Man gets 20 years in infant's death

Javon Simpson
Javon Simpson Special to The State

A circuit judge Monday sentenced a Columbia day-care operator who negligently killed a 9-month-old baby to 20 years in prison.

Willie Ritter, 65, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, had forgotten to remove the baby, Javon Simpson, from the day care's van after picking up the child in the morning. Javon stayed in the closed van all day under a hot spring sun and died, authorities believe, late that morning. The cause of death was cardiac arrest due to hyperthermia.

Ritter had pleaded guilty to homicide by child abuse in July for Javon's May 2007 death. He was led away immediately after Judge Paul Burch pronounced sentence.

The sentencing was being watched carefully by victim advocates concerned that Ritter would not be sentenced to prison. His lawyer, Jan Strifling, had asked for a suspended sentence, citing the Richland County case in which a day care worker who admitted to harming an infant was given only probation. There is no mandatory minimum sentence for the charge of homicide by child abuse.

Ritter must serve 17 years before being eligible for parole.

During the 52-minute hearing, Javon's sobbing mother, Sophia Simpson, told the court of her only child: "It's been two years, four months, three weeks and three days since I last held my baby. It's been real hard, these last couple years."

Facts in the case showed Ritter acted with what prosecutors called "extreme indifference to human life." He left Javon alone and buckled into the overheated van all day - and also kept Javon from getting medical attention that afternoon after another child alerted him to the unconscious baby. Officials estimated temperatures in the van reached 115 degrees.

Later in the day, after authorities were called in, Ritter misled investigators and tried to cover up his role in the death.

"He was a lieutenant colonel in the Army - he was supposed to be a leader," Assistant 5th Circuit Solicitor Vanessa Shipley told the judge. "He was three minutes away from Richland Memorial. He also carries a cell phone. Not at any time did he call 911, nor did he take the baby to the hospital."

Ritter had a history of violating state child care laws at his North Columbia day care center, including a 2001 incident in which he was cited by state officials for leaving an infant unattended in a van. In 1998 and 2003, he was cited for failing to maintain a transportation log when loading and unloading children. On numerous occasions, he had violated adult-to-child ratios at his W.E. Ritter Center on Columbia College Drive, according to court documents.

Burch lectured Ritter before pronouncing sentence: As a former Army officer, "you should have known better than any of us in here to follow the rules. If you had just used the check-off list, which was available, this wouldn't have happened."

On the day Javon died, Ritter picked up the child at his home at about 7:20 a.m. The infant's mother placed Javon in a car seat directly behind Ritter, who was driving. Ritter then picked up another child, drove to the day care center, but did not remove Javon from the van. The van sat in the hot sun all day.

Ritter discovered that Javon was still in the van midafternoon, when Ritter went to pick up children for his after-school day care program. Even after another child alerted him to the baby, he picked up another child before driving back to the day care. He did not call anyone.

Monday, Ritter apologized.

"Nobody on the face of this earth can ever understand how deeply sorry and grieved I am for the loss of this child," Ritter told the judge, appearing to choke back tears.

Ritter said he had spent his life "helping the disenfranchised."

Speaking after Ritter, Javon's mother told the judge that upon hearing Ritter's apology, she forgave him. But that apology was a long time coming, she said.

"An apology - that's all I wanted," Simpson said, weeping. "All I really wanted. If you had showed any type of sympathy that day, we probably wouldn't be here today."

In the beginning of the hearing, 20 of Ritter's longtime friends and relatives spoke for a minute or two each, telling the judge how Ritter had spent his life helping young people. Some wept telling their stories.

Ritter not only took good care of the children at his day care center, for years he also helped numerous young African-American boys stay in high school, get jobs and get into college, the witnesses said.

"For years, he had a number of young men that he would help them with their character, self-esteem," said Barbara Cartwright, who said she was a single mom when Ritter came into her life. "As a result, my son went to West Point."

Shipley, however, said the real example Ritter set was "an example of trying to get away from something he did wrong."

After court, Shipley said, "The whole point of today's hearing was what Ritter did that day. And what he did to that child was awful."

In South Carolina, some state circuit judges have let people who have seriously injured children off with suspended sentences.

One, former Judge Kenneth Goode, gave no jail time in December to a day-care operator who slapped a 7-month-old so hard it caused permanent brain damage. Goode later announced his retirement.