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Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Child abuse
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: December 17, 2012
Date of arrest: 3 days after
Date of birth: 1977
Victim profile: Her autistic stepdaughter, Melissa Stoddard, 11
Method of murder: Suffocation
Location: Sarasota County, Florida, USA
Status: Sentenced to life in prison without parole on August 14, 2014

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Life, plus 30 years, for Misty Stoddard

By Gabrielle Russon -

Thursday, August 14, 2014

SARASOTA - State prosecutor Karen Fraivillig read the letter written by the mother of a murdered child.

Melissa Stoddard's biological mother, Lisha Stoddard, addressed her words to Misty Stoddard, the child's stepmother.

“I no longer get to look into my daughter's big beautiful eyes or tuck her in at night or feel her hugs,” Fraivillig said, reading Lisha Stoddard's words aloud in the courtroom Thursday. “For that, I will never forgive you. You are a poor excuse for a mother and a human being.”

A few minutes later, Sarasota County Circuit Judge Frederick Mercurio sentenced Misty Stoddard to an additional 30 years in prison for her conviction on an aggravated abuse charge in the death of 11-year-old Melissa.

Misty Stoddard, 37, of Sarasota County, also automatically received a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole after a jury also convicted her of first-degree murder in June.

Before her sentence, Misty Stoddard stood before the judge and said she accepted responsibility for what happened.

“I loved Melissa. I still love Melissa,” she said. “I take full responsibility for the actions and inactions that led up to this event . . . If I could change it, I would.”

Her defense team has 30 days to appeal.

Thursday's sentencing was the first in a case that began in December 2012 when first responders arrived at the house in rural eastern Sarasota County and tried to save Melissa, who was not breathing.

A brain-dead Melissa was on life support for several days until she died from a lack of oxygen to the brain. Court documents show the child had been tied to a board and her mouth duct-taped until she suffocated.

Later this month, the second trial in connection to her death is expected to begin as her biological father, Kenneth Stoddard, is charged with aggravated manslaughter, aggravated child abuse and tampering with evidence.

Misty Stoddard was convicted of felony murder, meaning that Melissa died during the commission of a felony — in this case, aggravated child abuse.

Fraivillig said she believes Mercurio's sentence was appropriate after Melissa was tortured and suffocated.

“What is even worse was she was a special-needs child,” Fraivillig said. “She couldn't articulate to anyone how she was suffering at the hands of Misty Stoddard.

“One can only imagine what the child went through.”

During the weeklong trial, an inmate who briefly shared a cell with Misty Stoddard testified that the stepmother admitted to taping Melissa on the night she stopped breathing.

Misty Stoddard's teenage son also testified that both Kenneth and Misty Stoddard regularly tied Melissa to a board and duct-taped her mouth to keep her from crying out.

A psychologist, who had been called by the defense but was not allowed to testify in front of the jury, said Misty Stoddard suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Melissa Stoddard was diagnosed with autism before she was old enough to attend primary school. She struggled when her regular routine changed and spoke basic sentences.

But at her school in Greensboro, she transformed from an unruly student into one of her teacher's favorite pupils.

Melissa left North Carolina in the summer of 2012 because of trouble brewing in the home where she lived with her biological mother and older brother.

Her brother was accused of molesting one of his stepsiblings, police records show.

Lisha Stoddard chose to send her daughter to Florida to protect her from her son, according to a Florida Department of Children and Families report.

Woman, 37, GUILTY of killing autistic stepdaughter by duct-taping her mouth and tying her to a wooden board she used to role-play sexual bondage fantasies

  • Misty Stoddard, 37, has been convicted of the first-degree murder of her stepdaughter, Melissa Stoddard, 11

  • A Sarasota jury found she tied the girl to a plywood sex board and taped her mouth shut

  • Melissa died from a lack of oxygen to the brain in December 2012

  • On trial Misty put the blame on her husband and Melissa's biological father, Kenneth Stoddard

  • She said he had bought the board to practice acts of sadomasochism

  • Misty said he had sex with her against her will and that she did not approve of his treatment of Melissa

By Joel Christie -

28 June 2014

A southwest Florida woman will now spend the rest of her life in prison after being found guilty of killing her autistic stepdaughter by gagging her so tightly the little girl became brain dead.

Misty Stoddard, 37, blinked away tears after a Sarasota jury took just two and a half hours to convict her of the first-degree murder of 11-year-old Melissa Stoddard on Friday.

Melissa died of suffocation in December 2012 after being tied to a wooden plank with her mouth duct-taped shut.

She had moved in with her father and his second wife - Misty - just five months earlier to escape her mothers abusive household in North Carolina.

There she had been 'touched' by her brother, with her mother sending Melissa away for protection.

The wooden board was propped up in the courtroom near the jury throughout the trial and described as a 'home made torture device', The Herald-Tribune reported.

With holes drilled through the plank, the prosecution demonstrated how Melissa would be tied to the board each night.

The defense maintained Melissa's father, Kenneth Stoddard, created the board to act out sexual bondage fantasies with his wife.

Misty Stoddard said her husband would tie her up and abuse her against her will.

She said her DNA was found on the board as a result of the sexual acts.

The defense also claimed Melissa was only restrained twice and that it was because she had a tendency to become violent.

Misty Stoddard said she was worried what Melissa might do around her newborn child.

But the court was told Melissa's body was covered in injuries at the time of her death.

There was a black scab on her lower back, likely to have been caused by her attempts to break free from the board, and scars on her lips were consistent with being gagged.

'Parenting is hard and parenting an autistic child is harder. But parents do it every day,' Prosecutor Suzanne O'Donnell said.

'They don't kill their children.'

A woman who shared a cell with Stoddard for a few days testified against her, saying she confessed to duct-taping Melissa's mouth shut the night the child was rushed unresponsive to hospital.

A teacher at Melissa's school Oak Park School testified that he had notified a state agency anonymously in the weeks leading up to Melissa's death after becoming suspicious over what was happening at home.

Melissa came to school with stitches above her eyebrow, however Misty Stoddard had emailed the school saying she had banged her head.

The teacher, Paul Squea, said Melissa had never hurt herself in class so he filed a child abuse report to the Florida Department of Children and Families' website.

Around the same time, a local social worker made an unnanounced visit to the Stoddard home to see why Melissa had been missing weeks of school.

Misty Stoddard wouldn't let the woman inside, instead speaking to her on the porch.

She had Melissa was out running errands with her father.

The social worker did not return to the house.

With the evidence stacked against, Stoddard's case that she was also a victim of absue and that Melissa's treatment was instigated by her husband did not stand up.

She was subsequently found guilty, and first-degree murder carries a mandatory life sentence in prison in Florida.

She was also convicted of aggravated child abuse, which carries a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison.

Kenneth Stoddard has been charged with manslaughter, aggravated battery and tampering with evidence.

He is scheduled to go on trial in August.

Misty Stoddard guilty of killing stepdaughter Melissa

By Gabrielle Russon -

Friday, June 27, 2014

SARASOTA — The final images of Melissa Stoddard were gruesome and painful to look at in court this week.

Autopsy photos depicting slices of her swollen brain. Other photos of the 11-year-old girl limp in a St. Petersburg hospital bed, on the verge of death. A homemade video that depicted the autistic child wringing her hands and crying on her knees as she was left alone on the back porch at night, screaming for help.

It was not the way Jai Holden-Walker wanted to remember the girl who loved to dance and recite lines from her favorite movies.

“That's not Melissa,” said Jai Holden-Walker, a childcare worker from Greensboro, North Carolina who helped care for the girl for several years. “Melissa was happy-go-lucky. She was always smiling. She was always laughing.”

On Friday, a jury took 2 1/2 hours before ruling that Misty Stoddard was guilty of killing Melissa, her stepdaughter. First-degree murder carries a mandatory life sentence in prison.

As the verdict was announced, Stoddard was tight-lipped and gulped, blinking back tears. A bailiff handcuffed her wrists and fingerprinted her, before she was escorted out of the courtroom. Stoddard, 37, was also convicted of aggravated child abuse, which carries a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison.

Absent from the weeklong trial were any photographs of Melissa from before, when she was happy and known for her wild curls, playfulness and free spirit.

Melissa mimicked the Thriller dance in her bedroom in Greensboro, and was the leader in her special-education classroom, bossing her classmates around to her teacher's amusement. Her favorite pastimes were swimming and singing.

Yet beneath the joy was a child who suffered.

In North Carolina, her brother had touched her, and her biological mother sent her away to protect her. Within five months of moving into her father and stepmother's east Sarasota County home, Melissa suffocated after having her mouth duct taped to silence her.

Holden-Walker's job in Greensboro was to watch Melissa, mostly on weekends, to give her biological mother a break. Three weeks after Melissa died, Holden-Walker quit her job. She was afraid she would get too attached to another child, and didn't think she could handle such pain again.

“I left it alone,” Holden-Walker said Friday.

Covered with injuries

A constant presence in Misty Stoddard's trial was a plywood board, propped up by 15 blocks on the back so it wouldn't lay flat on the ground. Holes were cut into it to attach straps.

The homemade torture device rested a few feet from the jury.

“This is where Melissa's head was every time she went to bed,” Prosecutor Suzanne O'Donnell said, tapping the top of the board during Friday's closing arguments.

Stoddard's 16-year-old son testified that Misty and Kenneth Stoddard, Melissa's father, both tied the child to the board at night. He said a sock had been stuffed in her mouth as a gag and duct tape wrapped around the child's head.

On the witness stand Misty Stoddard said Melissa would lose control and become violent, and required restraint to protect herself and the other Stoddard children.

Stoddard's defense team also argued that Melissa only slept on the board twice, and that her father put her there. The board was meant for Kenneth Stoddard to force his sexual bondage fantasies on Misty Stoddard, they said.

“Whose trial is this?” Prosecutor Karen Fraivillig asked the jury. “It's Misty Stoddard's trial. Everything comes all back to her. This is not Kenneth Stoddard's trial. That's for another day and another jury.”

Barbara Whiteaker, who spent six days with Stoddard in a cell, testified the stepmother confessed to duct taping Melissa's mouth on Dec. 12, 2012 — the night the girl was rushed unresponsive to the hospital.

DNA also matched the profiles of Melissa and both Stoddards on the board, an expert ruled.

Melissa's body was covered with injuries. Her lower back had a blackish scab, likely caused by her trying to writhe free from the board. Her lips were scarred, ripped at the hinges — consistent with being gagged, experts testified.

“Parenting is hard and parenting an autistic child is harder. But parents do it every day,” O'Donnell said. “They don't kill their children.”

Listening to the evidence was a jury of five men and seven women. In the jury box, one man looked like he was crying. Another woman clutched a tissue during the closing arguments.

Others who tried to save Melissa's life returned to the courtroom to hear the verdict and see the case to the end.

Melissa's biological mother, Lisha Stoddard, sat in the last row of the courtroom and left before Misty Stoddard was escorted out.

“It was difficult,” said Lisha Stoddard after the verdict. “I'm just happy with the outcome.”

Chances to help

Several of those who testified in the trial failed to act or did not intervene soon enough to save Melissa's life.

Paul Squeo, a teacher at Oak Park School, where Melissa attended, testified that he notified a state agency anonymously on Dec. 10, 2012, because he felt suspicious.

In an email to the school Misty Stoddard claimed that Melissa required stitches above her eyebrow because she banged her head on the wall. The child went to the hospital Dec. 7.

Melissa never hurt herself in class, Squeo said, so he testified he anonymously filed a child abuse report to the Florida Department of Children and Families' website.

Teachers are not only mandated by state law to report suspected child abuse but are also required to use their full names when doing so.

DCF spokeswoman Natalie Harrell denied any report was filed.

She said somebody accessed the website on Dec. 10 and typed in the name “Melissa Stoddard” twice that afternoon without completing the process that required more details — such as describing the child's injuries or where the child went to school. The person exited the website without submitting the report, Harrell said.

On the dead-end street in rural Sarasota County, the Stoddards' next-door neighbor Kevin Dermody heard a child crying and a woman cursing and yelling outside 20 or 30 times.

He identified the voices as Melissa and Misty Stoddard and recognized the sounds of violence. But the 25-year-old testified he never told his parents, whom he lived with, or alerted authorities.

“I was afraid the consequences might be worse if I intervened,” he said.

Oak Park social worker Jody Smith made an unannounced visit to the Stoddard home in December 2012 — days before Melissa was killed — to see why the girl missed weeks of school. Misty Stoddard wouldn't let her inside, staying on the front porch. The stepmother explained Melissa wasn't home and was running errands with her father.

Smith didn't return to the house after that.

She helped arrange additional services for families with special-needs children. But the help for the Stoddard household was scheduled to start January 2013.

'A huge sense of relief'

Brandi London last saw Melissa in the summer of 2012, the day before the child left to see her father and stepmother in Florida.

They went to a camp in Greensboro where the children danced during a music activity and made crafts. Melissa swam in the pool — “That was Melissa's favorite thing in the world,” said London, another caregiver who regularly watched Melissa for two years after school and in the summer.

Melissa was no angel; she would get upset when forced to share the swings, for example.

But after venting her anger, Melissa became sweet again. Though some autistic children shy from touch, she liked to be cuddled and hugged. She always gave London a kiss on each cheek, European-style, when it was time to say goodbye.

Back in North Carolina, London followed the Stoddard murder trial on Twitter.

“I was very, very anxious when I heard the verdict. I was in tears, to be honest with you,” London said. “It was a huge sense of relief, even though nothing can make it right. ... I knew I was never going to find another Melissa.”

Misty Stoddard trial: Abuse report never completed

By Gabrielle Russon -

Thursday, June 26, 2014

SARASOTA - One of Melissa Stoddard’s teachers failed to properly alert a state agency that he suspected the girl was being abused, while another school official may have missed warning signs that something was wrong at her house.

Somebody typed Melissa Stoddard’s name — twice — on a state website used to report suspected child abuse, but the person stopped short of completing any details or submitting a report, a Department of Children and Families spokeswoman said Thursday.

On Wednesday, Paul Squeo, a teacher at Melissa’s Oak Park School, testified he had anonymously reported concerns about Melissa to DCF based on an email Misty Stoddard had sent another staff member.

In the email, Stoddard said 11-year-old Melissa, who was autistic, banged her head on a wall, causing a gash above her eye that required stitches on Dec. 7, 2012.

Five days later Melissa was again taken to the hospital, this time by paramedics who found her unconscious at the Stoddards home. She was pronounced brain dead and taken off life support on Dec. 17.

Squeo testified that he never saw Melissa bang her head and doubted Stoddard’s story. He said he used a computer in the Oak Park teacher’s lounge to notify DCF about his concerns.

“I reported anonymously,” Squeo said in court. “I did report the injuries.”

However, state law requires so-called mandated reporters — teachers, social workers, doctors and the like — to give their full names when reporting suspected child abuse.

Squeo has repeatedly declined to comment on the case.

DCF spokeswoman Natalie Harrell said that on Dec. 10, 2012, somebody accessed the website at 2:25 p.m. and 2:57 p.m.

The person apparently started to file a report by entering Melissa Stoddard’s name “but did not complete any additional steps in the process and did not submit any report,” Harrell said. “Essentially, two separate times that day, someone typed in her name and then chose to exit the website before proceeding any further.”

Oak Park social worker Jody Smith testified Thursday that she visited the Stoddards’ home in early December to find out why Melissa had missed several weeks of school.

But Misty Stoddard wouldn’t let her inside the house and talked with her on the front porch, saying her baby was asleep.

When the baby awoke, Stoddard took her out to the porch and continued talking to Smith. Melissa was out running errands with her father, Stoddard told Smith.

“Misty had an explanation for everything,” Smith said in court. “I found out a lot of stuff after the fact, what happened to Melissa, but I was not aware of it at the time.”

Smith said she got the Stoddards help to care for Melissa through Children’s Medical Services. That help was set to begin in January 2013.

Misty Stoddard puts blame on partner

By Gabrielle Russon -

Thursday, June 26, 2014

SARASOTA - While his mother spoke from the witness stand, Misty Stoddard’s teenage son listened from the back of the courtroom. In an instant, the 16-year-old jumped up from the bench seat and rushed out, tears streaming down his face.

It was too much. His mother was calling him a liar.

For more than two hours, Stoddard testified in her own defense Thursday before the 12-person jury that is expected to decide her fate today.

If convicted of first-degree murder in the death of her 11-year-old stepdaughter, Misty Stoddard will serve a mandatory life sentence in prison. She is also charged with aggravated child abuse.

Melissa was a special-needs child who stopped breathing in her bedroom in December 2012 when authorities said she was tied to a plywood board, a helmet placed on her head, and her mouth duct-taped shut.

Earlier this week, Stoddard’s son testified that sometimes a sock was placed in Melissa’s mouth as a gag and duct tape was wrapped all the way around her head, like a scarf. The boy said he had seen both his mother and her partner, Kenneth Stoddard, tie Melissa to a plywood board in her room — something Misty Stoddard denied on the stand Thursday. Kenneth Stoddard, Melissa’s biological father, is expected to stand trial in August.

Misty Stoddard testified that her partner tied up Melissa only twice — on Dec. 11 and Dec. 12, which was the night in 2012 that Melissa was rushed to the hospital. Misty Stoddard said she wanted to free the girl but Kenneth Stoddard would not let her.

The board, Misty Stoddard claimed, had a far different purpose, one sexual in nature.

Kenneth Stoddard brought home the plywood board for his cruel sexual bondage fantasies with her, Misty Stoddard testified.

Kenneth Stoddard tied Misty to the board, choking her and slapping her in the face, making her bleed, she testified.

At times, Stoddard spoke in a soft, matter-of-fact voice while at other times she broke down and wept, hiding her head in her hand. She grew terse during cross-examination, prompting the judge to remind her not to argue with the prosecutor.

For several months, Stoddard said she wanted to leave Kenneth, who was not her legal husband but someone she had known since about the eighth grade. “He was very strict and demanding,” she said.

But she had to stay.

Misty Stoddard was a mother of five biological children — she learned she was expecting a sixth child after her stepdaughter arrived. Her highest education was a high school diploma.

She said she had no money, knew no one else and could not fit her family into her parents’ two-bedroom home.

The family dynamics grew more troubled while Misty and Kenneth Stoddard fought more about what to do with Melissa.

“She was very resistant to me,” Stoddard said. “I didn’t know what was wrong. Her behavior had changed so dramatically and drastically.”

Melissa bent her baby half-sister’s fingers back when no one was looking and was rough with the pet dog and cat. She knocked over chairs, hid knives in her bedroom and was aggressive with her family members, including her, Stoddard testified.

“Melissa was a handful. Did you want her to die?” asked Stoddard’s attorney, Jessica Wright.

“No,” Stoddard answered.

Stoddard said Melissa, whom the family called “Mel,” called her “Mama Misty.”

“I loved her like she was my own child,” the stepmother said.

For the fourth day jurors sat near the plywood board that Melissa writhed against to free herself as she suffocated, according to prior testimony.

They also watched a video of Melissa alive, crying, wringing her hands as she sat alone in the night on a back porch while Misty Stoddard played hide-and-go-seek with her own children inside. The stepmother videotaped her stepdaughter’s fits to show Kenneth Stoddard — and also outside agencies that could provide support — how intense Melissa’s tantrums were, she testified.

When it was time for cross-examination, prosecutor Karen Fraivillig paced the podium as she went on the offensive.

“She sat on that lanai and begged you to let her in the house,” Fraivillig said. “Why didn’t you just let that poor child into your house?”

Melissa had been living in Greensboro, North Carolina, with her biological mother, Lisha Stoddard, and brother, who was nearly two years older and also autistic. The brother was arrested and charged with sexually abusing Misty Stoddard’s daughter when he visited the family in 2012. Melissa’s mother was told she could not keep her two children together in Greensboro.

In the summer of 2012, Melissa permanently moved in with the Stoddards. Less than five months later, she was dead.

Lisha Stoddard paused for a moment, wiping her eyes Thursday as she testified about better times. when Melissa would sing.

“When she was at a peak, she would be extremely happy,” Lisha Stoddard, 36, said.

But Melissa, diagnosed with autism and bipolar disorder, could be difficult, Stoddard said.

Melissa took medicine that helped her sleep and stabilized her moods — prescriptions that Lisha Stoddard said she paid for, filled and sent by FedEx to Florida when her daughter left.

Melissa “had a wonderful relationship with her father,” Lisha Stoddard said. “Hugs and kisses — the same reaction with me.”

And then Melissa disappeared from her mother’s life.

Kenneth Stoddard didn’t give her a plausible explanation for why Melissa stopped using the iPhone Lisha Stoddard bought to stay in touch, she said.

Lisha Stoddard testified that calls from the Stoddard home “became less and less frequent” and eventually “ended.”

She knew only her ex-husband’s phone number. She couldn’t remember the last time she talked to Misty Stoddard — it had been years. Misty Stoddard refused to speak with her, Melissa’s mother said.

And Lisha Stoddard also didn’t know the phone number and address for Melissa’s school. Kenneth Stoddard wouldn’t tell her, she said.

Stoddard trial: A teacher's report -- unheard, or too late?

By Gabrielle Russon -

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

SARASOTA - A cry for help may have gone unnoticed as Melissa Stoddard's teacher testified Wednesday he alerted a state agency about suspected abuse two days before the child went limp in her bedroom.

Department of Children and Families spokesperson Natalie Harrell has said the agency did not have a record of anyone reporting 11-year-old Melissa Stoddard being abused when she lived with Kenneth and Misty Stoddard in Sarasota County. Even though the agency receives abuse allegations anonymously, it can track when or if calls are made.

But in court Wednesday Paul Squeo, Melissa's teacher at Oak Park School, said he anonymously reported to the DCF website that he suspected Melissa was being abused. Squeo used a computer in the school's staff lounge at about 1:15 p.m. on Dec. 10, 2012, which was a Monday, he testified during the third day of Misty Stoddard's murder trial.

That Wednesday night, Melissa's heart stopped and she was found unconscious in her room after authorities say she was tortured and had duct tape put over her mouth.

Squeo said he was suspicious when Stoddard emailed another staff member that Melissa's eyebrow was gashed open because she banged her head on the wall. The child received stitches at Sarasota Memorial Hospital on Dec. 7.

“As soon as I read the email, a big red flag went up,” Squeo said.

When reached late Wednesday and given the new details of Squeo's testimony, Harrell could not confirm or deny the agency received his report.

Prosecutor Karen Fraivillig asked Squeo if Melissa hurt herself in his classroom.

“Never,” he said.

Stoddard, 37, is charged with first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse in the death of her stepdaughter.

Melissa was an autistic child who had moved in with Misty Stoddard, her stepmother, and her biological father, Kenneth Stoddard, at the end of summer of 2012. Melissa died within five months after authorities said she was bound on a plywood board, her mouth duct taped shut and a helmet placed on her head, until she suffocated.

Kenneth Stoddard is expected to stand trial in August.

Throughout the trial, Misty Stoddard's defense attorney has portrayed her as an overburdened mother who was under the rule of Kenneth Stoddard.

The jury should begin deliberations Friday, Sarasota County Circuit Court Judge Frederick Mercurio said.

Squeo described Melissa as a child who knew right from wrong and was eager to do her work if it meant being rewarded with Winnie the Pooh YouTube videos.

At Oak Park School — a Sarasota public school for children with disabilities — a high ratio of teachers to students helped school staff keep close watch on their pupils, he said.

A female staff member saw Melissa getting changed in her bathing suit, and Squeo often sat near his students to make sure they stayed focused.

Squeo said he never saw any alarming injuries on Melissa while she was in his care. “Not a mark. Not a scratch,” he said.

Melissa attended Oak Park from August 2012 until November 2012, when the Stoddards pulled her out of class.

As Melissa's absences racked up, Squeo testified he called the Stoddards at home three days in a row and then asked an attendance clerk to attempt to reach out.

Squeo has not returned repeated messages seeking comment and declined to comment outside the courtroom Wednesday.

A jail cellmate

A few days before Christmas 2012, Barbara Whiteaker met Misty Stoddard. The two women were both pregnant and lodged in the same cell on the Sarasota County jail's medical unit on the third floor.

For six days they were alone together with no access to television, newspapers and the outside world. Over that time, Whiteaker would learn all the names of Stoddard's children. She paid for Stoddard to make a $1-a-minute phone call to talk with her mother because her cellmate had no money.

On Wednesday, the two women saw each other again, although this time Whiteaker was testifying against Stoddard.

Whiteaker, 43, described what Stoddard told her in jail about the night — Dec. 12, 2012 — that Melissa stopped breathing.

Melissa and her 8-year-old half-sister were fighting, and Stoddard separated the two girls. Later, in her bedroom, Melissa screamed for at least 15 minutes, which upset her stepmother.

Stoddard laughed after she told Whiteaker that Melissa grew quiet, Whiteaker testified.

Later, the stepmother realized Melissa was unresponsive in her bedroom.

During Whiteaker's testimony, her exchange was, at times, tense with Stoddard's defense attorney, David Taylor.

Whiteaker's criminal record consists of 23 or 25 felony convictions — she wasn't quite sure which — as Taylor and Whiteaker debated momentarily.

After informing a detective about what she learned in jail, Whiteaker received a deal to get out of her 27-month sentence for grand theft auto. She was allowed to go to drug treatment and received four years of probation.

On Wednesday, Whiteaker was still not a free woman. She wore ankle shackles and remains incarcerated for theft.

Whiteaker paused for a moment and struggled to speak when prosecutor Karen Fraivillig asked about her intentions for testifying.

“It was to be a voice for Melissa Stoddard,” Whiteaker said.

When Taylor cross-examined her, Whiteaker said she was not trying to get even with Stoddard.

“This is about getting justice for a child,” Whiteaker said. “I'm a mother of children.

Misty Stoddard trial: Google searches provide clues

By Elizabeth Djinis -

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

SARASOTA - Google searches found on Misty and Kenneth Stoddard's computer revealed searches for “how to restrain a child,” testified Detective John McHenry in court Wednesday.

McHenry was brought on the case by Detective Northfield in order to analyze the digital evidence found on the Stoddards' laptop computer and Coolpix camera.

Prosecutor Karen Fraivillig showed the jury a Google search timeline McHenry had made for the laptop computer. Searches included an October 2012 question “what if your child does know right from wrong and chooses to do wrong?"; a November 2012 inquiry into “what punishments work for kids who don't care”; and, in December 2012, a search for a “human muzzle,” a “silent gag” and a “mouth silencer.”

McHenry noted that over time the searches “seemed to be more aggressive.”

The computer belongs to both Kenneth and Misty Stoddard and is password-protected, but McHenry said there is no way to tell the exact person who accessed the pages.

Defense attorney David Taylor argued that the searches for “human muzzle” may have related to sexual bondage rather than child restraint.

McHenry found no shortage of sexual matter on the computer.

“There was a great deal of sexual content on the laptop,” McHenry testified, adding that around four to six percent of the internet artifacts were sexual in nature.

Wednesday's testimony also included Megan Rommel, a crime lab analyst from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in Fort Myers.

Rommel testified that nine of 23 different spots on the plywood board that 11-year-old Melissa Stoddard had been tied to tested positively for blood traces. Rommel said she determined the DNA on the board matched the DNA profiles of Kenneth, Misty and Melissa Stoddard.

When Melissa was rushed to the hospital after she stopped breathing in December 2012, there was something stuck on her right wrist — which an expert witness confirmed Wednesday was duct tape. Diana Wright, a forensic examiner at an FBI lab in Virginia, also analyzed the helmet that Melissa was forced to wear and testified that there was duct tape on it too.

Stoddard trial: Son gives account of fractured home

By Gabrielle Russon -

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

SARASOTA - Misty Stoddard, with a baby in her arms and another one on the way, was growing resentful of the new child who had taken over her home.

She confided to her teenage son that maybe it would be better if her stepdaughter, Melissa Stoddard, an 11-year-old with special needs, lived somewhere else.

“She had said it would be better for everybody,” the boy recounted Tuesday.

In a Sarasota County courtroom the boy, now 16, testified against his mother as Misty Stoddard’s murder trial continued for the second day. The Herald-Tribune is not naming the boy, who lives in New Mexico with his biological father, because he is a minor.

The teenager and other witnesses revealed more about the dysfunction in the Stoddard house and the dynamics between Melissa and her stepmother.

Stoddard, 37, is facing first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse charges after authorities say Melissa was bound to a plywood board and her mouth duct taped shut. She suffocated and died in December 2012.

On a dead-end country street in eastern Sarasota County, neighbor Theresa Dermody drove past the Stoddards’ home on the way to her own house. The Dermody family rented to the Stoddards.

Theresa Dermody thought Misty Stoddard seemed “lonely,” she testified in court.

Her partner, Kenneth Stoddard, was a manager at a bookstore and often was gone, leaving Misty Stoddard with the burden of watching the children, which included three sons, then 15, 5 and 4, and two daughters, 8 and a baby under 1. Melissa, 11, moved in with them during the late summer of 2012, when Stoddard was pregnant again.

Theresa Dermody didn’t see Melissa — who had once been an energetic child who loved playing outside — with the other Stoddard children in the yard.

The neighbor noticed how Stoddard’s tone of voice changed when she talked about Melissa compared to her five biological children.

“Resentment is the best word I can come up with,” Dermody testified, describing it was like, “I have another child here who is not mine to take care of and my hands are full with what I already have.”

But as one mother to another mother, Theresa Dermody — who has four grown sons — struck up a friendship with Misty Stoddard.

“I felt empathy for her,” Dermody said, her voice breaking, in the courtroom.

Once, she took Stoddard to Applebee’s for lunch. Stoddard’s phone was off, and Kenneth Stoddard, who couldn’t reach her, showed up unexpectedly in the restaurant to check up on her.

“I didn’t know he was there until I saw it on Misty’s face. He was walking down the aisle,” Dermody said. “She didn’t leave with him. We stayed and finished our dinner.”

Dermody also invited Stoddard to church, but Kenneth Stoddard wouldn’t let her go, she testified.

Dermody testified the Stoddard children seemed well cared for and properly fed.

“If you had suspected any kind of abuse, would you have reported it?” one of Misty Stoddard’s defense attorneys asked.

“Yes,” Dermody said in a soft voice.

But Dermody’s son, Kevin Dermody, said he would often go outside to talk on the phone and hear Misty Stoddard yelling and cursing while Melissa cried. Dermody also heard what sounded “somewhere between a slap and a punch,” he said in court Tuesday.

Dermody said he heard those sounds of violence and tears about 20 or 30 times over several weeks.

“There was an awful lot of yelling and screaming coming from that house,” Dermody, 25, said. “It was always the two of them.”

During cross-examination, defense attorney David Taylor said to him, “You’re assuming, although you didn’t see the child get hit and not something else.”

“Absolutely,” Kevin Dermody said back.

Dermody kept what was happening next door to himself. He testified he was scared to call police because he didn’t want to make the situation worse for Melissa or split up the other Stoddard siblings.

Now, after Melissa’s death, he said he “clearly regrets the decision not to do anything.”

After the Dermodys spoke, Misty’s son was called to testify about what he witnessed at home.

Lanky, dressed in a collared shirt with growing facial hair, the teenager said he is a junior in high school. When he lived in Sarasota County, the boy talked on the phone with his girlfriend and played on the basketball team.

But the boy calmly told how his mother asked him to help hide the plywood board that Melissa had been tied to in the closet after the girl stopped breathing on Dec. 12, 2012.

Later, Kenneth Stoddard — who wasn’t the boy’s biological parent but acted like a father figure — asked the boy to throw the board into the woods.

The boy also testified about the stress that an agitated Melissa caused on the Stoddard household.

She had moved in with them from Greensboro, North Carolina, where she lived with her brother and biological mother. But Melissa’s brother was arrested for molesting Misty Stoddard’s daughter when he visited them in Sarasota County, so the siblings could no longer live together in North Carolina.

In her new home, Melissa dunked her younger half-brother into the pool so he couldn’t breathe, broke her father’s glass table and ran around the house, knocking over the blinds, the teenager said in court.

Her tantrums came out of nowhere as she threw shoes and toys. The child was most aggressive with her stepmother and scratched her any chance she could and had bitten her once, the boy said.

Melissa also tried to hurt herself when she was in time out. She banged her head against the wall and scratched her arms or punched her own legs, he testified.

To keep her from roaming, the Stoddards tied Melissa to a plywood board while she slept, the boy said.

As the boy testified, the plywood board stood in the courtroom a few feet from Judge Frederick Mercurio.


Bruises and a deep purplish-black scab on Melissa Stoddard's lower back could have been caused by the child lying on her back as she struggled against a plywood board, a pediatrician who examined her testified today.

This is Day 2 of Misty Stoddard's weeklong murder trial in Sarasota County Circuit Court. Misty Stoddard, 37, is charged with first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse in the death of Melissa. Melissa, an 11-year-old special-needs child with autism, died Dec. 17, 2012.

During cross-examination from the defense, Dr. Sally Smith admitted she studied the injuries — not their causes — and did not know whether Melissa's injuries were self-inflicted or from abuse.

Could Melissa's injuries be consistent with her rubbing against an interior wall or stucco, Misty Stoddard's defense attorney David Taylor asked.

“That would be a possibility,” Smith said.

Smith, the first witness called to the stand today, described Melissa's injuries while the photographs were displayed on a large screen by the 12-person jury.

Smith, the medical director for the Child Protection Team in Pinellas County, examined Melissa three days before she died at All Children's Hospital.

Melissa's lips were scarred as if she had been gagged, Smith testified, and there were marks imprinted on her wrist that looked like she wore a terrible bracelet.

Smith ruled Melissa showed signs of physical abuse that was “chronic and severe and ultimately fatal.”

“It wasn't just the day she came in. It had been going on for a while,” Smith testified about Melissa's injuries that were in various stages of healing. “There were so many parts of her body that had signs of jury.”

Taylor asked Smith if she had dealt with children who hurt themselves.

“I don't believe I've ever seen a child injure themselves to this point,” Smith said.

Defense tries to shift blame as Stoddard murder trial begins

By Gabrielle Russon -

Monday, June 23, 2014

SARASOTA - Two days before her death, Melissa Stoddard lay in the hospital bed with marks circling her entire ankle and bruises covering her thin legs. Wires sprouted up from her body as life support machines kept her alive.

On Monday, Misty Stoddard, the stepmother who is accused of killing the girl, bowed her head and wiped away tears as a video of the lifeless child played in the Sarasota courtroom.

But on the first day of the weeklong murder trial, her defense attorney asked jurors to keep an open mind and placed the blame on Misty Stoddard's former lover, Kenneth Stoddard.

Misty Stoddard, 37, of Sarasota County, is charged with first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse in the death of her stepdaughter, Melissa, an 11-year-old with autism.

Kenneth Stoddard is the one who bought the plywood board, fixed it up so his daughter could be bound to it and then discarded it, defense attorney Mark Brewer said.

There is more to the case than what appears on the surface, Brewer said, as he promised to describe Misty's life under Kenneth Stoddard's control and “what it was like to have this former Marine dad running the house.”

Kenneth Stoddard, whose most serious charge is aggravated manslaughter, is expected to stand trial in August.

Prosecutors struck a much different tone as they planned to show how Melissa had been tortured and physically abused by both the Stoddards.

“Melissa Stoddard moved down here in the late summer of 2012 and she was dead less than 5 months later,” prosecutor Karen Fraivillig said.

It was Misty Stoddard who covered Melissa's mouth with duct tape in her bedroom and “left her alone in that room to suffocate,” Fraivillig said.

It was Misty Stoddard who was more preoccupied with hiding evidence than calling 911 or rushing to the hospital to be at Melissa's side, Fraivillig said.

Fraivillig and Brewer presented their opening statements and eight witnesses — law enforcement officials, first-responders and child-abuse investigators — testified before Sarasota County Circuit Court Judge Frederick Mercurio.

For most of her life Melissa lived with her biological mother and brother in Greensboro, North Carolina. But Melissa's older brother had reportedly sexually abused Misty Stoddard's daughter while he was visiting the family on a trip to Sarasota County.

Because of the boy's arrest, Melissa's biological mother was not allowed to keep her two children under the same roof and decided to send Melissa to Florida to live with her father and stepmother and their blended family of five children, according to a Florida Department of Children and Families report.

Melissa spoke in basic sentences and knew how to articulate what she wanted. Her North Carolina educators knew her for her passionate tantrums, but said the girl blossomed when shown love and structure.

They remembered her as a free spirit, full of energy, who loved to swim and quote her favorite movie lines.

On the first day of the trial, the 12-person jury and two alternates watched haunting videos of Melissa.

In one video, the child's arms were bound behind her as she sat alone, wriggling her legs, outside the back of the house. In the background, Misty Stoddard could be heard playing hide-and-seek with her biological children inside.

Fraivillig presented new details about Melissa's last night in the Stoddard house.

Melissa was tied to a plywood board that had been manufactured by the Stoddards to fit her body, Fraivillig said. On the board, holes had been drilled corresponding to where Melissa's limbs and head were. When placed on the ground, the board was propped up by about 10 blocks.

For part of the testimony, the jurors — eight women and six men, including two alternates — stared at the plywood board placed directly in front of them. The board stayed in the courtroom the rest of the afternoon, next to the clerk's desk.

Duct tape was wrapped around Melissa's head, so the girl — who also was wearing a helmet and couldn't turn her head — was trapped, Fraivillig said.

Kim Northfield, the lead detective on the case, testified that she found duct tape on the Stoddards' kitchen counter and a hallway table, in the bathroom trash and clumped outside on the concrete porch. It was marked as evidence.

“We found this throughout the home,” Northfield said of the tape.

Paramedic William Green described being among the first rescuers to arrive at the Stoddards' home east of Interstate 75 on Dec. 12, 2012, the night Melissa stopped breathing. The child died on Dec. 17, 2012.

When Green asked Kenneth Stoddard about his daughter's medical history, the father told him Melissa was autistic, bipolar and a self-mutilator. It was a conversation that didn't make sense considering Melissa's state of emergency, said Green, a 14-year veteran of the Sarasota County Fire Department.

“We have to restrain her to protect her,” Kenneth Stoddard said, according to Green's testimony.

Melissa, who was brain dead, was rushed to All Children's Hospital.

At the hospital, Misty Stoddard told a St. Petersburg police officer that her stepdaughter was violent and destructive, and that Melissa gave her a black eye and threw rocks. The child was head-butting recently so she had to wear a helmet, Misty Stoddard told him, Officer Jeffrey Kokinda testified.

Misty Stoddard also said Melissa's fingers had been taped to keep her from scratching the fresh stitches on her face, Kokinda said.

The trial continues Tuesday. Misty Stoddard's 16-year-old son, a next-neighbor who heard Melissa's screams, medical officials and a jail inmate who shared a cell with Stoddard are expected to testify.


The defense and prosecutor presented opening statements Monday morning in the Misty Stoddard murder trial in Sarasota County Circuit Court.

Stoddard, 37, is facing a first-degree murder charge and aggravated child abuse in the death of her stepdaughter, Melissa Stoddard. Melissa was 11 at the time of her death in December 2012.

Prosecutor Karen Fraivillig said she would show how Stoddard tortured her stepdaughter by calling on testimony from law enforcement officials who investigated the case to Stoddard's 16-year-old son who had witnessed the abuse. Melissa, who had autism, had been tied down, forced to wear a helmet and had her mouth duct taped shut on the night she stopped breathing in her bedroom, Fraivillig said.

“Melissa Stoddard moved down here in the late summer of 2012 and she was dead less than 5 months later,” Fraivillig said standing in front of the jury during her opening statements.

Defense attorney Mark Brewer said he would present evidence showing what Misty Stoddard's life was like in her Sarasota County home. She lived with her partner, Kenneth Stoddard, a former marine who was in control of the household, Brewer said.

Brewer asked the jury – which consisted of eight women and six men – to keep an open mind.

The trial is expected to continue throughout the week.

Kenneth Stoddard, who left the back of the courtroom before opening statements began, is expected to stand trial in August.

Melissa Stoddard: The girl no one saved

By Gabrielle Russon , Herald-Tribune

Sunday, June 15, 2014

GREENSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA — Jammie North’s mind flashes back when she sees a student with the same dark hair and theatrical, over-the-top personality. Or the boy who memorizes movie lines and spits them into regular conversations, just like Melissa did.

In her classroom, North still keeps the book about the grumpy ladybug, the one she read to Melissa dozens of times.

For North, these things are the echoes of a slain child.

“It’s like there are pieces of Melissa all over my room and all over this building,” says North, who taught the child in Greensboro for three years. “As long as I’m here, I’ll never forget her.”

When Melissa Stoddard moved to Sarasota County in the summer of 2012 she would suffer what authorities called egregious abuse and torture during the last few months of her life. Melissa, who was autistic, was routinely tied up authorities say and her mouth was duct taped to keep from crying out until one night, in December 2012, she stopped breathing.

Her stepmother, Misty Stoddard, 37, is charged with murder and scheduled to stand trial this month with jury selection starting Monday. Melissa’s biological father, Kenneth Stoddard, 37, faces an aggravated manslaughter charge and is slated to face trial later this year.

Melissa’s abuse escalated in the final weeks of her life, court documents show. But there were several opportunities for someone to intervene on her behalf that were missed — opportunities that may have saved the 11-year-old’s life.

The neighbor who heard a girl sobbing outside but was afraid he would make the child’s life worse if he called 911. Medical staff who sewed shut a nasty gash above Melissa’s eye and believed her father when he said the cut was self-inflicted. Melisa’s teacher who suspected something was terribly wrong in the girl’s life but did not report it.

Nobody saved Melissa.


Melissa Taylor Stoddard was born to Kenneth and Lisha Stoddard in North Carolina in 2001. The Stoddards, who met in the military and married in 1998, were already aware of autism. Their first son, 20 months older than Melissa, also was diagnosed with the disease.

At McIver Education Center, a Greensboro public school for children with disabilities, Melissa was a handful.

She once kicked over a filing cabinet in a fit of rage. Another time she refused to come in from the playground.

When a school psychologist asked her to name shapes during a math test, Melissa would only say “triangles.”

Melissa was fierce and stubborn, but she met her match in North, who spent 14 of her 15 years teaching special education.

North was on her own since her mother died at age 15 and her father remarried and moved away. She paid her way through college by waitressing at a truck stop, cooking breakfast at Burger King and getting financial aid.

Special-education teachers are high burn-out jobs — North often walks five or six miles a day, hurrying after her students.

North found creative ways to quiet Melissa’s fits, which never included restraining her.

During one of Melissa’s rages, North and another adult escorted her out of the classroom. They debated the best laundry soaps, a conversation so trivial it made Melissa stop crying and look up bored.

Another time a teacher’s assistant ordered Melissa to stand in the corner and count to 100.

“One! Two!” Melissa shouted.

The anger subsided by the time she reached “Bity,” because she couldn’t pronounce her f’s.

North knew the root of Melissa’s tantrums was often change and the unexpected.

The teacher laminated pictures on the wall and set up a chart so Melissa always knew what was happening next, whether it was time for a snack or computers.

Melissa was fascinated by ladybugs, so North set up a reward system with ladybug cards. If Melissa collected four, she could play with a toy she liked. The same classroom routine, day after day, made a difference. Melissa finally understood what was expected.

“She knew we cared about her. She knew there were boundaries. She knew there were good things in store for her,” North said. “I tried to be a nurturing person she could count on.”

Halfway through the 2009-2010 school year Melissa was a different child. Now, instead of breaking the rules she was enforcing them.

“Sit down!” she would say to her classmates who wiggled in their chairs.

“Stop it! That’s disgusting!” she reprimanded a boy picking his nose.

She was a teacher’s dream.

“Once she got the system down, everybody else was going to follow the system,” North said. “And they’d listen to her because Melissa had a leader alpha type of personality.”

Melissa even sat still and allowed a teacher’s assistant to brush her wild curls. She no longer howled if anybody touched them. The assistant put her hair in bows or back into a ponytail. She emailed the other staffers, reminding them to compliment Melissa’s new look when they saw her in the hallways.

The staff marveled at how creative and free Melissa was.

She belted out Disney songs, like an opera singer, when the class listened to music. She held a boy’s hands and swayed, back-and-forth during ballroom dance lessons.

“She did everything with passion. If she had a behavior, she was passionate. If she was happy, she was passionate,” said her former principal, Sara Nachtrab. “There was no middle ground with Melissa.”


Kenneth and Lisha Stoddard separated when Melissa was about 5. Her father reconnected with an old high school classmate named Misty in Oregon and they eventually relocated to Florida where they raised their blended family in rural Sarasota County.

Back in Greensboro, Melissa’s former educators say the young girl seemed to be doing well at school and at home.

Her school attendance was excellent and she always looked clean and well-kept. She was a picky eater, refusing to drink juice or eat the cheese in her Lunchables, but she looked healthy.

Then came a warning sign that Melissa was troubled.

In 2007, the little girl who was turning 6 that year visited her father in Sarasota County and was “obsessed” with trying to pull down his pants and touch his penis, according to a report from the Florida Department of Children and Families, which investigated the incident.

“Melissa seems to be driven to do this,” read the report, which raised questions whether Melissa had been exposed to sex before.

Around that same time Melissa and her brother were caught touching and licking each other in their Greensboro condominium.

At one point the siblings slept in bunk beds in the same bedroom, according to several of Melissa’s afterschool caregivers.


It was a trip to see their father and step-mother in Sarasota County — one of several such trips for Lisha Stoddard’s children over the years — that changed everything for Melissa.

In July 2012, Misty Stoddard walked in a room and saw Melissa’s biological brother pulling up his shorts while her daughter hid her head under the pillow, according to a Sarasota County Sheriff’s probable cause affidavit.

Melissa’s 13-year-old brother was arrested and charged with a felony count of lewd and lascivious conduct.

Misty’s daughter reported the boy had molested her three times since he arrived from North Carolina, the affidavit said.

The state attorney’s office decided the boy was not competent to proceed with the case.

But Lisha Stoddard was forced to make a choice. Child-protection services warned her that her two children could no longer live under the same roof. The mother could send her son to a group home or Melissa to Florida to live with her father.

Lisha Stoddard, who declined repeated requests for comment, chose the later.

She bought Melissa an iPhone so they could Skype and stay in touch.


Melissa wasn’t coming back to North Carolina, and immediately North and others who nurtured her were worried. They were also powerless.

Everything would be strange for Melissa. The little things, such as hearing frogs croak at night in the country or opening the refrigerator located in a different spot in an unfamiliar kitchen, could upset her.

Melissa was leaving the school system she attended all her life and switching to a new school in Sarasota County. And instead of living with just one sibling, Melissa would have to adjust to five half-siblings and a stepmother. Would her father, who rarely saw her, know how to care for his disabled daughter?

All this change could unhinge Melissa after she had impressed everyone with her progress.

“Even in the most perfect circumstance, it would have been a hard transition for one of our kids, for her,” North said.

The order in Melissa’s life — which had allowed her to blossom — was suddenly gone.

Since age 3, Melissa showed signs of autism.

A person with Asperger’s syndrome — a mild form of autism — once compared the disease to drinking coffee without a filter, said Melissa’s former principal, Nachtrab.

Strong. Jarring.

“That’s how it is for many of our children. Just navigating through an environment. Noises, lights, clothing, everything is just magnified. And brighter and louder and all your nerve endings are exposed,” Nachtrab said.

Some households dissolve into war zones with the diagnosis.

North told stories of her students breaking every window in the house and going on destructive rampages. Some were violent to their parents or took charge, demanding to be fed at 1 a.m.

Families often struggled on weekends — free, open days with no plans — when a child with autism lost the rigid structure of school.

North knew how to handle her autistic students. She was equipped with the training, the resources and the drive. But she worried about what happened when her students went home.

“I’ve always said I’d love to start a show — Autism Super Nanny — because the home life, in so many cases, is just hell on earth,” North said. “Here’s the thing. I chose to be here. I’m educated for it. I’m interested in it. I like it. Parents don’t have a choice. They may or may not have the skills to raise that child, a special-needs child.”



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