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Southwest Ohio child death case sent to grand jury

Jun. 13, 2013 @ 06:30 PM

HILLSBORO, Ohio — A grand jury will hear the case of a Richmond, Ky., couple charged in connection with the discovery of a child’s body in southwest Ohio.

Following a preliminary hearing Thursday, Hillsboro Municipal Court Judge David McKenna found probable cause to send the case to a grand jury. Grand jurors will decide what, if any, charges 26-year-old Whitney Johnson and 25-year-old Nathan Ritze should face.

The couple remained held on $100,000 bonds on felony counts of abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence.  Authorities said they are still awaiting autopsy reports on the child; a coroner indicated earlier there were no obvious signs of physical trauma to the body found May 31.

Police Officer Todd Whited testified during the hearing about interviews with the couple concerning Johnson’s year-old son, Garin Niehaus, before he was discovered in a wooded area near Hillsboro, the Times-Gazette of Hillsboro (http://bit.ly/1bA6I2A ) reported.

Questioned by Highland County Prosecutor Anneka Collins, Whited said Johnson and Ritze told investigators they buried the child there on Dec. 19. Police said earlier that Johnson told them the child had pneumonia. Whited testified that the couple said they found the boy “unresponsive,” and that Ritze said he tried to resuscitate the child.

Whited said neither Johnson nor Ritze had tried to contact authorities about the death, and told police they buried the child just before sunrise. Police have said they had received a tip from a person worried about Garin just before they arrested the couple.

The couple haven’t entered pleas. They were represented Thursday by court-appointed attorneys who raised questions about the evidence against them.

Johnson’s attorney, Conrad Curren, questioned Whited on details including the identity of the body found. Whited acknowledged Johnson hadn’t seen the body but said authorities found the body, wrapped in a blanket, where Johnson and Ritze had told them it was buried. The officer said Johnson provided a hand-drawn map.

Curren asked that the charges be dismissed, saying there was no investigation underway at the time of the child’s death and there was no death certificate.

“That’s how you prove a death,” Curren said.

He also objected when Collins referred to the death being “covered up,” leading Collins to rephrase her question.

Ritze’s attorney, J.D. Wagoner, referred to an “alleged confession,” and elicited acknowledgement from the police officer that no physical evidence linked directly to Ritze was found at the scene where the body was found.

Collins said burying a child without telling anyone “outrages the sensibilities of anyone who has to hear about it.”

The officer testified that a paternity test is underway to confirm that the boy’s father was Ian Niehaus.

(u'nobuy',)