Murder case investigator married key witness: 'Baby Joey's' grandma

News-DemocratOctober 5, 2013 

In 1978, four years after authorities dismissed a murder charge without explanation in the death of 1-year-old "Baby Joey" Abernathy, the lead police investigator married a key witness: the little boy's grandmother.

Five months later, the investigator -- St. Clair County Sheriff's Department Sgt. Charles N. Airhart -- was himself investigated after emergency workers found his new wife, Barbara J. Altman, bleeding at the bottom of stairs in their Collinsville home.

According to a July 3, 1978, internal sheriff's department report obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Altman suffered fractured cheekbones, a broken nose and a fractured skull. She told investigators she fell down the basement stairs.

But the report also stated that a firefighter, who remained on the line after Airhart called for an ambulance, told investigators he heard Airhart say to his wife, "Go ahead and tell on me if you want to. I deserve it."

Airhart was not charged. He died in 1999. Altman, whose name was Barbara Pronk at the time, later divorced Airhart. She died in November.

The circumstances have come to light during the reopened murder case of Joseph H. Abernathy, III, who died on Dec. 30, 1972, of lacerations to his liver caused by blows to the abdomen, according to court documents.

On Sept. 12, Gary Warwick, 62, of Portage, Ind., was arrested and charged in St. Clair County with the murder of the boy. In 1972, Warwick was the 21-year-old live-in boyfriend of Joey's mother, Cathie Abernathy, who is Altman's daughter. He has pleaded not guilty and is free on $200,000 bail.

St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly declined to comment on the pending case.

Warick's attorney, Jim Gomric Jr., of Belleville, has said his client will fight the charges.

Regarding the marriage of her mother to Airhart, Abernathy, who now lives in Cabot, Ark., and now known as Cathie Melville, said, "I would love to talk to you all about that. It will come out at the trial. I cannot talk about the case."

Altman was the first to show up at her daughter's trailer in Washington Park after getting a call that her grandson was in distress. Police reports that are part of court records show she arrived at the trailer at 1222 Freeman St., on the edge of East St. Louis, at about 1:30 a.m. on Dec. 30, 1972. Warwick and Abernathy were both at the trailer.

She found the bruised and battered boy in his bedroom. He was declared dead at Christian Welfare Hospital about 30 minutes later.

Airhart interviewed Warwick, Abernathy and Altman. In the statements given by Abernathy and Warwick, Altman was listed as a "witness." Airhart signed the statements.

Abernathy originally said she suspected Warwick of hurting her son, but later changed her story. Warwick denied that he hurt the child and said he tried to revive the boy through mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Altman said she found her grandson dead and noticed bluish bruises near his mouth.

According to the investigator's report, Warwick's first wife, Teresa Bova, told police that her ex-husband had been violent toward her and was not truthful. She told investigators that he easily became agitated when hearing a small child cry.

Bova could not be reached for comment.

Warwick was initially charged with murder in April 1973 and held in jail in lieu of $10,000 bail. Previous to his arrest, he and Abernathy declined to testify during a coroner's inquest. Both told the coroner that they did not wish to answer questions because they might incriminate themselves.

However, through his attorney, James Gomric, Sr., Warwick obtained his release on July 26, 1973, after an examination while he was in custody by an ophthalmologist, who found that Warwick was virtually blind. Dr. Kenneth Green's diagnosis was "macular disease." Green concluded, "It is quite possible he will remain in his present state."

A day after the examination, Warwick was released on a reduced bail of $2,000 that required him to post $200. He went on to get married again, raise a family, and become a noted softball coach with two decades of experience. Several of Warwick's friends and neighbors in Indiana told the BND that he was well-respected in the community that that support him. He appears to be sighted.

Court records show that subpoenas were issued and a trial was planned in 1973. But the documents show Warwick failed to show up in court in October. In September 1974, then state's attorney Robert H. Rice filed a motion to dismiss the case. It was granted by a judge on that same day. No cause for dismissal was listed.

In the court file, now on microfilm, are reports from physicians who examined and treated Joey when he spent five days in a hospital prior to his release on Christmas Day in 1972. These reports show that the baby's hair was falling out, his fingers and toes were bruised, his ear was infected and pus was exuding from his eyelids. It was unclear whether these were injuries, signs of a disease, or both.

Altman told investigator Airhart at the time 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.

Court records show that Warwick was divorced in September 1972 from then 19-year-old Teresa Bova. A few days after Joey's death, Bova gave a statement to a sheriff's investigator that, "Gary had a violent temper and in these fits of temper had struck her," and that, "Gary could not stand to hear children cry, because it made him nervous and he would blow up."

According to the written statement contained in the court file, Bova also said that, "Gary would lie about everything," and he, "...liked to brag about being friends with certain people who are members of a St. Louis family who were high in organized crime, and that he could put out a contract, a killing, on a person."

She also claimed he lied about having an eye affliction, according to her statement to police.

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