Court records lay out sequence of events after 'Baby Joey's' death

News-DemocratSeptember 19, 2013 

— Two months after her 1-year-old son Joey died, Cathie Abernathy refused to answer questions under oath during a coroner's inquest in March 1973, according to court records.

"I refuse to answer on the grounds it may incriminate me," said Abernathy, now Cathie Melville of Cabot, Ark., during the inquest held at an East St. Louis funeral home.

When asked why she refused to testify, Melville said Thursday, "I can't discuss details of the case. All that will come out at trial."

The next witness was Gary A. Warwick, then Abernathy's 21-year-old boyfriend who initially told police that he found the little boy in the child's bedroom unconscious and slumped over the bars of a toy plastic motorcycle. A police report stated that Warwick, who was indicted for murder in Joey's death, attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for 10 minutes but could not revive the boy, who was known as "Baby Joey."

When asked at the same inquest to testify, Warwick answered, "I have been advised not to say anything," according to a transcript. "On the grounds that it might incriminate you?" the coroner asked. "Yes," Warwick replied.

Court records show that after giving an initial statement to St. Clair County sheriff's investigators and a brief statement in February, Warwick chose not to answer further questions or take a polygraph test on the advice of his attorney.

Warwick was charged with murder, but the case was later dropped, without explanation. Last week, he was arrested on a new warrant issued in connection with Joey's death.

Sheriff Rick Watson, who recently reviewed the case file and pushed to reinstate the case against Warwick, said, "I'm hoping that these stories will create more leads and more evidence."

Jim Gomric Jr., a Belleville attorney representing Warwick, declined to comment.

Records in the 40-year-old cold case state that Joey had just been released from a hospital after five days of treatment. He was released on Christmas Day, five days before his death on Dec. 30, 1972, suffering some type of syndrome that caused his hair to fall out, his skin to easily bruise and his toe nails to drop off.

Despite this apparent malady, a pathologist ruled that Joey died from punches to his abdomen that lacerated his liver, which had occurred very near the time of death.

Warwick was arrested near his home in Portage, Ind., last week and is currently being held in the St. Clair County Jail in lieu of $5 million bail. The 62-year-old Warwick, an accomplished softball coach, has the support of neighbors and friends from his community who do not believe he could have killed the child.

Details from the night of Dec. 29-30, 1972, when the little boy died are contained on microfilmed records in the St. Clair County Circuit Clerk's office. They include police reports and records of legal proceedings. However, the question of how the murder case became derailed for four decades is not fully answered in the records.

This much is known:

* Warwick was arrested shortly after the issuance of a warrant on April 30, 1973, was then indicted on a murder charge and was held in lieu of $10,000 bond before being released on July 16, 1973, after his bail had been reduced to $2,000.

* On Oct. 19, a bench warrant was issued for Warwick after he failed to show up for a court hearing, according to an order signed by then Judge Robert L. Gagen.

* A motion to declare the $2,000 bond null and void was approved on Nov. 27, but two days later, another judge, whose name was not legible on the record, ordered that the bond be restored and the warrant quashed.

The only hint as to why this occurred was stated in this judge's Nov. 29 motion that said, in part, "Bond forfeiture and bench warrant improperly issued ... original bond reinstated."

Copies of subpoenas to various potential witnesses show that the case was headed to trial. However, then State's Attorney Robert H. Rice filed a motion on Sept. 23, 1974, through an assistant prosecutor to dismiss the case. It was signed by a judge that day but no reason was given for the dismissal. It's the last court record in the case.

Warwick said that on the night Joey died, he had been up at about 2 a.m. and had been watching a late night movie, when he thought to look in on the boy, and found him unconscious. After failing to resuscitate him, Warwick called out to the child's mother to call for an ambulance, but she panicked and went into the bathroom and screamed, according to court records.

Warwick said he called the little boy's grandmother, Barbara J. Altman, who showed up after about 10 minutes. According to a police report, Altman had also received a call from an unnamed relative stating, "that Cathie's son Joey was very sick, and that Gary (Warwick) was crying and for you and me to get over to Cathie's house right away."

In a statement to sheriff's investigator Sgt. Charles Airhart, Altman said that upon arriving at the couple's mobile home at 1222 Freeman St., on the edge of East St. Louis, "Gary met me at the door and told me that it was too late, Joey was already gone."

Altman, in the report, stated that she noticed, "...a blue mark under the baby's eye and what looked like a blue mark or line under his mouth. " She told Airhart that until a month earlier, Joey had been "in good health." She said that since that time the toddler had been under a doctor's care after developing some sort of illness.

"The baby could just touch something and he would bruise," according to Altman's statement. "His toenails came off. His ear had turned blue. The least (touch) and the baby would be bruised," she told Airhart.

During the inquest in March 1973, a female friend of the family said she had dropped off Christmas presents for Joey on Dec. 26, the day after he got out of the hospital, and found his appearance, "horrible." She testified that all of his fingers were bruised and his hair was falling out.

On Feb. 26, 1973, Airhart wrote in an investigative report that he received separate phone calls that day from Cathie Abernathy and from Altman. According to his report, Abernathy called to complain that her mother (Altman) had, "implanted in her brain" that Warwick had killed Joey. She also claimed that a statement she made four days earlier to Airhart was "not true."

In that statement, Abernathy stated that Warwick didn't kill her boy and that "Gary Warwick loved her son and that she would wake up in the early morning hours to find Gary playing with the baby."

But Altman, the boy's grandmother and Abernathy's mother, told Airhart that she and her husband, Charles Altman, believed, "...that their daughter Cathie Abernathy had something to do with the death of Cathie's son, or was protecting Gary Warwick."

Barbara Altman, according to the report, also said that Warwick had been trying to persuade her to have her daughter Cathie committed to a mental hospital, "Because he would tell Cathie something and she would forget or would forget things she had done." Altman stated in the same report that she did not believe her daughter needed to be sent to a mental hospital.

Charles Altman related a curious episode to Airhart that he claimed had occurred a week or so earlier. Altman said Warwick came to the Altman family home in East St. Louis at night to complain that, "He had been run off the road by some guys in an old Pontiac with plastic over one taillight and that Joseph Abernathy Jr., (Joey's father) and two other guys were in the Pontiac," according to Airhart's police report.

Altman said, according to the report, that Warwick asked for a gun and he gave him one. Then Warwick took the handgun, "Walked into the woods, took off his light colored jacket, hung it up," and then "fired some shots." It was unclear from court records who he allegedly shot at.

Airhart's report stated that Warwick told Altman, "That he had wounded one of the subjects." Altman then called police, but there is no further reference to the alleged shooting in the court records.

Altman stated that afterward he drove to Joe Abernathy's house and found the Pontiac with the taillight out, but determined through a method not explained that the Pontiac had not been driven that night.

When confronted with the information about the Pontiac, Charles Altman said in the statement to police that, "Gary could not give an answer."

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at gpawlaczyk@bnd.com and 239-2625.

Belleville News-Democrat is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service