TAHLEQUAH — *Updated at 5 p.m Nov. 20*
Tahlequah detectives believe a 3-year-old boy suffered a “heinous” death Tuesday morning at the Stepping Stones Rooming House on East Chickasaw Street.
Now, the boy’s 36-year-old mother, Jeri Danyce Sanders, and her common-law husband, 49-year-old Bufford Ellison, are accused of murder.
Associate District Judge Mark Dobbins bound over Sanders and Ellison Wednesday morning. Sanders said nothing as Tahlequah Detective Chris Boals read details of the investigation from an affidavit.
Ellison was unable to appear before the judge. First Assistant District Attorney Jack Thorp said Ellison has Stage IV cancer and is hospitalized.
“He has a collapsed lung, and is having serious physical issues,” Thorp said. “I have been told by medical personnel at Tahlequah City Hospital that [Ellison] has one week to live.”
According to Boals’ probable cause affidavit, Sanders was interviewed Tuesday after Tahlequah firefighters and medics responded to Stepping Stones Rooming House.
Sanders said her son, Dakota, had been suffering from insomnia for several weeks, and would scream when he was put to bed. The screaming caused her stress and agitation, she told detectives.
“She advised it was to the point they had been talking about giving Dakota away to a family member because they could no longer deal with him,” Boals’ affidavit says.
Sanders told detectives Dakota was up until about 3 a.m. Tuesday. He eventually fell asleep, but awoke at around 5:30 a.m. and began to scream. By 7:30 a.m., Sanders had “reached her limit,” Boals’ report says, so she gave the boy to Ellison and left the room because she “couldn’t take it anymore.”
When Sanders returned to the room about 15 minutes later, Ellison seemed to be sleeping in a chair, and the child’s body appeared to be face-first in the recliner, under Ellison’s body. Sanders told detectives her child appeared “lifeless,” and she knew, in the back of her mind, that the boy was dead. But she left him in that position until about 9 a.m., when Ellison placed the boy onto the floor.
Sanders said she carried the child’s “lifeless body” to a neighbor’s room across the hall at about 9:30 a.m. Boals’ report says the neighbor had agreed to baby-sit the child. Sanders allegedly placed the boy into a bed with the baby sitter, and went back to her own bed to rest because she needed some “alone time.”
The baby sitter believed the child was sleeping until she tried to wake him around 11:30 a.m. The manager of the rooming house then called 911.
Boals said he tried to interview Ellison, but the suspect claimed he needed to “protect [my] rights.” According to Boals, Ellison claimed he had “watched all the police shows so I know what’s going on.”
Boals said he didn’t question Ellison, but overheard him telling Sanders he couldn’t say what had happened because he needed to protect his rights, and that he “was just stressed out.”
“[Sanders] never showed any emotion about her son’s death and seemed only concerned about Ellison not going to jail and making sure she got his check cashed,” Boals wrote. “The EMS and firemen [who] were on scene prior to my arrival stated while they were trying to revive Dakota, [Sanders] was sitting in a chair, texting and talking on the phone.”
During questioning, Sanders allegedly told detectives Ellison would use a broom handle to hit the 3-year-old as a form of discipline.
Detectives said Sanders’ room at the facility was “deplorable,” littered with food and cigarette butts, and “thousands of roaches on every surface and item in the room.”
According to Boals, Sanders also admitted she never tried to take her son to a doctor while he suffered from insomnia. Sanders and Ellison are recipients of SoonerCare, food stamps and disability, and could have received free medical care for the boy, detectives said.
The official cause of Dakota’s death will be determined by the state medical examiner’s office. Police Chief Nate King said the initial investigation leads detectives to believe the boy was suffocated or strangled.
Sanders, a daycare worker, is being held without bond.
According to Thorp, an agreement was reached Wednesday evening to release Ellison from the county jail’s custody through a personal recognizance bond.
Ellison will be given an ankle monitor – though he is unable to walk, according to Thorp – and must remain in the hospital. If Ellison becomes eligible for release from the hospital, prosecutors will ask for a new bond hearing to have him put back in jail, Thorp said.
The decision to give Ellison a PR bond is meant to keep the county from paying Ellison’s medical bill, which could reach $250,000 or more under the current prognosis.
Ellison was scheduled to be moved from Tahlequah to a Tulsa hospital Wednesday afternoon.
“We don’t want the county to pay for this guy’s death,” Thorp said.