No arrest, no comment: The 5-year-old homicide victim the state’s not talking about

By ANNMARIE TIMMINS

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 03-08-2023 6:16 PM

Judy Anderson had grown impatient by the time she marched into the Laconia mayor’s office in October with a photo of 5-year-old Dennis Vaughan Jr. to remind him that the boy’s 2019 homicide in his grandmother’s Laconia apartment remains unsolved.

Anderson, a Gilford retiree who didn’t know Dennis “Boo” Vaughan Jr., said she’s done waiting for the authorities to bring charges in the homicide or put it back in the public eye. She’s raising money to put the boy’s face on a billboard. In just over a week, her Go Fund Me page collected $2,000 of her $3,000 goal.

“I’m like a dog with a bone,” said Anderson, who spent her career investigating abuse reports at the Division for Children, Youth, and Families, and remembered reading of Dennis’ death three years ago. “It’s just in my nature to say something’s wrong here. Something is not right.”

It’s been over two years since the Attorney General’s Office asked the public for tips in the case. It appears the Laconia Police Department never mentioned the homicide investigation or sought tips on its Twitter and Facebook feeds. Gov. Chris Sununu has not drawn attention to the case as he did to the recent homicide investigations of three other New Hampshire children, Harmony Montgomery and Jaevion Riley, both 7, and Elijah Lewis, 5.

Sununu ordered a review of DCYF’s handling of the Montgomery case and issued a report calling for several changes in state law and agency practice. He has not publicly questioned DCYF’s handling of at least 25 reports of suspected physical abuse and neglect of Dennis and his siblings during the 2½ years they lived with their grandmother, Sherry Connor. DCYF deemed those reports unfounded or made no findings, according to a court record.

Immediately after Dennis’ death, DCYF removed the siblings from Connor’s home and told the circuit court family division that the significant bruising found on Dennis’ body was grounds to terminate Connor’s guardianship.

“The court found that continuation in Connor’s home was contrary to the children’s welfare because, in part, ‘[t]here is an ongoing investigation as to whether [Connor] physically abused Dennis Vaughan, Jr., a sibling of the children, causing his death,’ ” according to a court document.

Connor, the agency told the court, was the “primary suspect” in an investigation of whether she had physically abused the boy, “causing his death,” according to a court document.

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Connor told the Bulletin that Dennis died of natural causes even after being shown his death certificate, which states he died of blunt force trauma to the head and neck as a result of homicide. Connor agreed to be interviewed via the Facebook messenger app.

“That is bullshit,” Connor wrote. “Do you honestly believe if he was hurt like that, they wouldn’t have arrested me?” She said she never assaulted him or his siblings and spoke with investigators only once.

Anderson is not alone in questioning whether Dennis’ case remains a priority for state and local authorities.

Anna Cannard of Concord saw a “Justice for Boo” sign in Laconia and remembered that she’d seen police outside a Laconia apartment complex on her way to work in December 2019. She learned a child had died under suspicious circumstances and assumed the silence from authorities meant an arrest had been made.

Cannard searched for information online and was shocked to see the case remains unsolved. Within three days, she’d created a Facebook page to raise awareness about the case. It’s something she’s done twice before.

In 2010, Cannard used Facebook to publicize the search for a missing 2-year-old in Arizona. When the police found him but didn’t make an arrest for months, she used the page to “drum up public outcry” until arrests were made, she said. She helped with a similar effort in 2018 to find a 13-year-old Wisconsin kidnapping victim, who was rescued after nearly three months of captivity.

Last week, Cannard spent $200 on yard signs and flyers showing Dennis’ face and a QR code linked to her “Justice for Dennis ‘Boo’ Vaughan Jr.” page.

“I’ve heard about these other cases, Eli Lewis and Harmony Montgomery,” she said. “I heard a lot about those. But I haven’t heard anything about Dennis.” Cannard and friend Courteney Robison hung the first 30 flyers in Laconia last month, on a 17-degree snowy day.

Danielle Vaughan has welcomed Anderson’s and Cannard’s help in pressuring authorities for answers in her son’s case. After Dennis’ death, she regained custody of her other children from Connor, her mother, checked in frequently with the Attorney General’s Office, and believed an arrest would come.

When the third anniversary of her son’s unsolved homicide passed in December, she stopped waiting for the authorities. She hung “Justice for Boo” signs around Laconia, some outside the police station. And in December, she and her attorney, Kevin Leonard, sued DCYF and several agency workers alleging they “negligently caused Dennis’ death” and mishandled reports involving all her children.

A lawsuit wasn’t Vaughan’s first choice, she said, but she had only until December to file one. With no arrest, Vaughan said she feared a lawsuit would be her only means of holding the state accountable.

“I just want somebody official to say, ‘We are working to get justice for Boo.’ I want somebody to bring his name up,” said Vaughan, of Manchester. “The world has no idea what happened to my son. Other than my family, I believe he’s been forgotten.”

Different facts, different cases

Laconia Chief Matthew Canfield, whose department responded to Connor’s apartment the night Dennis died – and several times before for reports of suspected abuse – said he cannot discuss the case. But he shared his unhappiness with the investigation’s slow progress.

“It’s not that we forgot it or we don’t care about it because it rests on my mind every single day, as (does) the frustration of the lack of movement on this case,” Canfield said. “My hands are completely tied by the (Attorney General’s) Office being the lead on the homicide investigation in the state. We can’t supersede that.”

However, his department appears to have never announced Dennis’ homicide on its Twitter feed, which includes posts about other crimes, including the search for Harmony Montgomery. Nor do the department’s social media feeds include the May 2020 press release from the Attorney General’s Office with the name and phone number of the state police trooper taking tips.

Mayor Andrew Hosmer said the photo of Dennis that Anderson delivered to his office still sits on his desk. He said he shares Canfield’s frustration.

“Every day I’m in the office, there’s a beautiful youngster smiling back at me,” Hosmer said. “It’s a very powerful image for me. It’s heartbreaking. I’ve always thought it’s a particular role of government to make sure our most vulnerable in our society and community have a voice and have the level of protection they deserve.”

As mayor, Hosmer is not involved with the investigation. He said he wants to give state police and the Attorney General’s Office the space they need to complete the investigation. But three years with no news feels long to him.

“It seems to me that over the past three years, to not have either a determination that someone is going to be charged or held accountable or whether the (Attorney General’s Office) believes they don’t have enough evidence to charge someone, it seems like ample time to have made that decision, I think.”

Michael Garrity, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said there has been significant work put into the investigation but declined to offer details. He also wouldn’t say why, in the absence of an arrest, the office has not sought help from the public since 2020.

Garrity drew a distinction between Dennis’ case and the Harmony Montgomery case in Manchester, noting that the latter began as a missing-person investigation that depended on tips and sightings from the public.

However, the authorities investigating Harmony’s homicide, especially the Manchester police, continued their public outreach for information even after Harmony’s father was charged in connection with her death.

“For any victim … you keep it out there as much as you can,” said Manchester Chief Allen Aldenberg, whose department created a dedicated tip line for Harmony’s case. The department recently used its social media feed to seek tips in the unsolved homicide of 22-year-old Chandler Innarelli, killed three years ago.

“By putting it out there, especially with the Innarelli anniversary, maybe someone has been sitting on something for three years and says, ‘Today is the day I’m going to come forward,’ ” Aldenberg said. “I don’t know, but at least we tried.”

The comment wasn’t a swipe at the lack of publicity given to Dennis’ case. “Every investigation is different,” he said. “I’m sure they have a reason.”

Garrity said the same in an email.

“All homicide cases are tragic, especially those involving children,” he said in an email. “Different facts in different cases result in different responses and strategies.”

Garrity encouraged anyone with information about Dennis’ homicide to contact law enforcement. The statement to the Bulletin did not say which agency to contact or how. When asked for both, Garrity said information can be provided by phone to 603-MCU-TIPS (603-628-8477) or by emailing MCU@dos.nh.gov.

Sununu has issued statements and been quoted describing the homicides of Harmony, Elijah Lewis, and Jaevion Riley as tragic losses. Vaughan believes the attention he and officials put on those cases led to arrests and would be helpful in her son’s case. The Bulletin could find no record of Sununu speaking publicly about Dennis’ homicide.

“I am so, so incredibly happy for the family of Elijah Lewis, the family of Harmony Montgomery,” Vaughan said. “They have someone being held accountable. Everyone knows their names. I want everyone to say (Dennis’) name. I want the world to question why there is no justice in a 5-year-old’s homicide.”

Asked for comment, the governor’s office sent an email stating, “Our office is aware of this case and we remain in contact with the Department of Justice regarding updates.” It said the office offered Vaughan its sympathies in mid-February, when she last reached out. It also said the office could not further comment because Vaughan has sued DCYF. The lawsuit was filed in December, nearly three years after Dennis’ homicide.

‘The child may need medical attention’

Danielle Vaughan was 15 in 2004 when Connor moved and left her behind, according to the lawsuit that Vaughan filed against DCYF. She moved in with Dennis Vaughan Sr., 48, and his wife. Three years later, she fathered a child with him. Dennis Jr. arrived in 2014.

He was 3 when DCYF placed him and three older siblings, ages 6 to 9, with Connor in 2017 over concerns about their parents’ use of drugs and their father’s domestic violence, according to the lawsuit.

Two months after the children were placed in Connor’s home by DCYF, the agency received the first of at least 25 reports of suspected abuse, according to the lawsuit. In August 2017, a New Hampton police sergeant told DCYF that witnesses at a campground had reported seeing Connor yell at Dennis, “grab him by the neck and face, hit his face, throw a cup of liquid in his face, and grab his arm and drag him to the tent,” according to the lawsuit.

The sergeant’s report quoted witnesses saying the screams they heard coming from the tent left them concerned “the child may need medical attention,” according to the lawsuit. The agency deemed the report unfounded seven months later, according to the lawsuit, which states the agency did not interview the sergeant or the witnesses and questioned the children in Connor’s presence, contrary to agency policy.

Reports of suspected abuse and neglect of the children continued until the month Dennis was killed, the majority filed by school officials, nurses, law enforcement, and social workers, according to the lawsuit.

Callers consistently reported that the Vaughan children had significant bruising on their faces and bodies. The agency was told Connor was kicking and slapping the children; locking them in the basement to sleep; making them defecate in a 5-gallon bucket in the living room and take cold baths; tying them up with duct tape; handcuffing them; and forcing them to repeatedly run flights of stairs for punishment, according to the lawsuit.

On Jan. 5, 2019, a neighbor called Laconia police to report yelling and banging in Connor’s apartment. “I don’t know if the lady is beating the crap out of her kids,” she says on the dispatch call. “Like, it’s 11 at night and there is so much banging or whatever. I tried banging back. It is so profuse, and all you can hear is her screaming at her kids.”

The officer who responded filed the call as a noise complaint after Connor told him she had been making one of the children run up and down the stairs 10 times for urinating on the wall, according to the officer’s report. After the child confirmed Connor’s account, the officer told Connor it was late and to be mindful of the neighbors, the report said.

Vaughan’s 85-page lawsuit alleges DCYF workers violated investigative protocols, didn’t notify Vaughan of the alleged abuse and neglect, failed to do required home visits, and neglected to follow up thoroughly. At times, Connor told DCYF and school authorities, the children were bruised because they were fighting with one another or had fallen or tripped. In one case, Connor said scratches on Dennis’ neck and chin had been caused by his jacket’s Velcro fastener.

In April 2018, Vaughan called Laconia police asking an officer to check on her children over safety concerns because her mother had not let her see the children. In a police report, the responding officer wrote, “I made contact with Connor and saw all the children were happy, healthy, clothed, and just about to eat a dinner of hamburgers.”

In the 10 days prior to Vaughan’s call, DCYF had received multiple reports about one of the children, the lawsuit said. Two reports came from Elliot Hospital, where a nurse had taken 90 photos of the child’s bruising, according to the lawsuit.

In June 2019, Vaughan asked the family court to terminate Connor’s guardianship over concerns for her children’s safety. Before the court ruled on that case, DCYF removed one of the children from Connor’s home for safety concerns and placed him with his mother. During his interview with investigators, the child said Connor had taped him to a chair at a campground, hit him and a sibling with a belt, and “left bruises all over Dennis’s body from beating him,” according to the lawsuit.

Dennis died six months later. In the months before he was killed, Connor prevented her daughter from seeing the children. According to the lawsuit, the family court judge handling the guardianship case described Connor’s refusal as “the maternal grandmother’s sadistic isolation of (Danielle) from her children.”

Jake Leon, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, which houses DCYF, said he could not comment. In an email, he wrote that federal laws require the department to “protect the privacy and confidentiality of individuals served by or engaged with DCYF.”

The state created the Office of the Child Advocate in 2018 to overhaul the state’s handling of child welfare cases. Cassandra Sanchez, named child advocate last year, declined to comment when asked if the office had reviewed DCYF’s response to the alleged abuse of the Vaughan children or Dennis’ death.

“I cannot speak to any specifics of the case, including if the OCA completed a review and made recommendations to the agency,” she said in an email.

Not me, not homicide

Connor, now living in Maine, told the Bulletin that she stopped speaking with the authorities after a single one-hour interview done shortly after Dennis’ death.

“The way they were treating me after my interview with the detective, I decided I weren’t talking to anybody,” she wrote in a message. “They were really mean to me. I did not trust anybody.”

She said she was unaware there had been at least 25 reports of suspected abuse and said DCYF had failed to give her enough help, food, and money for the children.

When asked how she believes Dennis died, Connor provided the Bulletin with a 2016 medical record showing Dennis had been seen for dehydration concerns that year, about a year before she was given the children and three years before Dennis was killed.

“I’ve taken him to the doctors many times because of his drinking problem,” Connor’s message to the Bulletin read. “He drank out of the toilet, he drank the dogs water. He used to soak his pajamas in water so when he went to bed he could suck the water out of his pajamas.”

Connor said Dennis had been sick in the hours before he had died but didn’t respond when asked about his symptoms. She questioned whether mold in her apartment had killed him. She said the bruising discovered on Dennis’ head after his death was caused by a member of the rescue crew that responded the night he died.

“(The authorities) didn’t write down when the ambulance man took the baby out of the house (and) used his foot to open the door, he smacked the babies head,” she wrote. “Why was that not mentioned?”

According to the lawsuit, Connor told Vaughan that leading up to Dennis’ death, he was hallucinating and could not eat or drink. The lawsuit also alleges Connor told Vaughan that Dennis ” ‘knew he was going to die’ ” and that Dennis ” ‘said the devil was there to take him.’ ”

The lawsuit states that shortly after Dennis’ death on Christmas Eve, a DCYF worker noted that Connor began ” ‘shouting that the (police department) and DCYF don’t care about the kids [and] are ruining Christmas.’ ”

Connor said she had provided the children more support than they’d ever had.

“You should really learn a little more about the story before you start posting things about me,” she wrote. “I am not the person you are reading about.”

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