Witness: Early treatment could have saved child

Pathologist opens testimony at trial of Richard and Agnes Wiebe, who are charged in the death of their daughter.

Los Angeles Times/February 15, 2002
By Gene Maddaus

Rancho Cucamonga -- A pathologist testified Thursday that if Richard and Agnes Wiebe had taken their daughter to a doctor the first day she became ill, she would almost certainly have survived. But with each passing day, her chances grew slimmer, and by the night before her death, when she convulsed for one to two hours, a doctor's intervention probably would not have helped.

Dr. Steven Trenkle, a pathologist with the San Bernardino County coroner's office, was the first witness called in the Wiebes' preliminary hearing.

The couple have been charged with manslaughter and willful cruelty to a child in the death of their 11-month-old daughter, Julia. Prosecutors allege the couple, who belong to a sect of the Church of God in Upland, are guilty of the charges because they did not seek medical care for their daughter out of religious conviction. Trenkle testified that Julia died of bacterial meningitis, which he said is considered fatal if left untreated but has a near 100% cure rate if diagnosed in time.

He said that Julia began having symptoms on July 2, when she had a fever, lacked an appetite and was lethargic. Two days later she began having brief seizures, and on the night of July 5, she had seizures for one to two hours, Trenkle testified.

At that point, if the Wiebes had taken their daughter to a hospital, her chances of surviving would have been low, and had she lived, she probably would have suffered brain damage, Trenkle said.

Church of God Pastor Daniel Layne nodded from the audience as Trenkle acknowledged the limits of medical intervention.

On cross-examination, defense lawyer David Goldstein suggested that some forms of streptococcus bacteria, which caused Julia's meningitis, have become resistant to antibiotics in the 12 years since Trenkle was a practicing pediatrician. Trenkle said he was unaware of any studies to indicate that.

Goldstein also suggested that hospitals are hotbeds of disease and often patients leave with infections they did not have on admission.

The hearing will not resume until Feb. 21, because Goldstein and Deputy Dist. Atty. Jeremy Carrasco have schedule conflicts.

Carrasco said he has decided not to call Layne to testify at the preliminary hearing, but will probably call him when, and if, the case goes to trial.

Layne founded the Wiebes' church in 1989, and has been accused of controlling his parishioners and shunning those who question him. Layne's church is thought to be more extreme than most sects of the Church of God. Richard Wiebe was locked in conversation with Layne during breaks in the proceedings. Layne and the Wiebes declined to comment after the hearing.

At a preliminary hearing, prosecutors must offer enough evidence to convince a judge that the case should go to trial.

Once Trenkle's testimony is completed, Carrasco plans to call four or five other witnesses, including detectives and Church of God members who witnessed Julia's illness.

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