on April 12, 2014 - 8:32 PM
One year ago, Kimberly Lawton’s world began to crumble.
First the Orchard Park mother of three was accused of poisoning her infant son during a contentious custody battle. She was arrested and sent to jail. Her children were taken from her. She lost her job.
All of this happened after traces of the flammable liquid ethanol were found mixed with the milk in baby’s bottles meant to feed Lawton’s 5-month-old son. After a 5½-month investigation, she was charged Oct. 17 by Orchard Park police with second-degree assault, first-degree reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of a child. The charges were lodged based on testing performed at the New York State Police Forensic Lab in Albany.
But then the case against Lawton landed on the desk of Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III, who routinely reviews felony cases for grand jury presentation.
“We looked at the case and began to have some doubts about the defendant’s guilt,” said Sedita, who credited Rosanne Johnson, chief of the DA’s Special Victims Bureau, with flagging the results of the State Police forensic analysis.
“Rosanne Johnson learned that ethanol can be a natural byproduct of fermentation, so the appearance of ethanol could be innocently explained,” Sedita said. “That led me to the conclusion that (Lawton) didn’t do anything. If her intent was to poison her child, presumably she would have laced the formula with significant levels of alcohol.”
“She is innocent,” Sedita concluded.
The quantitative analysis Johnson ordered from the State Police lab in Albany detected “insignificant amounts” of ethanol – the same amounts found occurring naturally in some bottled fruit juices, according to court documents.
Lawton’s exoneration came amid an online campaign to petition state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for an independent investigation into the circumstances of her arrest.
In a letter posted Jan. 1, but no longer visible, on a Facebook page titled “Kimberly Lawton Is Innocent,” Lawton’s father, Walter C. Lawton Jr., wrote:
“Imagine for one moment that my daughter did not do what she is being accused of and step by step think about everything she has been through. She was arrested, spent time in jail, lost a $90,000-a-year job, had her children taken from her – not just a 8- and 10-year-old but her new baby – and then had her picture all over the news all the way to the West Coast.”
Thomas G. Meyers, a Southern Tier businessman, has been identified by multiple sources as the complainant in the case and the baby’s biological father. The Olean Times Herald identified Meyers as owner and operator of the McDonald’s on West State Road in Olean.
The custody battle between Meyers and Lawton escalated last April when Meyers filed a complaint against Lawton with Erie County Child Protective Services, Sedita said.
“The complaint was unfounded,” the prosecutor said.
According to court documents, on April 5, 2013, Lawton and Meyers met for a pre-arranged visitation. When Lawton handed the baby over to Meyers, she also gave him the bottles that contained milk for the baby.
Meyers, who had filed a complaint with Orchard Park police alleging the milk had been tainted, turned the bottles over to detectives, Sedita said.
“The milk was kept under unknown conditions until April 19, when it was taken to the State Police lab in Albany, where it was stored in a refrigerator until May 28,” Sedita noted.
State Police in Albany confirmed the testing, calling it “a non-traditional type of submission to the State Police Forensic’s Lab, which required us to conduct some reference analysis before proceeding with the evidence testing – which takes time.”
Lawton was not arrested for another five months.
The lag is not uncommon in an intensive investigation, said Orchard Park Police Chief Andrew Pacholec. In addition, Pacholec said Detectives John Payne and Larry Brand “believed the complainant was credible.”
At Lawton’s arraignment in Orchard Park Town Court, Justice Lynn Keane set bail at $50,000 cash or property, and Lawton was taken to the Erie County Holding Center, where she stayed for eight days until she could make bail.
During an evidentiary hearing, Orchard Park Town Justice Edward A. Pace ruled prosecutors had reasonable grounds to hold Lawton for a grand jury presentation on second-degree attempted assault.
Johnson, the head of the Special Victims Bureau, questioned the sufficiency of the evidence to support the charge of felony level assault. The quantitative test performed by State Police scientists Jan. 14 would ultimately provide the evidence that exonerated Lawton.
A grand jury delivered the “no-bill” on March 21.
Lawton’s defense attorney, Joseph A. Agro, previously stated that the child, who is now 1, has been living with his biological father. Her two older children from a previous marriage were being cared for by Lawton’s relatives, said Agro, who could not be reached for further comment.
On April 2 of this year, Lawton posted a letter on Facebook thanking her family and friends for their support. She said she has filed a civil suit against Meyers and the Orchard Park police department. She is also waging a court battle to regain custody of her youngest son.
The following excerpts are from Lawton’s letter:
“One year ago today, my entire world was devastated all due to one person who made false allegations about me. I have lost so much, and the pain this has caused me and my children has been unbearable.
“I have always had three solid foundations in my life. My kids, my career and my family/friends. The past year, I lost everything except my third rock and am so thankful for each of you and love you.
“Sometimes people with power and money think they can get away with anything. But I can assure you, there is something much, much more powerful. And that is the wrath of a mother whose kids have been intentionally hurt. I won’t allow this to be swept under the carpet. I will not stop until justice is served.”