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Family of Duluth girl allegedly killed by father had drawn previous attention from county

Brady Slater, Duluth News Tribune

 The 14-month-old Duluth girl who was suffocated to death, allegedly by her father, had been under regular review by the county’s Child Protection Services for several months leading up to her death, the News Tribune confirmed Wednesday.

Interviews with family, along with police and agency records, paint a picture of ongoing physical and emotional turmoil within the family at the hands of Christopher Peterson, who came under investigation by child protection workers in 2013.

Peterson, 29, was convicted in State District Court in Duluth in March of misdemeanor domestic assault, admitting to police he “choked” the child’s mother.

Two days after police responded to that Dec. 8, 2013, assault, Peterson came under investigation by child protection workers following a mandatory report from an emergency room physician who had been treating the girl for an unrelated malady. A family member confirmed that the physician reported to authorities facial bruising on the girl.

“It is a tragedy,” said Ann Busche, director of St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services, which includes child protection. “It is a horrible tragedy. Our staff’s job in public health and human services is to protect the child, and we do that within the legal confines of state statute. We do that with an eye toward keeping a child with family if at all possible.”

The girl, Layna Rose Peterson, died the night of July 5, according to a medical examiner, before Peterson and the child’s mother, Amber Gundy, called 911 the next morning to report the child as unresponsive. When first responders arrived, medical personnel noted to police in their complaint that the child was “rigid and (discoloration)had set in.”

The child’s maternal grandfather, Kevin Pryor, 47, said the family is “trying to move forward from the most horrible situation I could ever imagine.”

“I know (child protection) did everything they were allowed to do — their hearts were in the right place,” Pryor said. “They tried really hard to make sure the child was protected. … But a child died, the same child with a CPS case for bruising on her face. I can’t say the system works because we have a dead child.”

Pryor described how he and his wife, Gundy’s mother, would meet with the girl’s parents and up to three CPS workers on Saturday mornings throughout 2014. He said they met at 8 a.m. at the house he owned and rented to his daughter and Christopher Peterson on the 700 block of North Ninth Avenue East. Pryor estimated eight visits. He said he and his wife attended the meetings to advocate for the child.

“My purpose was so he couldn’t hide everything my daughter didn’t tell them,” Pryor said. “He put bruises on her face; I begged and pleaded with child protection to help that poor kid.”

He said the couple lived with all five of Gundy’s children; Gundy, 28, and Peterson had three daughters together, including a surviving 4-month-old and 2-year-old. The deceased child was the middle of their children together. Gundy also had two older daughters from her first marriage who lived in the home. She and Peterson were not married, Pryor said. Gundy’s oldest children now are with their father, Pryor said. Her youngest daughters are living in Duluth with Pryor and his wife. Pryor said Gundy remains in the state but has left town.

He described his daughter as a victim of abuse, saying during child protection meetings she would “look to Chris for answers.” Pryor said he and his wife routinely took the children into their home — as often as two to three times per week, he said — after pleas by phone from their daughter about fighting between the couple.

“She is distraught,” Pryor said. “She’s broken. She is trying to get her life together; she’s been controlled and manipulated for three years.”

Duluth police Lt. Mike Ceynowa put to rest Wednesday any notion that Gundy remained under investigation, saying “There is no role for the mom in the continuing investigation.”

Pryor said he believed in Gundy’s innocence from the start, though he is unsparing in his own indictment of her.

“He played games, and she let him back in,” said Pryor, who described a relationship rife with fights, breakups and infidelities. “My daughter didn’t kill my granddaughter, but, plain as day, she’s the reason she’s dead. I love my daughter. I’ll help her through it, but when this is over we’re probably never speaking again.”

Pryor said he had met Peterson a few times before he started renting to the couple. That was about a year ago. Pryor described himself as a veteran salesman in the jewelry industry. It wasn’t long before he said he was reading bad things into Peterson’s behavior.

“It’s been a year of absolute nightmares, disgust, problems and turmoil,” Pryor said. “I own that house they lived in and allowed her to come live there to try to help her, not knowing the abusive situation they were in. Like everybody else, I believed what I saw, but once he moved into the house he could not pretend anymore — the façade. He stopped being a nice, friendly person.”

On the morning of Dec. 8, 2013, Gundy spoke with Duluth police, who had responded to her 911 call reporting she’d been choked. According to the criminal complaint, she told police she slapped Peterson multiple times in a fight about “trust issues.” She then described to police how he “placed one hand on her throat and one hand over her mouth and nose.” In the complaint, Peterson admitted to police two days later that he had, “in fact, choked the victim.” Police reported in their complaint that Gundy couldn’t breathe for what “felt like it lasted a long time.” Peterson was charged with a felony, which later was dismissed. He was convicted in March of misdemeanor domestic assault and sentenced to one-year supervised probation.

Two days after Gundy’s 911 call, authorities were at the house again to follow up on the hospital physician’s mandatory report. It was during this start of a child protection investigation into the bruise on Layna Peterson’s face that Peterson admitted to choking Gundy two days earlier, to an investigator with the Sex Crimes, Abuse, Neglect and Domestic Violence unit of the Duluth Police Department.

Busche, the county’s health and human services director, said she would not comment further on the department’s investigation or follow-up visits to the Peterson-Gundy household.

In a document labeled “St. Louis County Screening Criteria for Alleged Child Maltreatment,” a parent who is “palpably unfit” is described as such, in part, “because of a consistent pattern of specific conduct.” When asked if Layna Peterson’s facial bruising didn’t fit the description of a “consistent pattern,” Busche said: “Anything we would say would not be attributable to this case,” and further said she is neither a social worker nor fit to make such an assessment.

The family met for the girl’s funeral on July 11.

Pryor described a reception afterward from which he said Peterson disappeared. Peterson later was found by family members, Pryor said, having retreated to the girl’s gravesite. Peterson was lying on the ground and crying, Pryor said. Pryor said he was talking with police every day but that they couldn’t give out information. Pryor said he suspected Peterson was responsible in some way for the girl’s death.

Twelve days before Peterson’s alleged confession to police July 28 that he suffocated to death Layna Peterson by covering her mouth and pinching her nose to quiet her crying, Gundy acted to get Peterson out of her life.

She filed for and received a temporary Order for Protection from district court. In it, she described how Peterson kicked her in the stomach April 14, two weeks after her Cesarean section in the delivery of their youngest child. Gundy also described Peterson’s suffocation of their oldest daughter; she wrote in the petition that Peterson “put his hand over … mouth and nose, blocking air flow.” She estimated this took place in January or February.

Between the child’s death and Peterson’s arrest 25 days later, Ceynowa said Peterson served additional time in the St. Louis County Jail.

“Mr. Peterson was in jail during the investigation on an unrelated probation violation for domestic assault,” Ceynowa said.

But Peterson was free on the day of his arrest. Police found him in an alleyway in downtown Duluth on July 30. He’s been in custody since. He is being held on $500,000 bail. Ceynowa explained the in-and-out nature of Peterson’s freedom during the investigation.

“Investigations of this nature take a significant amount of time,” the lieutenant said. “All variables need to be looked at and accounted for, before determinations, and charges can be made.”

Jessica Fralich, the county’s prosecutor in the case, said a grand jury “is under consideration.” A grand jury indictment would be necessary to bring a first-degree murder charge against Peterson.

“Our office is examining that,” she said. “I can’t tell when a decision might be made.”

The local public defender’s office reported that Peterson has reached out for counsel and that it is awaiting his application.

Peterson will appear before Judge Eric Hylden at 2:30 p.m. Aug. 21, facing continued hearings for his second-degree unintentional murder charge. He faces a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison.

Pryor recalled his granddaughter as “a loving, sweet, energetic angel,” he said. “She had bright eyes and was motoring all over after she started to crawl.”

He said his two younger sons, one of which was a regular baby sitter to Layna Peterson and her sisters, are struggling.

“It’s terribly hard for them,” Pryor said. “They’re upset and not taking it well. We have a happy Christian home and there’s no going back to yesterday. It’s all what happens next.”

Pryor said he remains wracked with guilt.

“I failed,” he said. “I’m a man, a military veteran and I don’t fail much. The fact is I failed my granddaughter and she paid with her life.”