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Houston's Baby Grace

Some news stories touch the heart, staying with us long after they've disappeared from the headlines. The ones that never leave me are those involving children. There's a reason I haven't write about murdered kids. I've considered it off and on, but some crime scene photos I don't want imprinted on my brain, invading my sleep and keeping me awake at four a.m.

Every once in a while, I reconsider my situation, wondering if it's time to make an exception. For instance, when her body was found in July 2007, I thought about writing a book on Houston's Baby Grace case. Something about the original sketch of the two-year-old pulled at me. Those wide set eyes, the baby teeth visible through her smiling lips, the long blond hair that fell in waves. Even after a couple of decades writing about crime, I have a tough time understanding how some murders are possible, why someone would kill a small child.

When Baby Grace was found in Galveston Bay and the drawing of her face proliferated across the nation, I wanted to turn away from the images flashed on television and front-page in the newspapers. It all seemed too awful. Another child brutally murdered, this one beaten to death, then left to rot in a box thrown into the water, callously discarded like so much garbage. More evidence that mankind is capable of the worst acts.

Of course, before long we slowly learned the truth. Sheryl Sawyers from Ohio came forward and claimed Baby Grace, introducing her to us as her granddaughter, little Riley Ann Sawyers. Since that day, Riley Ann's mother, and I do use the word very loosely, Kimberly Dawn Trenor, and her husband, Royce Clyde Zeigler II, have been found guilty of the child's murder. According to a statement by Trenor, Riley Ann died during a day-long session in which Zeigler stayed home from work in order to make sure his stepdaughter was properly disciplined. Throughout that horrific day, Riley Ann was repeatedly beaten with leather belts and her head held underwater. The autopsy pegged the fatal blow as any one of those resulting in three skull fractures.

Once the child was dead, Zeigler and Trenor went to Wal-mart, where they bought the plastic container the body was found in. They then wrapped Riley Ann's small corpse in garbage bags. For the next two months, before throwing it in Galveston Bay, the container with the body inside sat in their garage.

Earlier this month, on November 6th, the Baby Grace case officially ended. That was the day that Zeigler, like Trenor before him, was sentenced to life in a Texas prison. There may be appeals ahead, since Zeigler is maintaining that he's really a nice guy, and it was Trenor who beat her daughter to death, not him. But the likelihood is that the case is over. There seems little left to say, except to trust that Riley Ann is now in a better place. For her, the nightmare has ended.

We now know why and how Riley Ann died, but I'm left wondering if there's anything to be learned from this horrible case. It seems that something good should come from all this, that we should learn something about the human condition, why these horrible tragedies happen and how to prevent them. Yet, as often as I've considered this case, it has given me absolutely no sense of redemption, no hope that it has revealed anything that could save another child's life.

I wonder at times if there's anything to be done, or if we simply have to learn to accept the fact that there will always be those who don't appreciate the great gift of a daughter or son, and a small percentage who will commit the ultimate crime, murdering a vulnerable child who looks at them with love.
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