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2 Barrow children left in room open to 30-below cold

Richard Mauer

When police entered a Barrow apartment last week on a report of a child not breathing, they found a caregiver smelling of alcohol, two "extremely" hypothermic and naked children, and a child's bedroom with the window open to the arctic winter, according to documents filed by prosecutors.

The caregiver, Richard Tilden Jr., 28, is the unemployed boyfriend of the children's mother, elementary school teacher Esther Edwards-Gust, also 28. Both are charged with two counts of felony assault.

The child who wasn't breathing, a 3-year-old, was revived in Barrow and transported with her 1-year-old sister to the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage.

Doctors there couldn't save the older child, who died Saturday. Charging documents said the 1-year-old was in better shape than her sister; a relative said Wednesday she was awake and eating.

The charging documents, filed Friday in state District Court in Barrow and provided by the court this week, describe a scene of extreme neglect and dysfunction, though not necessarily one of physical violence as reported earlier. The 1-year-old had bruises and crusted blood around her lips and mouth and officers found clothing in the house with dried blood, but no other evidence of violence or physical force was mentioned in the charging documents.

But there were plenty of other problems. The 3 year old was cold and blue when officers of the North Slope Police Department arrived during the noon hour Thursday, according to an affidavit by police attached to the felony complaints against Tilden and Edwards-Gust.

The bedroom window was opened to outside air of 30 degrees below zero. Anyone in that room with the door closed would have been stuck there because the latch was missing, the affidavit said. Even Police Chief Leon Boyea couldn't get out of the bedroom by himself -- the door had to be opened from the other side, the affidavit said. Boyea said the bedroom lacked bedding and blankets.

The initial call came from Tilden himself, who dialed 911 for an ambulance. He told the dispatcher that the 3-year-old was not breathing and was unresponsive.

Two police officers were the first to arrive. They saw Tilden on the stairs, holding the 3-year-old. Sgt. James Michels checked the naked toddler for a pulse, but could find none and started CPR, assisted by another sergeant, Travis Welch, who arrived a short time later, the affidavit said.

The 1-year-old was also naked and in the arms of Tilden.

Both children were taken to the Barrow hospital, the 1-year-old by Welch in a patrol car. In a heroic effort, medics, police and Samuel Simmons Memorial Hospital staff took turns performing CPR on the 3-year-old while doctors raised her body temperature. It took three hours for the girl's heart to beat on its own, according to the affidavit. The children were medevaced to Anchorage and listed as critical.

Other officers began investigating, the affidavit said.

Tilden's eyes were watery, he smelled of booze, and two bottles of whiskey were on the floor of the apartment. In a statement to officers, Tilden said he bought the booze from an alleged bootlegger and started drinking Wednesday night, going to bed around 2 a.m. At 7 p.m. Thursday, after spending the afternoon with police, his blood-alcohol level was .164, twice the legal limit for driving.

Edwards-Gust, in a statement to officers, said she had known Tilden all her life. According to public records, Edwards-Gust was in the middle of a divorce, and Tilden's wife died last summer. She told police he moved to Barrow from Dillingham in November with his three sons, and took care of her daughters when she worked at school.

The five children are normally sleeping when she leaves for work, she told police. When she left the house Thursday morning, the girls were sleeping and wearing clothing, she told police.

Tilden told police he opened the window Wednesday to air out the room because the girls regularly wet their bed. He told officers he didn't close it, according to the affidavit.

Tilden said he woke up Thursday about 12:30 p.m., checked the girls, and noticed that the older child had defecated in bed and that both had urinated on themselves, the affidavit said.

"The defendant stated he stripped the clothing off the girls and carried them downstairs to change them," the police said. "He said once he got them downstairs, he noticed (the 3-year-old) was not breathing and he called 911."

The police affidavit said nothing about the condition of Tilden's three sons, or what happened to them.

Tilden's inability to manage his alcohol consumption goes back a long time, according to court records in Dillingham. As a 17-year-old, he was charged with underage drinking. His first driving while intoxicated charge came when he was 17 too, and in 2006, at age 23 was charged with felony driving under the influence because of multiple violations.

That same year, his now-deceased wife, Michelene, sought a protective order against him, saying he was a mean drunk and feared he would kill her. She reported seeking shelter at his mother's house in Dillingham and refused to budge when he demanded she come home.

"He wanted me to go home but I knew if I went home he would have severely beaten me like he has before," she said in her petition. "In the past, he has left me with black eyes and bruises on my arms and cheeks, bumps on my head that weren't visible 'cause they were under my hair ... He's done this before in front of my children and they already know how to be scared. They know fear and they're only 5 and 3."

After filing the request for a protective order on Aug. 28, 2006, she asked it be dissolved on Sept. 5. A judge signed that request.

Anchorage Daily News