A 26-year-old Loleta mother facing allegations that she killed her 6-week-old son by feeding him methamphetamine-laced breast milk tested positive for the drug during pregnancy, according to court documents in the case.
Maggie Jean Wortman has pleaded not guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter and felony child endangerment and is scheduled to appear in Humboldt County Superior Court today for a hearing to set future court dates in the case.
Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office detectives arrested Wortman after a two-month investigation into the death of her son, Michael Phillip Acosta III, who was transported to a local hospital because he was not breathing on Nov. 2. He was pronounced dead later that day.
Court documents, as well as interviews with people familiar with Wortman and her family, shed new light on the case.
According to an affidavit for an arrest warrant recently included in Wortman’s case file, Dr. Neil Kushner determined her son’s cause of death to be “methamphetamine toxicity.” The document also states that a hair follicle sample taken from Wortman’s now 23-month-old daughter tested positive for methamphetamine as well, prompting Child Welfare Services to take her into protective custody.
The document, written by Sheriff’s Office Detective Kyla Smith, also states that Wortman received pre-natal care while pregnant with Michael and tested positive for methamphetamine use when six months pregnant.
In interviews with law enforcement, Smith wrote, Wortman admitted to smoking methamphetamine during pregnancy and doing so approximately three times after giving birth. The affidavit also states that Wortman exclusively fed Michael through nursing.
Smith said she reviewed information and pamphlets routinely given to pregnant mothers at the place Wortman went for prenatal treatment.
”There was a lot of information about drugs and how it affects you and your child, be it born or unborn,” Smith said.
Some people familiar with Wortman and her family told the Times-Standard they repeatedly witnessed Wortman smoking methamphetamine around her children. They requested anonymity talking about the case due to its sensitive nature.
Wortman smoked methamphetamine almost daily, the people claim, adding that they personally witnessed her smoking methamphetamine while holding Michael. Wortman was on drug probation at the time, according to court records.
One of the sources said they were aware of calls made to Child Welfare Services to report concerns over the safety of Wortman’s two children.
”The system failed the children and the system failed her,” one source said.
Jeri Scardina, deputy branch director for the Department of Health and Human Services Children and Family Services, said she couldn’t comment about specific cases. However, Scardina said her department is mandated to take reports 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
When a call comes in with a report, Scardina said, it is evaluated to see whether it requires an in-person response and, if so, whether that needs to be done within 24 hours or within 10 days. During the in-person response, Scardina said, staff will interview or inspect the child and possibly the parents and make a determination of whether there is an immediate safety threat to the child or an ongoing risk.
Kathryn Wells, the medical director at Denver Family Crisis Center and author of a paper on methamphetamine and pregnancy, said cases like Wortman’s touch on areas where there is really a dearth of scientific research. No study has conclusively determined what toxic methamphetamine levels are in children. Additionally, only limited research is available on what levels of the drug can be passed through breast milk, Wells said.
Because they claim methamphetamine smoke was so prevalent in the small trailer in which Wortman lived with her kids, those familiar with the family questioned in interviews with the Times-Standard whether secondhand smoke from the drug alone may have been enough to kill Michael and result in a positive test for Wortman’s daughter.
On the night of Michael’s death, the sources said, about a half dozen people were in the trailer smoking methamphetamine for a long period of time.
Wells said the subject of secondhand toxicity is still being studied.
”To my knowledge, I don’t think we have any data that says secondhand exposure is enough to kill a kid,” Wells said, speaking generally and not about Wortman’s case. “I think most of us believe that just breathing in secondhand smoke is not enough to ping a positive test.”
Methamphetamine also metabolizes out of the body within 48 to 72 hours of ingestion, Wells said, making it unlikely it could build up in someone’s body over time.
Cases like Wortman’s are relatively rare, and prosecutors may find a challenging road ahead. Similar cases have been filed, however.
In Riverside County in 2002, Amy Leanne Prien faced a murder charge after her 3-month-old son was found to have died of acute methamphetamine intoxication. After multiple trials, Prien pleaded guilty in 2006 to a charge of involuntary manslaughter, which, coupled with a conviction on a felony child endangerment charge, left Prien with a 14-year prison sentence.
In February, a Wyoming mother, Crystal Ann Cardenas, was arrested and charged with negligent homicide and child endangerment with methamphetamine after her 2-month-old son stopped breathing and later died.
Smith said she has been in touch with officials in Los Angeles County who helped her work Wortman’s case.
Court records also indicate that Wortman has previously faced criminal charges relating to her care of children.
In February 2010, Wortman was charged with battery, causing or permitting cruelty to a child and committing an immoral act before a child stemming from an incident when she allegedly attacked her husband, Michael Acosta. According to the court documents, Wortman was holding an infant child while repeatedly hitting Acosta in the neck. Responding officers reported finding a “clear glass tube pipe” on the kitchen table of Wortman’s residence, according to the court documents.
In May, Wortman pleaded guilty to battery, and the other charges facing her were dismissed. She was ordered to enter a 52-week domestic violence counseling program and given three years probation, according to the documents.
Those interviewed by the Times-Standard who knew Wortman and her family said they suffer great guilt that they didn’t try to do more to protect Wortman’s children and to have them removed from her care.
“That baby was so beautiful and so alive, and it just meant nothing,” one said.