My son Anthony Sterling Rodgers, who I called “Lali,” died in my arms on the night of January 11, 2005. He was exactly six months old.
In terms of his eyes, they were blue.
I have never felt such fierce love as I did for Lali. He was a pure spirit of love.
It was my second day of work at Beyond Shelter and I had stayed late to meet the board of directors. It was also one of the rainiest periods in Los Angeles history and I struggled to drive home in near-hurricane conditions.
Twenty minutes before I got home, I spoke to Lali’s father Alan on the phone. He had just fed Anthony, he said, and was putting him down to sleep. Earlier that day my daughter Meredith had gotten sick with the flu at school and Alan had packed Lali in the car, driven down the hill, and brought her home.
When I came in from the garage, Meredith was on the couch in the living room. She got up and was quicker than me to get to the bedroom.
Alan was downstairs in his office.
Why had Alan put the baby in —
I can see this in my mind but it’s very difficult to say.
Meredith found Lali. He was in her arms and she said, “Mom — “
Mom. I just had dinner with her. I love her so much.
He was unconscious and there was putty-colored milk all over his little face.
I can’t describe what it was, but I put him on the floor and started to breathe in his mouth.
I tried so hard to clear his airway but I couldn’t. I pressed his little chest. I breathed in his mouth. Our neighbor ran in. She took over.
I heard the ambulance. The sirens stopped. Our front door was wide open and I could see the lights flashing in the hallway. Red white red white red white —
I screamed for them.
They were on the wrong side of a jerry-rigged fence that divided the two halves of our short street in Woodland Hills. They had to drive all the way down winding streets and come back the other way.
I estimate it took about ten minutes.
At the hospital, they worked on Lali for over an hour.
One thing that took me many years to verbalize was that I felt Lali’s soul leave right after I saw the flashing lights.
I couldn’t accept that. It was why I cried out so.
— Where was Lali’s father, the horror writer and editor Alan Rodgers? —
When he realized what had happened, he had a cardiac “event” and was also taken to the hospital.
Lali was a late baby, an unexpected baby — I was 41 when I had him. I was independent. I was making good money teaching at 3 different colleges and earning several thousand dollars a month writing.
I was a late baby, an unexpected baby — my mother Sterling was 40 when she had me. She had been fighting pancreatic cancer for at least two years before becoming unexpectedly pregnant. She stopped chemotherapy and radiation upon learning she was pregnant with me. I was born three months prematurely and she died three months after I was born.
In 2003, I had put money down on a small house in Calabasas and was going to move there — leaving Alan —to start a new, happy life with my daughter.
I had withdrawn from a sexual or romantic relationship with Alan, whose life was in constant, unremitting, unspeakable turmoil due to his horrific, decade-plus divorce and custody battle over his three children. Alan was depressed (he regularly threatened to kill himself — and a lot of people would have, or murdered their ex) and he had already begun to suffer personality changes due to small strokes resulting from inherited small vessel disease, made much worse by his misuse of alcohol and tobacco. I didn’t know that then. I just knew things were bad, and I had a Down Syndrome baby and a 12 year-old daughter and that’s why I’d started working at Beyond Shelter.
I had already been looking for a house and had saved enough money to buy when Southern California was engulfed by fires very similar to those devastating Northern California today, fifteen years later.
Lali would be a big boy now, in high school.
Alan was terrified by the fires. The smoke poured across the valley and hellish red glare lit the hillsides day and night.
Alan said it was like one of his stories, for he had written a number of apocalyptic visions after moving to Los Angeles to follow his children who had been parentally kidnapped by their mother (his ex) and her new spouse — an individual who had previously indicated to Alan that he was his “best friend.”
The kids weren’t around and Alan seemed softer, almost like his old self.
As a 5th generation Southern Californian I wasn’t afraid the fires would make it all the way through miles of suburbia to our house.
We made love.
Two and a half months later, I was driving to class at Moorpark College and I felt nauseous.
I didn’t even really need to buy the home pregnancy test but I did need to go to the doctor.
I had a choice.
I chose to give Alan an opportunity to be a good father to this child and — even if I did end up moving out — I knew I would never do what his ex-wife had done to his children.
I knew that Alan had sacrificed everything, including a potential happy marriage with me and mini-celebrity-dom in the sick and twisted world of “publishing” and “horror writing” to be there for his children no matter what happened.
At my age I knew there was also a big risk of the baby having problems. I didn’t go for early amniocentesis to “prove” Anthony had Down Syndrome or didn’t. I didn’t opt for anything except Level III ultrasounds. Anthony’s body was growing normally. There was nothing physical on the ultrasounds indicating a problem.
Before he was born, Lali was completely different to my daughter Meredith. He was calm. She pummeled my ribs 24–7 with her little heels.
Before she was born, I was sure Meredith was a boy. If I hadn’t had the ultrasounds and known Lali was a boy, before he was born, I would have sworn he was a girl.
When I was about six months pregnant I talked to a lady who was in charge of the Down Syndrome Association in Los Angeles. Her son was a gifted actor and a handsome young man. He had been in CSI and other popular shows.
I went to see him and his friends performing in a theater company. Down Syndrome young people were attending UCLA. My dad and brother were Bruins.
Even if Lali didn’t have Down Syndrome, I wanted to learn about it. It was nothing like what I thought. These kids were wonderful. I felt wonderful just watching them and talking to them.
They were gifted —
Their emotional IQ was off the charts.
One of the happiest memories I have of Lali is shopping at Christmas-time at the Target on Ventura Blvd. I had half a day off. I put him in his seat in the cart. The store had the cutest display of a toy train, cotton snow, and little lit Christmas houses.
He was only 5 months old but eagerly looking at the choo-choo, the little houses, and the little people, laughing every time the train tooted its horn.
He loved them so and I bought three and put them in the huge living room in this massive, insane house we lived in because Alan wanted to prove to his children he could “provide” for them.
I’m not writing about what Alan’s ex-wife and her spouse did and forced the children to do after Lali died.
But next to Lali’s death and being charged with responsibility for it — the baby who I would die for right now this minute if it would give him back his life — what that woman did to Lali’s Christmas houses was the lowest point of my life. Alan suffered gross domestic violence and so did I — and so did my completely innocent daughter who today, like me, has a diagnosis of PTSD.
She found Lali first.
The night Lali died, the ER nurse put him in my arms.
They let me sit with him and hold him as long as I wanted.
I held him for an hour.
I called Mike and told him what happened. He said he would come first thing in the morning to get Meredith.
When we got back to the house, Meredith and I stayed in the living room, where she had been on the couch. This would be the last night either of us spent in that house and the last time she was ever there.
First, my cell phone rang. It was the organ donation people. Would I give permission for my son’s organs to be used?
Of course, I said. Then she started asking questions.
Was he an IV drug user?
Did he smoke tobacco?
Did he use alcohol?
He was a six month-old baby with Down Syndrome.
I lay on the couch staring at the ceiling. There was very little “me” left. I wanted Meredith to go with Mike. That was it.
My breasts ached. I was in physical agony and my soul had shrunk to a tiny flicker.
Then I saw lights flashing outside the front door and a series of loud bangs.
It was a man and a woman backed by Sheriffs. I saw two of the same ones who had responded before when the ambulance finally made it the right way up the hill.
This was approximately 2:00 a.m. My daughter and I were questioned separately for five hours. The man and woman tag-teamed us, switched up, went backwards and forwards.
At 7:00 I watched the woman put my daughter in the back of a patrol car in our driveway.
They were taking her to Mike, so I guess it saved him a drive out to Woodland Hills.
The next time I saw my daughter it was at Ed Edelman’s Children’s Court in Monterey Park.
I was not allowed to spend time alone with Meredith for the next three months.
Public service message to women: if you are involved with a man who has an extreme custody battle and you have children of your own, you can’t be involved with him. You are putting your innocent child at intolerable risk. I didn’t “get” this then but I absolutely “get” it now. You would too if you’d walked in my shoes. And if you were white like me, you wouldn’t be lecturing people about how to live their lives because during my unhappy months sitting in that place of horror I saw countless children ripped out of the arms of their mothers. Forever.
The only differences between me and those moms was the color of my skin, the number of my friends in influential positions, and the balance in my bank account.
By the end of it, the balance in my bank account was pretty low, too.
Both Alan and I were charged with responsibility for Anthony’s death. Alan’s children too were called in to the court even though they had barely seen their little half-brother and knew nothing about anything and should have been shielded —
as my daughter was.
The first thing I said to the judge was “Please, let my daughter stay with her dad and grammy. She shouldn’t miss school because of this.”
The judge agreed.
I’m not going to over-dramatize what happened to me at the Ed Edelman Children’s Courthouse.
After the first three days, the judge herself realized why the officers had shown up the way they had, and why my daughter and I had been questioned the way we were.
Alan’s ex-wife had the same first name as me.
On my first courthouse appearance I was presented with a stack of paper about 10 inches high that consisted of over 100 reports made to DCFS about Alan Paul Rodgers abusing his children.
The DA was screaming at the judge and pointing her finger at me, her eyes as big as saucers —
- SHE left her baby with a father who left her children alone to play with electrical outlets!
- SHE left the baby with a man who let her children eat popcorn off the dirty floor!
- SHE left her baby alone with an alcoholic who beat the children!
I was still in shock, like the people in war who lose their loved ones, then are dragged to some insane mock trial.
Alan’s children were 16, 14, and 8.
SHE was his ex-wife and the first time I’d heard these allegations was right there being screamed at me.
I didn’t really have an attorney. There was some court appointed woman who assumed I’d murdered Lali with a phone cord.
The judge herself looked at the paper and looked at what the DA had written.
“This defendant is not the mother of the children or the woman who made these allegations,” she said.
I stayed at my job — which I did eventually 6 years later quit — and I know I did a horrible job. But my boss did keep me on.
My friends at Saddleback stood by me.
My friends in Redlands stood by me.
Mike stood by me. Grammy stood by me.
I used the money I had saved to put down on the house in Calabasas (it was a mobile home) to pay the best attorney I had encountered that Alan had contacted during his custody case. He knew me and he knew how monstrous Alan’s ex and her husband were and how much abuse had gone on. He was able to quickly communicate that the child abuse reports were custody-battle motivated.
I did exactly what he said. Meredith never had to go to that place and she was able to get started in school in Redlands.
Three months later, the attorney told me they were going to close the case.
It was the same judge. She was a blonde, blue-eyed Jewish woman.
I went in my suit, I went before work.
Once again, waiting in that long line to enter the facility. I think they tried very hard to make it “decent.” I know all of them there thought they were doing the right thing.
Even on that day, even though I knew for me — the ordeal was almost over — and yes I had a DCFS case manager visit my crappy little apartment in Redlands with its minimal furniture and she did go through my drawers and closets to prove there was “no man” living there (Alan was forbidden contact with any children involved and he had much more to answer for than I did because he did leave Lali by himself with his bottle).
I looked around in that line, and this was indeed one of the moments that defined a new realization for me. Much as I wrote about my encounter with criminal CHP officer Craig Peyer, who eventually escalated from pulling young blonde women over to murder, I realized that for me, an ending was possible. And an opportunity for some type of recovery for my daughter.
No justice: just escape.
By the skin of my teeth.
As to the other grief-stricken women whose children had been taken away in patrol cars — brown-skinned, brown-haired, brown-eyed — I knew it wasn’t going to go so well for them.
I was already working at Beyond Shelter and I had worked at Family Service for ten years. I had been in those courtrooms and I had been a mandated child abuse reporter.
I had been caught in this maelstrom because my baby had been born with Down Syndrome and he died because his father put him on the end of the bed with his bottle. He drank the formula while lying down and choked. He aspirated the formula and struggled in his blanket. He was unconscious when Meredith found him and could not be revived.
And because Alan’s ex-wife and her husband had been calling in false reports against Alan for years and DCFS responded to her house — likely while I was sitting in the emergency room holding my dead baby in my arms.
She — a screamer herself — apparently screamed to them all the bad things Alan had done to “her babies” while they were young.
At 2:30 a.m. after I’d been asked if my baby was an IV drug user and smoker by someone who insisted “I have to ask the questions and you have to answer if you want his organs to be donated — “
Then the investigators showed up and questioned me and my daughter for 5 hours.
It’s a good thing our stories agreed.
When they put Meredith in the patrol car that morning, the woman — slightly better than the man whom I now know was certainly dirty and bad — said:
“Sometimes we have to take children from good mothers.”
I lost my son and my daughter on the same night.
I just had dinner with Meredith. I love her so much.
There was a man behind me in line at the courthouse that morning.
A middle-aged white man and I liked nothing about him.
He was garrulous, eager to show everyone around a thick white binder he had which consisted of court paperwork and a photo album.
In the album — and I can see the pictures to this day — were photos of three little girls. They were dark-skinned and dark-haired.
The youngest looked to be about five, and the oldest, about ten. They were standing stiffly, each dressed in elaborate dirndls and old-fashioned white cotton and lace shirts, buttoned tightly at their necks, with frilly, puffy sleeves. White frilly socks. Black patent Mary Janes.
These are my daughters! he said. Today they’re going to terminate the mother’s parental rights [he actually said “the mother”] and my wife and I will finalize our adoption.
My wife works for DCFS.
There’s nothing you can do, I told myself. You are here for you and Meredith.
For you, today, it’s going to be over.
At the end of the very brief proceedings, the blonde, blue-eyed Jewish judge rapped her gavel, stood, and walked around the bench.
I cannot say I had friendly feelings toward her or anyone anywhere in that place, but she held out her arms.
I let her embrace me.
“That’s it,” she said. “It’s over. You can go home and take care of your daughter.”
Then she said, “I’ve closed the case and ordered the records expunged.”
My attorney said he knew of only five cases expunged in the entire history of the children’s courthouse.
So, you might find a web page that accuses Alan Rodgers, me, and even my daughter, of murdering Lali. It’s probably still there. You might even see it referring to “court records.” You’ll see the man promises videos of Alan’s children talking about how he abused them and killed their little brother.
That’s the same guy that told Alan he was his “best friend,” that then broke up his marriage and kidnapped Alan’s kids, married Alan’s ex- (after she had 2 kids with him) and was responsible for the overwhelming majority of over 100 false child abuse reports made against Alan over the entirety of the custody battle.
So here is a postscript. Alan’s custody battle pre-dated me, and it post-dated me.
Alan is himself, now dead. He died in 2013 after suffering a series of devastating strokes.
That web page I mentioned appeared three years after the judge told me I could go free and be a mother to my daughter without fear.
Seeing that s**t is what pushed me over the edge into full-on PTSD.
The motive? Unbeknownst to me, Alan had hired a private investigator to find his children, who had been parentally kidnapped — yet again — after he too, was exonerated for responsibility in Anthony’s death.
We used to call the guy who did all this “Mr. Moron” and it’s much too kind a term. His behavior should be very familiar to everyone whose lives have ever been ruined by having contact with a narcissistic psychopath.
There is a lot more to the story. But the important part is: the truth did come out in my situation.
I remember shards and pieces. I remember sitting on the front steps in Woodland Hills about a week after Lali died, talking to a CSI.
She told me flat out “We didn’t find a mark on him. We know how he died.”
And she explained to me how it had happened.
The responsibility Alan truly had — and he had been accused of drinking at the time and had not been — was not accepting that Lali had Down Syndrome.
There were some miracles with Lali. About four days before he died, he was sitting in his high chair eating dinner with us and he looked up at me with his shining blue eyes, held up his arms, and said, “Mama.”
As clear as day. “Ma-ma.”
A Down Syndrome baby speaking his first words at six months old.
So yes, that was kind of a miracle and yes, I did get to see and hear that and I am so very grateful.
So here’s the thing. Down Syndrome babies can’t swallow very well and shouldn’t ever be put down with any kind of food or bottle. They must always be allowed to finish drinking or eating completely before lying down.
I didn’t know that — although I wouldn’t have put Lali in that location and when I was with him, I was breast-feeding him not using a bottle.
But that’s what the CSI woman told me that day sitting on the step. She let me hold the little doll they used to represent a child, to show where Lali had been found.
That was what had happened.
“My daughter found him first,” I said. “She gave him to me.”
In terms of his eyes, they were blue.
I could never understand why the Lord took him. But I know I prayed and still pray, “Lord, please let Lali’s life have meaning.”
It did for the little boy who got his heart and for the little girl who got his corneas. And for the other organs and skin they were able to use.
He was Lali. A pure spirit of love.