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Duluth man accused of causing suffocation death of 14-month-old daughter

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Duluth News Tribune

A Duluth man was arrested Wednesday on charges that he suffocated his 14-month-old daughter to death this month in an attempt to get her to stop crying at bedtime so he could smoke marijuana.

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Christopher Dennis Peterson, 29, faces an unintentional second-degree murder charge in State District Court in Duluth. He is in custody at the St. Louis County Jail and will be arraigned today. Police said Peterson was arrested on a warrant in an alley in downtown Duluth about 10:20 a.m. Wednesday.

“It’s a very tragic situation,” Deputy Police Chief Ann Clancey said at a news conference after the arrest. “The community is not at risk and steps have been taken to ensure safety of this family.”

Police were called to a residence on the 700 block of North Ninth Avenue East on July 6, where they found an infant girl who was unresponsive and not breathing. Officers and responding medical staff determined that the infant already was deceased before their arrival.

The St. Louis County Medical Examiner’s Office later found the manner of death was homicide by suffocation, ruling out any natural cause of death. Through their investigation, police said they found Peterson was responsible for the girl’s death.

According to the criminal complaint:

Peterson allegedly told police that he frequently became frustrated with the infant’s crying, and in order to stop her from fussing he would suffocate her by placing his hand over her mouth and pinching her nostrils closed until she stopped fussing. He told police he had done it five or six times in the past and had previously worried that he “had done something to her.”

He would check her, he told police, to make sure she was still breathing. He demonstrated exactly how he did this to the responding officers. The complaint said he “did so until she stopped struggling and until he felt her tense up.” Peterson told police that after he laid the child down to sleep on the night of her death, he went downstairs to smoke marijuana.

Police interviewed both of the girl’s parents at the home on July 6, who said Peterson had put the child to bed about on July 6, before calling 911 hours later. Law enforcement arrived about midnight. Reports from the medical examiner place the time of death at about 9 p.m.

The mother of the child is not a suspect at this time, but she remains under investigation, Clancey said at the news conference.

Christopher Peterson has a lengthy criminal history going back to 2002, according to an online check of Minnesota court records. He was convicted earlier this year for domestic assault and also has pleaded guilty to charges of motor vehicle theft, financial transaction fraud, drug possession and mistreatment of animals.

Bruce Peterson, who lives next door to Christopher Peterson and bears no relation, said the family in question moved into the house about nine months ago. Christopher Peterson and the mother had two infant children and sometimes were visited by two more children, who both were old enough to attend school, Bruce Peterson said.

“He sneaked around in a van; they had some big arguments; she accused him of cheating quite a bit,” Bruce Peterson said of the couple. “I heard her say one time, ‘I’m sick of doing all this work myself. This is a one-sided affair.’ ”

Bruce Peterson said he was aware of the child’s death and had noticed police periodically stopping by the house in the past few weeks.

“For all the commotion that was going on, they were still pretty private,” Bruce Peterson said.

According to Bruce Peterson, Christopher Peterson often neglected to do jobs around the house, leaving the work for his neighbors.

“They didn’t shovel,” Bruce Peterson said. “I took out their garbage yesterday. They had raccoons and skunks in the garbage. I never saw him bring in any groceries.

“This was an odd situation. They weren’t friendly or anything. I made sure I closed my windows and locked the doors, put on the lights.”

Christopher Peterson often raised his voice when talking with the mother of their children, Bruce Peterson said. He characterized their interactions as “verbally abusive” and said police had to intervene on several occasions, though he never saw Christopher Peterson show any violence toward his children.

The couple recently had a second baby and seemed to be settling down somewhat, Bruce Peterson said.

“I felt uncomfortable around him,” Bruce Peterson said. “He was a pretty sarcastic, unfriendly guy. You try to be friendly to your neighbors, but we locked the doors on this one.”

John Jarvis, 74, has lived in a house adjacent to Christopher Peterson’s since he was a boy. Jarvis described Christopher his neighbor as quiet but said their interactions had always been friendly.

“Basically, they’ve been pretty nice people,” Jarvis said. “They’ve got tempers, I guess.

“I thought he was a pretty nice guy,” Jarvis added. “Sometimes he used to help me shovel snow. My whole spine is twisted out of shape, so I appreciated it. I don’t know. The world is kind of crazy.

“Exactly what was going on over there, I don’t know,” Jarvis said. “It’s a shame.”

The block where the couple lives is in a fairly quiet neighborhood dotted with old, mid-sized houses, many of which are rented out by college students, Bruce Peterson said.

“The neighborhood is not bad around here,” Bruce Peterson said. “For the most part, the neighborhood is filling up with pretty decent people.”

On April 20, Christopher Peterson shared an image on his Facebook account that carried the message: “I’m a proud parent. I’m sharing this on my wall because my children mean the world to me and no matter what, I will always love them and be proud of them.”

He also posted several photos of himself with children who appear to be about the same age as his own children.

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