By Sam Stanton
After two years of heartache, grief and legal battles for two Mather families, a jury on Friday found former day care owner Sheila Caceres not guilty in the death of a 10-week-old baby boy entrusted to her care.
Caceres, 32, faced a felony child endangerment charge in the death of Avin Rominger, one of more than a dozen children she cared for at the award-winning Sheila's Garden Day Care center she ran out of her home on Grafton Circle.
Prosecutors accused Caceres of finding little Avin in distress but failing to call 911 on Feb. 23, 2011, and later lying to detectives.
But after seven days of trial and about seven hours of deliberations, the Sacramento Superior Court jury said there simply was not enough evidence to convict Caceres of a felony.
"It was a very tough call," juror Kathleen Lieb said outside the courtroom after the jury's verdict was read.
"I can't talk about it right now," she added as she choked back emotion. "I need to go home, I'm really exhausted."
Avin's parents, Dave and Rachelle Rominger, left the courthouse without talking to reporters.
The couple and Dave Rominger's parents had spent all of Friday in the courthouse waiting for a verdict they hoped would convict their former friend, a woman to whom they had ensured the care of their son and their daughter, Savannah.
The couple had waged a nearly two-year effort to find out what happened to their son that day, calling detectives and prosecutors to urge that charges be filed and bringing Avin's death to the attention of the media.
Caceres declined to speak after the jury's verdict was announced, but defense attorney Joe Welch repeated the message he delivered to the jury Thursday in his closing argument.
"The one thing that Sheila Caceres wants everyone to know is that we are all deeply saddened by the death of little Avin," Welch told reporters, "and our hearts and our sympathies go out to the Rominger family.
"That's all we've got to say."
Word that a verdict had been reached came in shortly after 3 p.m., but a paperwork mixup by the jury led to an agonizing delay for the Romingers and Caceres as it was cleared up.
The jury initially filed into Judge Sharon A. Lueras' courtroom and informed her they had reached a verdict, but they had failed to fill out the verdict forms properly and had to be escorted back to the jury room to straighten it out.
Once they returned, Lueras signed off on the forms and the not guilty verdict was announced.
Caceres also faced a misdemeanor count of violating state fire safety regulations by keeping children in the upstairs of her home, and the jury convicted her of that count.
But that was a foregone conclusion; Welch conceded that she had done so to keep the older children from awakening sleeping infants.
The fact that Caceres had used the upstairs to care for children became a critical point in the trial.
Dave Rominger testified that on the day Avin died he showed up at the house to pick the boy up around 4:45 p.m. Caceres went upstairs to get him, then came running downstairs with the baby screaming for Rominger to call 911.
Avin could not be revived and witnesses described the baby as being blue when he was taken away to Mercy San Juan Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
But Caceres' conflicting stories to detectives eventually led to her facing prosecution.
She told investigators that night that Avin had been sleeping downstairs, but called them the next morning to say she wanted to change her story and tell them he actually had been upstairs.
Prosecutor Nancy Cochrane presented a case charging that Caceres had concocted a web of lies to cover up the fact that she had found Avin in distress and, instead of calling 911, placed him in a portable playpen, rubbed his back and walked away.
But the case seemed difficult from the start. Caceres was not charged in the baby's death until October 2011, eight months later, and the coroner never was able to pinpoint a cause of death.
Avin's death was ruled sudden unexpected infant death syndrome, but the coroner added that the baby might have stood a chance if medical intervention had been provided.
Welch rejected that notion, bringing in an expert who testified that Avin died of sudden infant death syndrome and that nothing could have saved him. He also presented another expert who said Caceres was so overcome by grief at the baby's death that she fell victim to post traumatic stress disorder, which could have led to confusion and the decision to lie to detectives.
The case has taken a toll on both Caceres and the Romingers.
Caceres, once celebrated as the county's day care provider of the year, agreed to a lifetime ban by state regulators on running, working in or entering a day care facility.
And the Romingers, who once admired Caceres so much that they told her they wanted her to raise their children if they died suddenly, were left to repair to their home - just blocks from the Caceres house - and tend to their surviving children, keeping Avin's ashes in a wooden box in their living room.
Call The Bee's Sam Stanton, (916) 321-1091.