Macon woman felt ‘stupid’ over granddaughter’s starvation death

jkovac@macon.comDecember 16, 2013 

A Macon grandmother who’d adopted her granddaughter from a broken home in North Carolina and brought her to Georgia for “a brand-new start” pleaded guilty on Monday to beating and starving the 11-year-old to death.

The grandmother, Cynthia Baldwin-McClesky, 50, was sentenced to life in prison for the murder. She’ll be 80 before she is eligible for parole.

Bibb County Superior Court Judge Howard Simms asked her if she had anything to say for herself. She didn’t.

Moments earlier, Baldwin-McClesky’s voice quavered when she said, “Guilty, sir.”

The hearing lasted all of 10 minutes. Baldwin-McClesky trembled at times. An orange scrunchie in her hair matched her jailhouse jumpsuit.

As in most such pleadings, only the basics of the case were brought up in court. Plenty went unsaid, and maybe that was for the best. Even so, someone in the back of the courtroom, a woman there for another case, couldn’t help crying.

The dead girl, Leokosha Baldwin, who had been renamed Ruth by her grandmother, was three days shy of her 12th birthday. She played violin at Miller Middle School.

When she died July 26, 2012, Baldwin-McClesky, who’d driven the girl to a QuickMED urgent-care center, claimed Leokosha had had a seizure.

But investigators learned more.

‘The sword of the spirit’

Leokosha was severely dehydrated. She had been whipped and malnourished and had suffered blows to her chest. She was 5-foot-4. She weighed 58 pounds.

There were wounds and scars of past beatings on much of her legs and torso. There were marks on her face and arms.

Her grandmother had repeatedly whipped her with an electrical cord and a paddle of some description that the grandmother called “the sword of the spirit.”

Leokosha’s younger sister, Faith, told detectives about the paddle and its nickname. Faith, 9, said she’d been whipped, too, at times for sneaking food to Leokosha.

There was another child in the house, a 2-year-old foster baby. Baldwin-McClesky named her Joy.

The family lived on Old Holton Road, not far from Ingleside Avenue and Riverside Drive. A prosecutor said in court Monday that there were “copious amounts of food” in the house.

The two older girls, her son’s daughters who’d been removed from their mother’s care in North Carolina, had moved in with Baldwin-McClesky for what she called “a brand-new start.”

When investigators questioned Baldwin-McClesky the night Leokosha died, the grandmother told them the girl had started “getting stubborn.”

She’d adopted Leokosha in 2009 or so and had at some point begun spanking her with a white cord that she kept in a kitchen drawer.

“I was telling her to stop stealing and lying,” Baldwin-McClesky said, explaining the punishment to child-welfare investigator William Herndon.

“She’s 11,” Herndon shot back, “what would she be stealing?”

Money from my purse, the grandmother replied, and then fibbing about taking it. And also, as Baldwin-McClesky put it, “putting her hands” in the family’s food.

“I was just trying to get her to stop,” she said.

The grandmother said she told Leokosha that she was “confined” to her room “if you can’t be a part of the family.”

‘I don’t punch’

Baldwin-McClesky, a foster parent since about 2006, once worked at a local 911 center.

Detectives asked her what she fed Leokosha and how often. Oatmeal was all she could think of, adding that it’d been three days since the child had a meal.

“Mrs. Baldwin,” Herndon said, “it don’t take a freakin’ week for her to get the size she got.”

Baldwin-McClesky didn’t reply, but said sometimes she just made the girl go without food. Leokosha could have water from the bathroom by her bedroom. “There was a cup,” the grandmother said.

While questioning Baldwin-McClesky, Macon police detective Pam Williams wanted to know if the grandmother knew of anyone who might want to hurt Leokosha.

“No,” Baldwin-McClesky said, “not even me. ... I know, I know. That’s what I’m sitting here thinking, ‘The very person who’s trying to keep and protect (her) from things. And now look.’”

Williams noticed that Baldwin-McClesky didn’t seem distraught about Leokosha’s death.

“Do you feel as though you’ve done anything wrong?” Williams asked.

“I neglected to protect my loved one,” the grandmother replied

“From who?”

“Me, anyone,” Baldwin-McClesky said.

Asked if she’d ever slugged the girl in the chest, the grandmother said, “No. Don’t punch, don’t punch, don’t punch. That does not feel good. I don’t punch.”

“Somebody punched her,” Williams said.

Baldwin-McClesky attributed the wounds to “dumb cords.”

‘No more lies’

Investigators couldn’t believe she hadn’t taken Leokosha to a doctor.

Hadn’t Baldwin-McClesky seen the girl’s ribs sticking out, her protruding spine? The child was skeletal.

The grandmother couldn’t fashion an answer. But she seemed to know she’d done wrong.

She told of fixing the child’s hair that very summer morning.

“I was hugging her and I was telling her, ‘OK, we’re gonna do everything right. We’re gonna have a clean slate.’ I said, ‘Your birthday’s coming up, you’re gonna be 12 years old.’ I said, ‘We’re gonna do all of this right.’ And she said, ‘Yes, ma’am,’” Baldwin-McClesky recalled.

“I said, ‘We’re not gonna steal no more. We’re not gonna tell no more lies.’ She said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ ... I just kept telling her, I said, ‘Because you know I do love you.’ I said, ‘Do you think I want to have you like this?’ ... She said, ‘No, ma’am.’”

Near the end of the 75-minute interview with investigators, the grandmother was asked how she felt.

“I’m feeling ridiculously stupid,” she said, “awful. ... All I know is my baby’s dead.”

Leokosha had been pronounced dead five hours earlier.

It was getting late, going on 10 o’clock at night.

Baldwin-McClesky had been answering questions all evening.

All she’d had to drink was a bottle of water.

As Detective Williams got up to leave the interview room, she asked Baldwin-McClesky one last question before shutting the door: Was she hungry? Would she like some crackers? Chips, maybe?

“If they have coffee, that’d do fine,” the grandmother said.

To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.

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