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Schools Saw Signs Of Abuse Before Rica Rountree's Death

Cynthia Baker walks into court
David Proeber
The Pantagraph (Pool)
Cynthia Baker is charged with murder in connection with the death of Rica Rountree, 8, who died in January 2019.

UPDATED 4 p.m. | In her last days before her death, Rica Rountree showed signs of fatigue and unexplained injuries, the child’s third grade teacher testified Wednesday in the murder trial of Cindy Baker.

Baker is accused of hitting the child repeatedly—blows that caused her fatal internal injuries. Rountree died Jan. 26 of peritonitis, according to autopsy results. The 43-year-old defendant is the live-in girlfriend of the child’s father, Richard Rountree.

“She became sickly looking and walked funnier as time went on,” Prairieland Elementary School teacher Suzanne Schertz said of the victim’s condition, which deteriorated during the 12 days she attended the school.

Schertz fought back tears as she recalled Rica’s final afternoon in school days before her death.

“She was laying down on the carpet and looked really, really tired,” said the teacher.

Schertz said she had earlier sent the child to see the school nurse after noticing a mark on the girl’s abdomen. Rica denied she was sick, the teacher said.

Rica and her doll
Credit Family Photo
Rica Rountree died in January.

Jurors were shown photos taken by staff with the Department of Children and Family Services of Rica after the child arrived at Fox Creek Elementary School with obvious injuries to her face.

Fox Creek principal Leslie Davenport testified that she called the child welfare agency about the apparent bruising under both eyes and a cheek. According to Davenport, Rica told DCFS staff she fell on a toy box, injuring her face.

Davenport called the explanation suspicious, given the child came to school several months earlier with broken blood vessels in her eye.

The principal recounted details of a confrontation she had with Baker over a coat school staff gave to Rica. Baker demanded to know why her daughter, a kindergartener, did not receive a coat.

Doctors who treated Rica at hospitals in Bloomington and Peoria provided details of the life-threatening injuries that could not be reversed.

Dr. Shayla Garrett-Hauser, emergency room doctor at Advocate BroMenn Regional Medical Center, said “this is a child who came to me not alive.”

Doctors at OSF Saint Francis Children’s Hospital in Peoria had no time to move the child to an operating room before performing abdominal surgery, according to Dr. Penelope Sandiford.

Baker and the child’s father showed no emotion at the news the child had died, according to witnesses.

In her opening statement Wednesday, Assistant State’s Attorney Mary Koll recounted the “isolation, terror and torture” the child allegedly suffered at the hands of her caretaker.

Defense lawyer Todd Ringel took less than three minutes for his opening remarks, telling jurors Baker and not the victim is the focus of the trial.

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