News Article Details

Guardian held on bail at arraignment in death of 9-year-old Warwick girl

Providence Journal - 1/15/2019

Jan. 15--WARWICK -- Michele Rothgeb said she had had the flu for two weeks. That's why she was "hands-off" with her eight adopted special-needs children, she told police when officers arrived Jan. 3 at her squalid home reeking of urine and feces.

There, at 405 Oakland Beach Ave., a rescue crew minutes earlier had removed the lifeless body of a 9-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who may have been laying in a bathtub for eight hours.

On Monday, Rothgeb, 55, was held on $25,000 surety bail, charged with cruelty to or neglect of a child.

After reading the police affidavit in the case, District Court Magistrate Joseph P. Ippolito Jr. said, "I would be surprised if some sort of homicide [charge] is not brought."

As Ippolito spoke, Rothgeb stood in front of him, handcuffed and with little expression.

In his supporting affidavit for her arrest, Warwick Detective Patrick McGaffigan said Rothgeb explained that because of her illness, she had left the care of all the adopted children to her 15-year-old grandson, so as not to further weaken their compromised immune systems. The 15-year-old, whom Rothgeb also adopted, has Asperger's syndrome.

The boy told investigators he saw 9-year-old Zah-Nae, who used a wheelchair when there was room enough in the house for it, "crawling from her bedroom to the bathroom" earlier that morning, "due to her being covered in vomit."

It was about 8:30 a.m. when he assisted her in getting in the bathtub. He showered and cleaned her and afterward put a few inches of water in the tub for her to play, "which she typically did."

Around noon, the boy told detectives, he returned to the bathroom and gave Zah-Nae a sippy cup. He noticed much of the water had drained from the tub, so he put another two or three inches in.

Rothgeb, who officials say was investigated months ago by child welfare officials for improper child supervision, cared for the children alone. She told police detectives she saw Zah-Nae still in the tub around 1 p.m.

Around 2 p.m., the boy said, he left the house to get three siblings off the bus and start dinner for the children.

About 4:30 -- roughly eight hours after Zah-Nae was first placed in the tub -- one of the other siblings went into the bathroom to check on her and found her "lying face down naked in the empty tub, unresponsive."

When police arrived at the house, they found "garbage all over the house," bugs on the ceiling and a pile of soiled diapers on the floor of Zah-Nae's bedroom. The bedroom had two beds and "one had been soiled with feces and urine and appeared not to have been changed in many months."

The second bed "had a netting around it, and it was soiled with what appeared to be animal droppings."

The children shared the house with two dogs, including a 120-pound bull mastiff, a guinea pig and two turtles. Police found an old sandwich in the dogs' bowl.

In court Monday, Rothgeb's lawyer, Andrew McKay, asked that she be freed on personal recognizance. Warwick police officer Erin Cahalan asked for $50,000 surety bail.

Remarking that Rothgeb could face upgraded charges, Ippolito set bail at $25,000 with surety.

He ordered that she have not contact with her seven other adopted children, all now in the care of the state Department of Children, Youth and Families.

Meanwhile, the state's Office of the Child Advocate has launched a special review board to investigate what led to the death of Zah-Nae Rothgeb.

-- tmooney@providencejournal.com

(401) 277-7359

On Twitter: @mooneyprojo

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(c)2019 The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.)

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