In 2011, four-year-old, Justin Hepburn was found dead in his bedroom by his babysitter. His father’s girlfriend, Sacha Brown was charged with murder but acquitted in 2014, partially from a weak investigation into Justin’s death.
About the Case
Justin Hepburn resided with his father, Chris Hepburn and Hepburn’s girlfriend, Sacha Brown in Ware, Illinois, a tiny town located east of the Mississippi River. Hepburn and Brown had been together for about a year. Justin’s mother, Kandi Mullins had not seen her son in over a year.
On December 10, 2011, 14-year-old Mia Scott arrived at the Hepburn house around 7:45 p.m. to babysit Justin overnight. Hepburn was out of town on business. Scott had known Brown her whole life and lived nearby.
Brown was scheduled to work an overnight shift at Choate Mental Health Center in nearby Anna, Illinois, but called her supervisor around 9:00 p.m. saying something came up and she would not be in until 7:00 a.m. the following morning.
When Scott arrived at the Hepburn house, she checked on Justin, who was asleep and snoring in his bedroom. She checked on him a couple more times that night. The last time was at 12:30 a.m. Justin was still snoring but the rhythm had slowed and the sounds were softer. She also noticed his foot sticking out from the covers, so she tucked it back in.
Brown woke Scott the next morning to tell her she was running about 30 minutes late and left $30 on the coffee table to pay Scott for babysitting. Brown then went to work.
Scott got up shortly after and called Justin to breakfast. When he did not respond, she went to his bedroom where she found Justin unresponsive on the floor next to his bed; his skin cold and hard to the touch.
Without access to a phone, Scott ran to a neighbor’s house to call 911. This was the first time Hepburn or Brown did not leave a phone for Scott, which they normally did when Scott was babysitting.
When paramedics arrived, they discovered a blue dishwashing liquid near the boy’s body, around Justin’s mouth, and on his clothes.
Justin was pronounced dead at 7:58 a.m. on December 11, 2011.
The weak Investigation into Justin Hepburn’s death
Union County Deputy Jack Theriac, now retired, was the first officer on the scene. Theriac did not initially treat Brown’s home as a crime scene. Then-Coroner Darryl Rendleman, who arrived at the home shortly after the paramedics, told him Justin’s death appeared to be accidental. It is unclear what led Rendleman to this assumption. Regardless, the death was eventually treated as a crime scene.
Four hours after Justin’s body was discovered, Chief Deputy Scott Harvel learned of Justin’s death only after receiving a call from Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) at 12:30 p.m. It is unclear why another officer or Rendleman did not notify Harvel prior to this time.
Investigators did not find any physical forensic evidence after sealing off and searching the Hepburn and Brown home nor did they notice any visible injuries on Justin’s body.
Two days later on December 13, 2011, 29-year-old Brown was arrested and charged with with first-degree murder, aggravated battery and concealment of homicidal death. The State alleged she tried to cover up Justin’s death by positioning his body and other items to make it look accidental.
Brown told investigators Justin had fallen out of bed one night a few weeks before his death.
An autopsy revealed Justin died from blunt force trauma to his head that resulted in a 4 1/2-inch fracture to the back of his skull. The boy had not ingested any of the dishwashing liquid.
Justin’s injury likely occurred between 3:30 p.m. and 7:40 p.m. on December 1oth.
Chris Hepburn, the boy’s father, testified that Brown had a history of violently punishing Justin and would frequently spank Justin until he bruised. Hepburn also said he and Brown used to get into both physical and verbal fights (Dispatch-Argus-QCOnline, 2014).
Scott testified at trial she never witnessed any ill behavior from Brown towards Justin and that Justin called Brown “mom”.
Brown’s father, Bobby Joe Jackson testified that he last saw Justin alive around 3:30 p.m. Dec. 10th. The boy seemed unusually tired, was quieter than usual, and eventually fell asleep on his lap.
Justin’s doctor, Christine Lucas, also testified. She said Justin was healthy when his father brought him to her office Dec. 9, 2011 for a follow-up visit related to an eye infection she had been treating.
“He was in what I would say good health for a child,” Lucas said. “He was in a good mood. He was being very chatty with his dad.”
Defense attorney, Larry Karraker asked Harvel why he ruled out the possibility of Justin getting his fatal injury the night before at the home of Bruce Zoromski. Sekara Zoromoski, Bruce’s daughter, was watching Justin during the day on December 10th. Bruce testified that Justin was jumping on the bed, but both Bruce and Sekara said Justin did not suffer an injury in there home. Additionally, nothing in the investigation led Harvel to believe the young boy had fallen or hurt himself at the Zoromoski home.
The trial lasted until fall 2014. On November of that year, Judge William Thurston granted a defense motion for a directed verdict acquitting Brown of the charges against her. A directed verdict means the judge looks at the evidence that has been presented up to that point, considers it in the light most favorable to the prosecution, then decides whether a finder of fact could find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt based on that evidence (Southeast Missourian, 2014).
Dispatch-Argus. 2014. “Woman Accused In Ware Boy’s Death Goes To Trial”. http://www.qconline.com/news/illinois/woman-accused-in-ware-boy-s-death-goes-to-trial/article_72ea5578-c240-5d46-8235-0606133c8b6d.html.
Priddy, Emily. 2014. “Deputy: Murder case ‘came down to a timeline’.” Southeast Missourian. http://www.semissourian.com/story/2133511.html.
Priddy, Emily. 2014. “Sacha Brown Acquitted in Murder of 4-year-old.” Southeast Missourian. http://www.semissourian.com/story/2135429.html.
Priddy, Emily. 2014. “Testimony Continues In Ware Murder Case”. Southeast Missourian. http://www.semissourian.com/story/2133106.html.
True Crime Diva’s Thoughts
Normally, I do not write about cases such as this one where there appears to be a conclusion. However, a member of Justin’s family contacted me, and I offered to write about his case. His family believes Brown’s acquittal was a huge injustice for Justin and I can’t say I disagree.
My main reason for writing this is to bring attention to Justin’s death.
So, what do I think about this? Well, even though Brown was acquitted, that doesn’t necessarily prove her innocence. In this case, there was not enough physical evidence to convict and defense lawyer, Larry Karraker was able to show reasonable doubt.
I think there is a good chance that Brown did hurt Justin, whether it was intentional or accidental, I can’t say for sure. However, I believe it was intentional. She had a history of abusing Justin. Abuse will only escalate if there is no intervention.
I do not believe Justin fell. Even if he had fallen off a bed, I do not believe he would have landed on his head. In order for this to happen, the bed itself would have to be a certain height, like a bunk bed. I asked a member of Justin’s family what type of bed he slept in and this person said twin bed.
Justin’s injury was to the back of the head so I’m more convinced he was hit from behind.
Investigators said Justin’s injury must have occurred between the last time Brown’s father, Bobby Joe saw him – around 3:30 p.m. – and 7:45 p.m. when Scott arrived. However, I do not think this is accurate. Bobby Joe said Justin was unusually tired and fell asleep on his lap. He was already in bed at 7:45 when Scott arrived. One of the symptoms of a skull fracture in children is increased drowsiness. I think his injury may have occurred before 3:30 p.m.
What do you think happened to Justin Hepburn?