Tension over interviews with children

Tension began growing between investigators and Leila Fowler’s family within days of her death, according to statements made during a hearing Monday in Calaveras County Superior Court.

Leila, 8, was found stabbed to death in her Valley Springs home on April 27, 2013. Her brother, Isiah, was arrested two weeks later on a murder charge.

In the first days after Leila’s death, investigators from multiple agencies looked for an intruder that Isiah Fowler had reportedly seen fleeing the house.

But while investigators testified during a hearing Monday that members of the Fowler family were initially cooperative, they also admitted early signs of strain in the relationship.

According to statements by law enforcement officers, Barney Fowler, the father of both Leila and Isiah, several times cut an early end to interviews between investigators and Isiah.

How investigators handled those interviews with Isiah is an issue because of a defense motion to suppress statements Isiah made during four interviews. The motion argues that the statements are not admissible because Isiah was subject to unlawful arrest and interrogation.

Those interviews took place at Isiah’s home, at Mark Twain Medical Center later the night of the slaying, and on both the evening of April 27 and on April 29 in an interview room at the District Attorney’s office.

While the defense argues that Isiah was unlawfully treated as a suspect without probable cause, prosecutors and investigators say he was in fact treated merely as a witness.

Deputy District Attorney Dana Pfeil, for example, asked many questions like this one of Calaveras County Sheriff’s Detective Wade Whitney: “Did you ever indicate he was going to be placed under arrest?” Pfeil asked of Whitney’s handling of Isiah during an interview on April 27.

“No,” Whitney said.

Similarly, Whitney and others testified that they did not handcuff Isiah and went to lengths to show him he was free to leave during interviews.

Defense attorney Mark Reichelt, in contract, used his cross-examination questions to look for evidence that in fact investigators already considered Isiah a suspect, rather than a mere witness, early in the investigation.

“Did you see anything on Isiah that looked like blood?” Reichel asked Whitney.

Whitney said no. “He did not appear to have been involved in any sort of a fight,” Whitney said of Isiah’s appearance the evening following the slaying.

Still, within two days after the slaying on April 29, the Sheriff’s Office had obtained a search warrant allowing it to collect DNA material from all Fowler family members using so-called “buccal” swabs that wipe small amounts of tissue from the inside of a cheek.

Another person who testified Monday was Gary Sims, an investigator for the District Attorney’s Office. Sims said he got Barney Fowler’s permission to photograph Isiah nude the day of the slaying by explaining that since Isiah was the only other person in the house, it was important to document his condition in case defense attorneys for another suspect later tried to shift the blame to Isiah.

Under questioning from Reichel, Sims said that at the time he saw Isiah as a witness rather than a suspect.

Conflict grew on May 9, when investigators asked Barney and the rest of the family to allow uninterrupted opportunities to interview children in the family, including Isiah. Barney Fowler at one point stood up and stormed out of a meeting room at the District Attorney’s Office, taking his family with him, said Capt. Jim Macedo.

“He was concerned law enforcement would be too tough on his kids during those interviews,” Macedo said. Macedo said Barney Fowler got angry, sometimes using foul language.

A few minutes later in the parking lot outside, Barney Fowler did agree to allow his children to be interviewed, but only if either he or his fiancée, Crystal Walters, was present, and only if a particular FBI agent Barney Fowler mistrusted did not participate.

Macedo agreed to the terms. Allowing the interviews.

Two days later, 12-year-old Isiah Fowler was arrested on murder charges.

The hearing on whether to suppress evidence from Isiah’s interviews was set to continue at press time Monday.

Contact Dana M. Nichols at dana.calent@gmail.com or call 498-2052.

​Contact Dana M. Nichols at dana.calent@gmail.com or call 498-2052.

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