorder may develop if the child’s basic needs for comfort, affection, and nurturing aren’t met and loving, caring, stable attachments are not established.”

An article that ran in The Stokes News explained more about the “reparenting” therapy it appears the Wilsons were attempting on Skyler. Re-parenting suggests children should be treated like a baby or toddler in an attempt to create a new bond between the child and caregiver to replace those that were not formed with their birth parent or caregiver. The article also states The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children held a task force on attachment theory and in 2006, wrote: Assessment for attachment problems requires considerable diagnostic knowledge and skill, to accurately recognize attachment problems and to rule out competing diagnoses.”

When Fox 8 News reached out to Nancy Thomas about the death of Skyler Wilson, she said the following: “I am shocked and saddened to hear the sad news of this little one passing away. Since I have no knowledge of the incident, I am unable to give a comment. I am willing to assist law enforcement if they have any questions.”

Jodi and Joe Wilson were arrested and charged with the murder of Skyler Wilson. I was unable to find a schedule trial date in this case. The defendants have been through several lawyers at this point, resulting in numerous delays.

Candace Newmaker

I want to talk about Candace Newmaker next. Skyler Wilson died as a result of injuries sustained during swaddling, a therapy his parents were allegedly using on the advice of Nancy Thomas. Another child from North Carolina, 10-year-old Candace Newmaker, died in 2000 during a rebirthing session, which is another controversial treatment for reactive attachment disorder.

Candace was the daughter of Angela Elmore, a young mother with little education and a troubled relationship with her husband. The North Carolina Department of Social Services found Angela negligent in caring for Candace and her two other children. When they decided to remove the children from Angela’s home, she went into hiding. The department officials eventually found her, and the children were placed into foster care. The department terminated Angela’s parental rights.

When Candace was six years old Jeane Newmaker, a pediatric nurse from an affluent family in Durham, North Carolina, adopted her. According to what Jeane later reported to authorities, Candace had difficulty acclimating into her new home. She was diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder and was prescribed Ritalin, and later Dexedrine. Jeane continued to take Candace to see doctors and she was also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and oppositional defiant disorder. She was then prescribed Effexor and Risperdal, along with the Dexedrine. As you can tell, these are powerful medications for a young girl to be taking. Her mother reported she had trouble sleeping and was fearful that monsters were coming to get her in her dreams. In the spring of 1999, Jeane said she woke up in the middle of the night after smelling smoke. She found Candace in the guest bedroom, sitting on the bed, with spent matches scattered all around her. She had thrown lit matches onto the floor, setting patches of the carpet on fire.

Jeane said she was desperate after years of reading parenting books and consulting therapists and various doctors when she came across Watkins & Associates in Evergreen, Colorado. Jeane traveled out of state with Candace to meet with Connell Watkins, a psychotherapist and her assistant Julie Ponder, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Three days before Candace’s therapy was set to end, on April 18, 2000, the two women planned a rebirthing procedure. Julie Ponder told Candace to lie down in a fetal position on a blue flannel sheet. During a 70-minute session that was recorded on video, Candace was wrapped from head to toe and surrounded by pillows. Candace cried out that she was having a hard time breathing, even kicking a 31-inch tear in the sheet with her feet, but Connell Watkins and Julie Ponder, along with two other adults, continued to push the girl in what they called an attempt to simulate uterine contractions. All in all, the 75-pound girl was crushed with the combined weight of 673 pounds. Her adoptive mother Jeane sat just a few feet away, asking, “Baby, do you want to be reborn?” Fifty minutes into the session, Candace grew quiet. The therapists then taunted her with the words, “quitter, quitter, quitter,” waiting 20 more minutes before unwrapping her from the sheet. She was pronounced dead the next morning from cerebral edema.

According to an article on the National Institutes for Health, traditional rebirthing therapy is a treatment that was developed in the 1970s by Leonard Orr, a psychotherapist. It is predominately a breathing technique and normally doesn’t last more than 15 minutes.

During the trial of Connell Watkins and Julie Ponder, jurors were subjected to more than ten hours of videotapes that showed just how horrifying the therapy sessions leading up to Candace’s death were. The AT program at Watkins and Associates cost around $7,000 and included Candace living with therapeutic foster parents, in this case, Brita St. Clair and Jack McDaniel, the adults who were also present at the time of her death. I won’t get into all the details, because they are upsetting, but the sessions involved Candace being shaken violently multiple times while also being screamed at by the therapists. They also cut off all her hair.

In 2001, after a three-week trial, both Connell Watkins and Julie Ponder were sentenced to 16 years in prison after being convicted of reckless child abuse resulting in the death of Candace Newmaker. The two assistants, Brita St. Clair and Jack McDaniel, pled guilty to lesser felonies for negligent child abuse and received 10 years’ probation and a thousand hours of community service. Jeane Newmaker pled guilty to criminally negligent child abuse and was given a deferred sentence of four years. At the end of her term her official record was cleared of the charge. The nursing board here in North Carolina permitted her to keep her registered nursing license.

Candace’s birth mother Angie was not told of her daughter’s death. She only found out several months after the fact when reporters uncovered her identity and went to visit her.

An interesting fact that I uncovered while researching this episode is that Nancy Thomas, the therapist who was later counseling Skyler Wilson’s adoptive parents, was employed at Watkins and Associates during the time Candance was there. She doesn’t appear to have worked with Candace directly, but she studied attachment therapy methods at the center.

Connell Watkins was released in June 2008 and accepted into a transitional community setting. She was forbidden to be employed in any sort of psychological consulting or counseling profession as part of her release agreement. She also had to wear an ankle bracelet monitoring her whereabouts and was limited in the types of contact she could have with minors. I’ve been unable to find any updated information on whether or not Julie Ponder has been released from prison.

Rebirthing therapy has been banned in the state of Colorado as a result of Candace’s death. It prohibits all psychotherapies form using active restraint for the safety of patients.

Maddox Ritch

In 2018 we had a missing persons case in our area involving a young child that sparked widespread media attention. While the case did not have a happy ending, it did spark change in the way law enforcement handles missing persons cases of children with special needs.

It was September 22, 2018, and 6-year-old Maddox Ritch, who had been diagnosed with autism and was a nonverbal child, was visiting Rankin Lake Park with his father Ian Ritch and his father’s girlfriend. Ian said they were walking through the park when his son took off running behind a jogger. Ian tried to catch up with Maddox but couldn’t figure out which direction he went. He and two other park staffers searched for Maddox before making the decision to call the police.

Hundreds of law enforcement officers and search and rescue teams spent countless hours searching for the little boy. The local media quickly kept the public informed of the search for Maddox.

A little more than a week later, Maddox was found a little over a mile away from where he was last seen, partially submerged in Long Creek near Marietta Street and Old Dallas Highway in Gastonia.

He was found in an area covered with thick brush, tall grass, and swampy terrain. A local neighbor told WBTV news that there was a trail along the creek that connects the area to Rankin Lake Park. The path passes under Highway 321.

A local man who lived near the area where Maddox was found said he had seen several search parties searching for the little boy in that area. The Gaston County Police Chief even confirmed two separate kayak teams had been through there.

The medical examiner stated that the findings from Maddox’s autopsy were not inconsistent with drowning. The report read “In conjunction with investigative information at this time, which gives no indication of other than an accidental drowning, it seems reasonable to conclude that the likely cause of death is drowning.” An X-ray conducted during the examination showed no signs of bone injuries, and blood samples showed normal results.

After Maddox’s case, Special Agent James Granozio, who works in the Charlotte field office of the FBI, said he developed a one-page questionnaire for investigators to use when a child with autism goes missing. He devoted time to learning all he could about autism and autistic children, reaching out to local and national organizations for information. Special Agent Granozio also leads one of the FBI’s four regional Child Abduction Rapid Deployment Teams, also known as CARD. CARD teams, are comprised of agents, intelligence analysts, operational specialists, and behavioral analysts who deploy on short notice when police departments request FBI assistance in missing cases. The Gastonia Police Department quickly reached out to the Charlotte Field Office after Maddox was reported missing.

This was a case that was truly heartbreaking for the community, because so many people devoted time and energy to the search and helping get the word out. Unfortunately, Maddox was a very small child who got lost in an area with a lot of water and wooded areas. We hope that the questionnaire developed for use by investigators after this case will help other children with special needs be found more quickly in future searches.

Dinari Lindsey

The case of Dinari Lindsey again highlights just how important caring for a child with special needs is, along with the attention and detail required. On October 7, 2022, a 2-year-old boy named Dinari died in an accident at the home of family friends in Edenton who were watching him. His mother CorNyeah told news station WBTW she had dropped the boy off with a couple who were like grandparents to him. The little boy, who had autism, hearing aids, and could not see without his glasses, had been at the home for a few hours when his mom got a call that Dinari was in a local hospital. A sheriff’s deputy met her and said while driving through the neighborhood he had seen a man standing at the end of his driveway looking concerned. The deputy asked if he needed help, and that’s when he found out Dinari was missing from the home. While they assisted in the search, they found Dinari upside down in a bucket of water on the property. They immediately began performing CPR and Chowan Emergency Medical Services was called. Dinari was pronounced dead, and the autopsy confirmed he died of asphyxia via drowning.

An article that ran in The Daily Advance said that Dinari’s caregiver had gone to the restroom inside the home and couldn’t find him when she returned. The local district attorney declined to file charges against the couple, saying it was a tragic accident and he could find nothing the caregivers did that showed criminal conduct. The family of Dinari was frustrated and disappointed by the district attorney’s decision, but I’m sure the office felt it would be a difficult case to prove malice and intent in the death of Dinari.

Justice for Justin Lee Turner

This past week, I read an article about a cold case involving a 5-year-old boy from Moncks Corner, South Carolina named Justin Lee Turner. The news caught my attention because it said Justin’s father had been the one who found his deceased son in a camper on the family property about 48 hours after the boy went missing. Justin’s father and stepmother were arrested and charged with his murder.

According to his stepmother, Pamela Turner, Justin went missing from his home on Friday, March 3, 1989. She said he had gotten on the bus to school that morning but never returned home. She said he was in the shower when he left to go to a neighbor’s house to wait for the bus and her husband Victor had been at work at a local factory during that time. On Sunday, more than 100 people, including members of local law enforcement, began a grounds search near the family home to search for Justin. The beginning of that search was filmed. The video shot by local NBC affiliate WCBD shows Justin’s father’s going into a turquoise and white camper and quickly coming back out, stating, “My son’s in there.” He appeared to be hyperventilating and upset after the discovery.

After the discovery of the little boy’s body, eight employees of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, four crime scene technicians and four agents, joined deputies to gather evidence in the case. The neighbors of the Turner’s were fearful and worried, and kept a close watch over their own children, fearful the killer would strike again. An autopsy showed Justin had been sexually assaulted and strangled with a thin strap such as a belt or dog leash between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m on March 3, the day he was reported missing. Victor and Pamela declined to be interviewed by the press, as did Justin’s biological mother and stepfather. Almost immediately, the authorities and family members of the couple were suspicious. A few different people close to the couple told investigators they believed Justin’s body had been kept somewhere else on the property and moved into the camper before the search on Sunday. Authorities discovered Pamela had lied about Justin going to the neighbor’s house to wait for the bus—he had never even made it to school that day.

Victor and Pamela were uncooperative during the investigation. They refused to answer questions at one coroner’s inquest into Justin’s death and failed to appear at the second one, even after being subpoenaed. They both took polygraph tests, but those were later determined to be inconclusive after they admitted to being on sedatives. Pamela Turner was eventually charged in the murder, but then the complaint was withdrawn when prosecutors feared they didn’t have enough evidence for a jury to convict her. Last week, the couple were arrested at their home in Cross Hill, South Carolina and charged with murder. Pamela Turner, now 63, had changed her name to Megan. Victor Turner is 69. Berkley County Sheriff Duane Lewis held a news conference on January 10. He said a cold case unit had reopened the case about a year and half ago and evolving DNA and forensic evidence technology helped match a ligature from the couple’s home to a shirt collar Justin was wearing. Megan Turner had also told witnesses over the years that she “had an altercation with the victim” before he was last seen. Duane Lewis said he believes the Turners murdered Justin inside their home, then later moved his body into the camper.

The sheriff also said during the press that he found it strange the couple showed little interest in the investigation from the very beginning, including when the cold case unit reopened it. “I never got one call from his daddy or his stepmother,” he said. “What are ya’ll doing about my son’s death? Not one. What does that tell you?”


Skyler Wilson





Candace Newmaker





The Daily Sentinel

November 14, 2000

Mother of suffocated girl pleads innocent


The Daily Sentinel

June 19, 2001


The Daily Sentinel

September 6, 2000

Mother faces trial in death of daughter


The Daily Sentinel

August 16, 2000

Investigator: Therapist said video will hang us


The Daily Sentinel

April 21, 2001

Therapists’ guilty in girl’s death from rebirthing



Maddox Ritch







Dinari Lindsey




Justin Lee Turner

The Herald

5-year-old was strangled, autopsy shows

March 7, 1989


The Beaufort Gazette

March 10, 1989

Sheriff imposes news blackout


The Item

December 20, 1989

Family feud unravels during second inquest


The State

Couple mum at inquest on boy’s death

August 22, 1989


The Index Journal

December 19, 1989