NEWPORT NEWS — On the way to the hospital, 17-month-old Angeli Callender laid in her mother's arms. She could barely breathe.
Lillian Callender tried to give her daughter CPR, but it didn't work. It was March 1, 2010, and Callender's last chance to save her daughter's life. Her efforts were too late. Angeli's brain had swelled. She eventually went into a coma and doctors put her on life support.
"She looked like she was sleeping, but she had tubes running all through her body," Callender said.
When Angeli died two days later, her mother was not at her bedside — she was being questioned by police. A month later Callender and her boyfriend, Michael Stoffa, were charged with second-degree murder and two counts of felony child neglect.
Callender's crime was not inflicting the blow that killed her daughter. Her crime was standing by while Stoffa, 26, abused Angeli and her 2-year-old sister Yessenia, according to police. It's a crime that Callender may never forgive herself for, she said in a recent interview at Hampton Roads Regional Jail. Callender, 23, was convicted in January of felony murder. She will be sentenced in July. Stoffa's trial is scheduled for later this month. He declined to be interviewed.
Angeli is one of at least five children on the Peninsula and surrounding area who were killed by a parent or caregiver in the past year. Several other children have been severely abused and neglected. Two weeks ago, a Gloucester girl was found confined in a makeshift cage, wallowing in her own waste. In the backyard of the girl's home police dug up the remains of a child buried in a wooden box. This past week, the remains of a newborn boy were found in a plastic bag in storage bin in Newport News. Those cases are under investigation.
Details of how the deceased children were tormented vary.
Seventeen-month-old Jireh Gayles had human bite marks on his body when police found him dead last summer. Charles Poertner, 7, died from severe dehydration and only weighed 28 pounds when authorities found him dead on his living room floor. He'd been there for days.
Angeli and Yessenia were hit, kicked, punched and slapped by Stoffa in the two months prior to her death, according to the criminal complaint. Stoffa wasn't the children's biological father, but he was the man Callender thought they needed in their lives, she said.
"I needed someone to help me take care of me and my kids," Callender said. "I needed a positive male model."
Callender and Stoffa met in 2008 when they were stationed at Fort Eustis. Callender was a reserve soldier who worked as a cargo handler. Stoffa was a mechanic.
Callender says she wasn't interested in Stoffa at first because she was married. As her marriage deteriorated they became closer. She eventually separated from her husband and moved in with Stoffa in February of 2009.
"Initially he was strong and very supportive of my decision to leave my husband," Callender said. "He offered to take care of me and my children."
Callender says she was trying to escape a marriage that was laced with abuse. Callender took out a protective order against her husband in March 2009. She told police he had threatened to kill her and hit her in the head until she was unconscious, according to a petition for protective order filed in Newport News Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court.
But escaping her marriage did not free her from a life of being battered.
Three months after moving in with Stoffa, Callender says, the abuse began. Stoffa would punish the girls for little things like the amount of juice they could drink, according to Callender.
"He would pin her to the bed and make her stand in corners," Callender said, referring to Yessenia who was unable to talk due to a learning disability. Callender said all the girl would say over and over was "daddy." It was the only word she knew.
Callender says Stoffa would also kick and slap her daughters, while Callender's 3-month-old son was never abused.
"If I tried to stop him he would beat me, too," Callender said. She took out an emergency protective order against Stoffa in September 2009, alleging assault. That kept him temporarily at bay but he returned when the order expired.
"I was scared. I didn't know what to do," she said. "I remember being abused when I was younger so I thought it was normal for a man to beat on a woman and kids."
She was perfect
Angeli had curly blond hair and brown eyes. She loved the swings at the playground, but was afraid of the slides. In one photograph she's wearing a white shirt with ruffled sleeves. Her cheeks are the color of roses.
"She used to smile just like me," Callender said as she wept.
"God, she was so perfect," Callender said. "She did everything to make us smile. She used to do everything to get her way. She would blow kisses to get chocolate. She used to dance around the house."
Angeli would dress up in Stoffa's army uniform, pretending to be a soldier. Stoffa was discharged from the Army in November 2009 under a general discharge, according to the military. Stoffa stayed home with the children while Callender worked.
Two weeks before Angeli's death, Callender says, Stoffa tried to force her to eat. Stoffa kicked her out the house, she said, after she tried to defend Angeli. Callender spent the night at a Days Inn hotel with her children, but the next day she went back to Stoffa. She feared him, but was too afraid to try to make it without him.
"I thought I couldn't do it," Callender said. "I was so dependent on Michael for everything. I thought I was stuck."
When Callender came home from work on Feb. 27, 2010, Angeli was throwing up and unable to digest anything she ate or drank.
"I said, 'Michael we need to take her to the hospital,'" Callender recalled. "He said she didn't need to go — that she was just faking it."
Angeli never made it to the hospital that day.
Stoffa later told police that he was the only one watching the children on Feb. 27 and saw injuries but did nothing, according to the criminal complaint. He told police he used a paddle on the children to the point of leaving welts and red marks on them. Stoffa said he threw Yessenia six feet where she landed on a pile of legos.
Angeli never got better.
Callender says Angeli's condition worsened on March 1. When the girl tried to stand on her own that day, she kept falling down. Later that evening Angeli was in the bathroom with Stoffa when Callender heard a thud in the bathtub.
Callender ran down the hallway toward the bathroom. Angeli was gasping for air.
"Look, baby — she's pretending to be dead," she said Stoffa told her. "He was laughing. He thought it was a joke."
A mile away
When nurses saw Angeli at Mary Immaculate hospital on March 1 she had a large bruise on her forehead, jaw and back, according to an affidavit. Her sister had bruises all over her face and neck with the most severe on the bridge of her nose.
Angeli was so thin that her ribs showed through her skin. Angeli died two days later from inflicted brain trauma, according to the autopsy report, which notes that medical neglect contributed. Angeli hadn't been seen by a doctor since Nov. 9, 2010, despite being ill. And though courts issued two protective orders for Callender, the children's abuse was never reported to child protective services until Angeli was taken the hospital two days before her death.
Callender and Stoffa were charged with murder on April 28 of last year.
"I knew I got arrested for failing to protect my daughter," she said. "I contemplated killing myself in that room."
Angeli's fatal injuries were the result of being shaken, according to the autopsy report, which states that she had scar tissue from other injuries on her back, scalp and temple and had been shaken prior to the fatal shaking. According to the criminal complaint, she had "15 different impact wounds on her skull."
Verena Wyvill , a child abuse expert, pinpointed Feb. 27 as the day the fatal "inflicted head trauma" occurred, the criminal complaint states.
According to prosecutors, Stoffa took Angeli to Hooters for dinner then to Wal-mart after a beating. A Wal-mart surveillance video showed her falling down repeatedly in the store. The video was from March 1 more than an hour before she was taken to the emergency room, according to the autopsy.
Angeli's sister and brother are both in foster care.
"I love my kids very much, but I made the biggest mistake of my life by being in this situation," Callender said. "No man is worth the lives of my kids. I learned that a little bit too late."
Angeli could have lived through her final shaking.
"As inflicted brain injury is not always fatal, if the child had been taken to see doctors appropriately when injury first occurred, she might not have died," a medical examiner wrote in Angeli's autopsy report.
The couple's apartment was a mile away from the hospital.
Child deaths on the Peninsula
Angeli Callender: 17 months old. Died March 3, 2010, from a brain injury after being shaken. Angeli's mother, Lillian Callender, was convicted of felony murder. She will be sentenced in July. Callender's boyfriend, Michael Stoffa, was charged with second-degree murder. His trial is scheduled for later this month.
Charles Poertner: 7 years old. Died June 7, 2010, from severe dehydration and malnourishment. His mother, Haether Poertner, pleaded guilty in April to felony murder.
Jireh Gayles: 17 months old. Died July 20, 2010, from head trauma with blunt force abdominal trauma as a contributing factor. His mother's boyfriend, Darius Orlando Brown, is charged with murder and malicious assault.
Quai-Lee Cooper Jr.: 3 months old. Died March 18, 2011. His death was ruled a homicide based on a report from the doctor and witnesses, according to police. His cause of death has not been released. No one has been charged in his death.
Natalynn Hamrick: 11 months old. Died Feb. 3, 2011, of a brain injury after being shaken. Her mother, Carliece Hamrick, is charged with murder and felony child abuse.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun