OAK HILL, W.Va. — Three people have been charged in the death of an 8-year-old West Virginia girl who was allegedly beaten, starved, forced to sleep on a floor and banned from drinking water.
The girl's father, Marty Browning, his partner Julie Dawn Titchenell and her sister Sherie Titchenell were jailed this week on charges of death of a child by a parent or guardian, and child neglect causing death. Their bonds were set at $100,000 each.
Raylee JoLynn Browning had been repeatedly hospitalized over the years with various injuries, and teachers repeatedly alerted Nicholas County social workers about her apparent abuse. News outlets reported that it wasn't clear, nearly a year after Raylee's death, how exactly social workers handled these abuse reports.
Police were called on Dec. 26, 2018 to a hospital where the girl was suffering from cardiac arrest. A report by Oak Hill police Sgt. James Pack said she was covered in bruises, burns, lacerations, and other injuries. A woman had carried the child into the center and, without emotion, told doctors that the girl wasn't breathing, he wrote.
That woman, Sherie Titchenell, first told police that Raylee got sick that Christmas day and had suffered a nose bleed related to prescribed medications; then, she said fell while getting out of the shower and was shaking nonstop while her lips turned white. The accounts of all three adults contradicted each other, further raising suspicions, Pack wrote.
The arrests result from a nearly year-long investigation, culminating in a criminal complaint filed Monday in Fayette County. Julie Titchenell's three children, now in foster care, also lived in the home, and one girl among them shared horrific descriptions of the abuse Raylee suffered.
The girl said the Sherie Titchenell was their main caretaker and often withheld food from Raylee, even ordering her to not eat at school, where Raylee had asked cafeteria workers for extra food, the complaint says.
The girl told authorities that the adults beat Raylee with metal objects, belts and spoons and forced her to undergo torturous punishments, such as being barred from drinking water for three days, the criminal complaint says.
“Her grounding was that she wasn’t allowed to drink anything,” the child reportedly told a therapist. “I caught her drinking from the toilet a few times, and I feel that she got that infection from that water. I told her that the water was dirty, but I guess she was just so thirsty.”
A medical examiner's report said infection leading to sepsis likely killed her. A doctor said Raylee may also have been subjected to medical abuse: She was on seven medications at the time of her death, many of them used to treat severe autism and mood disorders, police said.
Police said it's unclear when the abuse began. Each adult said Raylee had a history of self-mutilation, starting when she was 2 years old. Sherie Titchenell told police that she entered Raylee's life at about that time. Julie Titchenell told authorities that Raylee had even once broken her femur by kicking a wall. A doctor said in the complaint that Raylee's growth appears to have been stunted after her 6th birthday.
Raylee was hospitalized for various injuries between 2011 and her death in 2018. She went to school in Nicholas County, where teachers made multiple referrals to Nicholas Child Protective Services, Fayette County investigators told The Register-Herald. The family later moved to Fayette County, living in Oak Hill and then Hilltop, police said.
As of Tuesday, police said it remains unclear if the agency had opened a case on the reported abuse before Raylee left Nicholas County. They have requested relevant case files. The agency didn't immediately return a request for comment.
The girl told authorities that the adults in the home made her to lie to social workers, and that she did so because she was scared. She said she and Raylee were taken out of school and homeschooled when Sherie Titchenell could think of no more lies for them to tell, police said.
It's unclear if any of the adults have lawyers who can comment on their behalf.
Julie Titchenell, an Oak Leaf Festival pageant queen, was stripped her title upon her arrest, pageant spokeswoman Jessica Poticher said.