A Riverfront Times Special Report.
March 18, 2009
Three years old, with baby fat still puffing out his cheeks, the boy in the video grins up at the dreadlocked woman towering over him and asking his name. “Chis-ching!” he blurts.
“That my ba-aaaaby!” cries Theda Thomas, sliding toward the edge of her seat.
On this winter evening, Thomas, a substitute teacher for the St. Louis Public Schools, is reliving scenes from the mid-1990s, when she was the young mother of two toddler sons. To accomplish this feat, she has hooked up a five-inch television to an old VCR on the dining-room table in her childhood home. “Look at his beautiful face,” she says softly. “I want to kiss him.”
An attractive woman with dainty, ash-colored freckles, Thomas wears her hair short now, in tightly twisted tresses that she covers with colorful scarves. After two failed marriages, she’s back living with her parents in north St. Louis — not the domestic arrangement she expected at age 36.
Though her possessions are scattered between half-packed boxes and the trunk of her car, the short stack of home movies has accompanied Thomas’ every move. It’s the first time she has pulled this one out in maybe a year, though. Inching forward for a better view of the tiny screen, Thomas falls silent, watching, as her boys, Christian and his younger brother Connor, explore the living room of the south-city apartment they inhabited back in 1996. Boys being boys, they clamber up and down the stairs, goof around in a basketful of laundry, and sing the ABCs with their mother while their father holds the camera and sunlight peeps through the curtains. About ten minutes into the clip, Christian puts on his dad’s shoes and tries to take a few steps. Thomas leans back and bursts out laughing.
“See, this means a lot to me. Remembering all we did trying to keep him alive, and how they were saying he wouldn’t make it —
“— A lot of people know about what happened to Christian, but some people never knew he could walk and talk, how he loved to sing, how he prayed all the time,” Thomas says. “That little boy — he blessed the trees. He blessed everything.”
Christian had come into the world out of wedlock and with a rare, life-threatening illness. He survived a coma on his third day of life and, thanks to a meticulous regimen of medications that kept his malady at bay, grew into a chatty first-grader who could read and write. But when Christian was seven, in the midst of a brutal custody battle waged by his parents, he fell into a month-long coma, from which he emerged with severe brain damage that left him unable even to utter his own name.
For the next two years, his parents continued to go at one another in family court, in a drama that featured appearances by police officers and judges, lawyers and physicians, as well as social workers at several city and state agencies.
But none of that is what Theda Thomas refers to when she speaks of “what happened to Christian.”
The baby arrived on October 9, 1993: a seven-pound, nine-ounce, seemingly healthy boy. The newborn fell into a coma two days later, before he even had a name.
“It was 5 a.m. on the day I was to be discharged,” Theda Thomas recounts. “They flew him in a helicopter from St. Mary’s [Health Center] to Cardinal Glennon [Children’s Medical Center]. He was so sick they thought that he would die, but at first they could not explain it.”
Within 24 hours doctors gave Theda and Dawan Ferguson, the baby’s father, the diagnosis: citrullinemia, a genetic disorder that can cause toxic levels of ammonia to accumulate in the bloodstream, potentially leading to coma, brain damage and death.
Thomas says her immediate thought was that God was punishing her for having a child out of wedlock. “I started feeling guilty right away,” she says. “Being raised Catholic, I thought: Maybe this is because I fornicated. He’s punishing me with this sickness. He knows we didn’t do things by the book.”
Theda and Dawan had met in high school in the late 1980s. She played volleyball and was a prom queen; he played soccer and performed in school plays.
“He was quiet, and he was different,” Thomas recalls. “A black boy playing soccer? I liked that!”
Their families were different, too. Theda was one of four children in a close-knit family. Dawan, an only child, was born to a single mother who was fifteen at the time; as a kid he bounced between his grandparents’ homes. In 1989 Dawan’s mother, Dawana Ferguson, met and fell in love with John Steffen, who years later would rise to prominence as a downtown booster, real estate developer and the owner of Pyramid Construction Inc. The year Ferguson and Steffen met and married was the same year Dawan and Theda became high school sweethearts.
Recalls Thomas: “We used to go on double dates. We had a lot of fun.”
Just as the Steffens got started on a family four years later, so did Theda and Dawan. She was twenty and a student at Harris-Stowe State College when she became pregnant in 1993. He was nineteen and working odd jobs.
Thomas says that although they lived apart, she fully expected to marry Dawan. “In a way I wanted to give him a home,” she elaborates. “I pictured us being a solid, stable family like the one I grew up in. I thought someday he’d be 40 and have a good job and be a good father.
“I also had this idea that I was going to die young,” Thomas adds. “I was rushing my life.”
After three days the baby emerged from his coma at Cardinal Glennon. “Dawan came up with ‘Christian,’” Thomas says of the name they gave their first-born. “I liked it. I thought it was fitting.”
Citrullinemia is transmitted via a recessive gene and affects just one in sixty thousand babies, according to Dr. Dorothy Grange, Christian’s geneticist since birth. She says Christian became only her second patient with the illness.
Owing to medical privacy laws, Grange can’t comment specifically about Christian’s condition. But speaking in general terms, the doctor says the illness has no cure and life expectancy is difficult to predict. “This is a life-threatening illness, a constant threat,” she emphasizes. “At any moment a person with this disorder could be at risk of death.”
In a sworn deposition in 1998, Grange would rate the severity of Christian’s case “a nine or ten” on a scale of one to ten, with ten being the most severe.
Theda and Dawan received intensive training, both to administer the six oral medications Christian needed several times each day and to carefully calibrate his meals. They were taught to watch for vomiting, loss of balance and confusion — signs to call a doctor or get their boy to the hospital.
“This baby was like a living, loving science project. I had to hold him a special way to get the syringe in his mouth so he’d take the medicine,” Thomas says. “I had a little system down, where I’d give him a little grenadine and sugar to kill the taste. And eventually it got to the point where he took it all by himself in a cup. If he threw up, I’d have to call the doctors and tell them how many cc’s he lost.”
Thomas recalls that the prognosis for Christian was cautiously optimistic, that with monitoring and medication, he could develop normally and, when the time came, attend school.
“I remember the doctors kept saying that by the time Christian reached ten years old, they could do genetic therapy to possibly give him the gene he was lacking,” Thomas says. “My goal was to keep him as healthy as I could to get him to that point.”
After they brought Christian home, Theda and Dawan moved into an apartment in south St. Louis. Thomas says that when she insisted on marriage, Ferguson demurred at first but ultimately capitulated.
A letter from Dawan’s mother that is on file in U.S. District Court gives a different account.
“He was dogmatic about getting married [when Thomas became pregnant],” Dawana Steffen would write in 2005. “I tried to dissuade him because he was young and he could care for the baby without marrying but he wanted what he thought was best for…Christian.”
(Dawan Ferguson’s attorney, John Rogers, declined Riverfront Times’ request to interview Ferguson for this story.)
Theda and Dawan tied the knot at a small ceremony in a north St. Louis church on Valentine’s Day 1994, four months after Christian’s birth. Eight months later the Fergusons brought a second child into the world, a healthy baby boy they named Connor.
The following year KSDK-TV (Channel 5) aired a flattering feature about the young couple and the rigor with which they approached Christian’s fragile condition. “Doctors say if he sticks to his diet,” proclaimed then-reporter Kay Quinn, “he could have a normal life.”
By 1997 the Fergusons had moved to a north-city house owned by Ferguson’s grandmother. Dawan was working odd jobs at his stepfather’s firm. Theda was still in school. But their relationship was deteriorating.
“We were fighting all the time,” Thomas recalls, describing how they both became physically violent. “Finally, you know, it was his house, and he said, ‘You’re mad about this, you’re mad about that, you can get out.’”
On October 26, 1997, Theda Thomas and the boys moved back into her parents’ home. Dawan filed for divorce less than a year later, demanding full custody of Christian and Connor, plus child support. Theda countered with her own lawsuit, asking the court to annul the marriage and award her custody.
At their divorce trial in November 1998, Theda submitted public records to back up her claim that owing to an oversight, the couple had failed to obtain a marriage license until six months after their wedding. St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Thomas Frawley annulled the marriage based on that technical error. He awarded custody to Theda and visitation rights to Dawan.
The couple was back in court five weeks later, commencing a volley of accusations that wouldn’t let up for months. Dawan claimed Theda wasn’t bringing the children on the agreed-upon days, that she wasn’t sharing Christian’s medications, and that she disparaged him in front of hospital staff and made false allegations of child abuse to the Missouri Department of Social Services.
Theda countered that Ferguson drove around town with the children even though there were warrants for his arrest on traffic violations, that he was careless in feeding Christian and that the child had fallen ill almost a dozen times within 24 hours of visiting his father. She claimed her younger son accused Dawan of “repeatedly touching [the boy’s] genitals in an inappropriate manner.”
This time Judge Frawley sided with Dawan. At the recommendation of the boys’ court-appointed guardian ad litem, Frawley awarded custody to their father until a new hearing could take place.
Outraged, Theda assembled family and friends for what was to become the first of many protests outside the family court building on North Vandeventer Avenue. “I like Martin Luther King Jr., and the idea of standing up for my rights,” Thomas says today in defense of her actions. “I felt like if I didn’t have my child, I would die. My parents couldn’t protect me. What else could I do besides protest?”
Thomas also fired her attorney, Ruby Bonner.
Now the director of the city’s Civil Rights Enforcement Agency, Bonner lets out a long sigh at the mention of the case. “I was trying to help her understand some of the responsibility she shared for disobeying the court’s order,” Bonner explains.
“Though there were all kinds of trust issues between Mom and Dad, I really believe her primary concern was for the welfare of the sick child in particular,” the lawyer adds. “It would just tear her up every time she had to take that child to the father.”
Nathan Cohen, the children’s court-appointed guardian ad litem, says Theda’s behavior tilted the scales against her. “Theda was saying things like the father would never see the children again and she’d go to jail before she let him see the kids,” Cohen says. “It was pretty clear that she was trying to interfere completely in this father’s relationship with his kids.”
Standard of living, too, might have factored in the judge’s decision. Court records indicate that Theda was earning $5.50 an hour as a home-health aide, while Dawan was making $2,080 a month working for his stepfather. John Steffen was helping his stepson in other ways, as well. Dawan was living in the Gate District just west of Lafayette Square, in a two-family house Steffen owned. Steffen also hired prominent Clayton divorce lawyer Cary Mogerman to represent his stepson and helped foot Dawan’s legal bill.
In a 22-page order handed down in early 1999, Judge Frawley awarded Dawan full custody of Christian and Connor. The judge granted Theda visiting rights, six hours on three Saturdays a month, and ordered her to pay Dawan $229 in monthly child support.
Through a court spokesman, Frawley declined to be interviewed for this story.
On the morning of January 16, 2001, Dawan Ferguson went to wake Christian at 11 and found him unconscious in bed, lying in a puddle of vomit. Ferguson pulled open his son’s eyes. Christian didn’t flinch. Then he vomited again.
It was only a mile from the Fergusons’ home to the emergency room at Cardinal Glennon, whose staff, over the years, had ample opportunity to get to know Christian. According to medical records from that day, Christian suffered a massive seizure in the ER that lasted more than three minutes, then lapsed into a coma.
As medical staff attempted unsuccessfully to revive their child, Dawan and Theda went at each other. “There they were, punching each other in the ER,” recalls Nathan Cohen.
Over the next several days, the exes’ battle continued in a blizzard of paper. On January 18 Dawan filed for a restraining order against Theda, asking that she be barred from seeing Christian, alleging that his ex “threatened the doctor that has cared for him since birth (seven years) by pointing her (Theda) finger in her (the doctor’s) face and telling her to ‘Do your job!’ in a loud and threatening tone and also telling her that ‘You will get yours!’
“Also on Tuesday, January 16, 2001, she verbally attacked and attempted to provoke me in the hospital’s hallway while being held back by her husband…. If her behavior is allowed to continue in or around his room then the doctors have warned that such stimulus elevates his blood pressure and puts him at grave risk of his condition worsening….”
Donna Erickson, a Cardinal Glennon social worker, chimed in with a letter to the family court. “Christian is currently on the intensive care unit; he is on life support and there is a possibility that he will not survive this episode of his illness,” wrote Erickson. “At this point, it is probably preferable that parents have little or no contact with each other….
“There also needs to be clear behavioral guidelines that must be observed while visits are being conducted. Parents may not threaten, either verbally or physically, any staff person or physician.”
Erickson suggested that Judge Frawley establish separate visiting hours for each parent.
Cohen says he told Dawan and Theda they might be required to visit separately if they could not act civilly toward each other and warned of a scenario in which their son might be near death and only one parent would be permitted to be in the room with him. “I told them: You should each take half of the room, forget the [separate] shifts,” Cohen recalls. “But [Theda] didn’t want it. She wouldn’t have it. And Cardinal Glennon couldn’t afford the security to look after them” if they were visiting together.
Frawley specified a total of about twelve hours per week during which Theda was permitted to visit Christian while “supervised” by hospital staff. Dawan was not to be present during Theda’s visits, the judge stipulated.
Theda, meanwhile, launched her own offensive. She made several calls to a hotline at the Missouri Department of Social Services (MDSS), alleging abuse and neglect. Records indicate that she referred to Dawan as “a compulsive liar” and asserted that he “should have responded quicker” to Christian’s emergency.
The agency briefly examined the incident, including Dawan’s statements to hospital staff that the flu was going around the Ferguson household the week that Christian fell ill. Geneticist Dorothy Grange told a state social worker she found his explanation plausible.
Reads the MDSS report: “Dr. Grange is aware of the events leading to hospitalization and did not feel that Mr. F had been neglectful.”
MDSS did not open an investigation into Theda’s allegations.
It was not the first time. By the time of Christian’s coma, the state had received at least ten “hotline” calls about the Ferguson household. Theda Thomas says she made most of those calls. (A hospital social worker made at least one.) Records show the agency deemed eight of the ten calls “harassment.”
Some of the calls coincided with four separate hospital admissions for Christian at Cardinal Glennon in 2000.
In March that year, hospital records show, Christian appeared at the ER dehydrated and smelling of ammonia. “Christian was reportedly without his sodium benzoate medication for at least two days in the week prior to admission, because his father was unable to obtain the medication from their local pharmacy,” Dr. Grange would write in her clinical report. “Questions were raised regarding medication compliance and father was made aware of the necessity for strict compliance…. He was instructed to call Dr. Grange is [sic] he was unable to obtain medications rather than wait for symptoms to begin.”
Two months later Christian was hospitalized after falling out of his chair at school. “The patient had missed his medication for the two days prior to admission…,” Dr. Grange’s report notes. “The father was informed to have his medications filled ahead of time, and instructed not to skip any doses.”
Thomas lobbied other agencies to investigate how Christian ended up in a coma, including the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s Child Abuse/Sex Crimes unit. A subsequent police report notes that detectives had gathered information from Theda but did not launch an inquiry.
Thomas also took up picketing again, outside the hospital and the courthouse.
Christian’s coma persisted nearly a month. He emerged in February 2001 severely brain damaged and from then on would struggle to perform the most basic functions: He wore a diaper. Unable to swallow properly, he required a surgically implanted feeding tube. Though he regained his ability to walk after two months of physical therapy, he could no longer speak.
On June 17, 2001, Christian was discharged from rehab and went home to his father. Two days later Thomas penned a letter to Judge Frawley declaring that she was relinquishing her visitation rights with both sons.
“I care not to watch you allow my son’s health to deteriorate,” she wrote. “You would, evidently, rather keep my children in their abuser’s custody in order to hide the mistakes and damages that you have caused and allowed instead of forgetting your pride and owning up to your errors in judgments [sic]. By failing to do what is just and allowing these acts of neglect, you along with the [MDSS] Division of Family Services, Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital and the Police Department have proven to be just as abusive to my children as their father.”
Thomas closed with, “Please add this letter to the record.”
Theda Thomas couldn’t help herself, though, and several months later she resumed visits with Christian and Connor via Heritage House, a St. Louis agency that facilitates such exchanges between litigants in custody cases. “I remember going to Heritage House, Christian walking to the door, and his eyes lighting up. He started slobbering, making little sounds, like, ‘Mama, Mama,’” she recalls. “He couldn’t talk, you know — it was just a mother’s intuition. And then he was hugging me so tight. He was almost laughing. [Dawan] had told me, ‘He ain’t going to know who you are.’ But he did. And even the people who didn’t like me at Heritage House, because of my mouth, they were smiling.”
A girlfriend, Monica Linwood, and her two daughters had moved in with Ferguson and the boys in the Gate District house. A subsequent police investigation would reveal that Ferguson had quit his job with his stepfather’s company and was working nights as a bounty hunter, under contract to area law-enforcement agencies. Most of Christian’s care was handled by Medicaid-funded nurses who worked at the house 40 hours a week.
“He was a very loving child,” remembers Margaret Binion, a registered nurse who looked after Christian for nearly a year. “But it was very involved. There was a lot of work, and you had to be patient and understanding.”
Christian drooled constantly, Binion recalls. He needed his clothes changed and washed several times a day. He was incredibly active and could never be left alone.
“He tore up the place,” the nurse says. “They had to put up TV antennas because he’d chew them up, and the wicker furniture, he chewed that up. He was so restless. I’m surprised he had the beautiful complexion he had and didn’t have bags down to his knees, because they said at night he didn’t sleep. They said it’d be three in the morning and he’d be standing over them clapping.”
Ferguson and Linwood moved to a squat brick house on Sylvan Place in Pine Lawn in the summer of 2002 and married a short time later. Thomas says that period coincided with a thaw in relations with her ex. She and Victor Thomas, a retired mail carrier whom she’d married in 1999, got to see a lot more of her sons.
“I knew it was a lot caring for Christian, so I’d call Dawan and tell him, you know, if he and Monica were tired on the weekend, or they wanted to go catch a show, just call me, and I would watch the kids,” Thomas recalls. “And he did.”
In early 2003 the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services reviewed Christian’s Medicaid case. A police investigation would later reveal that the agency canceled the family’s nursing benefits because Ferguson had not complied with its instruction to enroll Christian in school. Investigative records indicate that the last day a nurse came to the Pine Lawn house to care for Christian was March 13, 2003.
Nine days later, on March 22, Thomas arrived at Heritage House to retrieve Christian and Connor for a scheduled weekend visit. When she gave the boys a once-over back at her house, she thought they looked dirty. Christian, she says, reeked of urine, and when she bathed him, she found he had a diaper rash and seemed unusually skinny. “He started bumping into things,” she recalls.
It was a telltale sign that Christian might be falling ill.
Thomas drove the boys to St. Louis Children’s Hospital. While they were in the emergency room, her court-sanctioned visitation period with the children ended. A hospital worker called Ferguson to retrieve the boys.
“I kissed Christian on the cheek,” recalls Thomas, “without knowing I’d never, ever, ever, ever see him again.”
Ferguson failed to bring Christian and Connor to Heritage House for Thomas’ next two scheduled visits, according to court papers. On April 7, 2003, her 31st birthday, Thomas went back to St. Louis Circuit Court and filed a motion to regain custody of the boys.
The exes’ first court appearance before Judge Frawley in the new matter came on June 9. Though there is no transcript of the proceeding on file in family court, a subsequent police report contains a summary of the day’s events gleaned from questioning a court employee.
“Dawan F. was ordered by the court to ‘immediately resume visitations’ of both Christian and Connor with their mother,” the report reads. “Dawan F. expressed his displeasure with Frawley’s ruling, at which time Frawley informed Mr. Jack Hauser, Dawan F.’s attorney, that he did not ‘appreciate self help’ from Dawan F. and warned Dawan F. he would be held in contempt if the visitations were not to take place immediately. [The court employee interviewed] interpreted that visitations would resume the coming weekend of June 14, 2003.”
Thomas remembers the June 9 court proceeding distinctly. “It was the first time I went to court and was not afraid,” she says. “When I heard Judge Frawley say that if Dawan didn’t have good grounds for keeping me from seeing my kids he’s going to suffer the consequences, I thought: Oh, my God, finally.”
Thomas recalls the dress she wore that day, a frock decked with sunflowers, and the fact that it matched her merry mood. From court she went straight to Connor’s school and found him on the playground. Says Thomas: “I told him he was going to be coming home soon.”
The 911 call came in half an hour after sunrise, at 6:09 a.m. on Wednesday, June 11, 2003. From a pay phone at the southeast corner of Page Boulevard and Skinker Parkway, just inside the St. Louis city limits, Dawan Ferguson informed the dispatcher that his SUV had been stolen and his handicapped son kidnapped.
When St. Louis police officers arrived at the scene, a nondescript strip mall at a major intersection, Ferguson “began crying while stating, ‘My son is gone, my son is gone’ repeatedly,” the officers would note in an incident report.
Ferguson said that Christian had been vomiting throughout the night and that he was rushing the boy to Children’s Hospital. According to the incident report, he told police he decided to stop at the pay phone and call ahead to the ER. “While talking on the phone he noticed his vehicle drive away east on Page and out of sight,” reads the incident report. “Ferguson advised he never saw who entered his vehicle and could offer no information on the suspect.”
Police combed the area but found nothing: no vehicle, no witnesses and no Christian.
News of the kidnapping was quick to reach the local media — so much so that Theda Thomas’ family learned of Christian’s disappearance on the morning news. Thomas was at work, doing data entry for Midwest Library Service in Bridgeton, when her husband rushed in with the grim news.
“I started laughing,” Thomas recalls. “I said, What do you mean, Christian is missing? What are you talking about? I didn’t really get it. And then the tears just came jumping out of my eyes.”
If Christian wasn’t found — and medicated — within two or three days, he would almost certainly die.