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Mother’s neighbors testify in toddler’s death

Robert L. Doney Jr. hopes to convince a jury the primal wails they heard on a 911 tape Thursday were the sound of a mother who had just killed her 2-year-old daughter.

Doney, 29, is on trial for the alleged first-degree murder of his girlfriend’s daughter, Victoria Ramon, in December 2003.

Authorities say Doney resented the little girl and threw her against a wall during an argument with her mother, Joan Richards. Doney claims it was Richards who battered the toddler to death two days after Christmas.

Police found Doney hiding in a basement crawl space of a relative’s home. They used a dog to flush him out when he refused to surrender, Prosecutor Steve Tucker said in opening statements Thursday.

Doney had made a “feeble attempt” at suicide, giving himself superficial cuts, said Tucker, who is helping Deputy Prosecutor Larry Steinmetz try the case.

Doney plans to take the stand in a trial that is expected to last at least through next week.

The trial, which is in recess today, got off to a rocky start. Judge Jerome Leveque dismissed one of two alternate jurors Thursday for commenting that a delay might have been caused by Doney deciding to accept a plea bargain.

Much of Thursday’s testimony was about what people heard, starting with the 911 tape of Richards’ neighbor and friend, Lorraine Rima, calling for help.

Rima, 41, testified that she was smoking on her front porch when she heard screaming from Richards’ apartment across the street at 1412 W. Dean.

Richards emerged from the building and said Doney had threatened to hurt her daughter, Rima testified. She said she was running toward Richards and Doney’s apartment while she called 911 on her cordless telephone.

Much of the taped conversation is difficult to understand as the phone approaches the limits of its range, but Richards’ screams pierce the static like a red-hot knife.

Rima was answering an operator’s questions when she was distracted by renewed shrieks. “Something’s happening. He hurt her! Hold on,” Rima told the operator. “What? What? Oh, the baby got hurt … Oh, my God.”

After that, the connection began to fade as Rima ran to Richards’ apartment and the operator pleaded with her to come back. Richards’ wails could still be heard.

“It was like nothing I had ever heard,” neighbor Diana Curtiss testified. “It was absolutely the most agonizing, heart-wrenching thing I have ever heard. I will never forget that screaming as long as I live.”

Curtiss said she recalls hearing Richards say, “My baby is dying.”

Curtiss, the mother of a toddler, told defense attorney Tim Trageser she didn’t think she was hearing the sounds of a woman who had just killed her child.

“It was inhuman,” Curtiss said of Richards’ wailing. “It was absolute desperation and anguish.”

Cynda Hanes, who lived in the same building as Richards and Doney, said she was sleeping off a hangover when the screams woke her up.

“She said she thought her daughter was dead,” said Hanes, who called 911 on her cell phone.

Like Rima and Amy Rainier – who was staying in Rima’s home – Hanes said she heard Doney make incriminating statements as he left the area on foot. All three said Doney told Richards she no longer had a child.

Trageser suggested their accounts were the product of a neighborhood discussion later in the day.

In his cross-examination of police Officer Brenda Yates, Trageser sought footing for his contention that Richards was uncooperative with police.

Yates said she considered Richards hysterical, not uncooperative.

“What was going on was probably enough to make a mother hysterical,” Yates testified. “She was screaming that he had killed her baby.”

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