Teghan Skiba was a four-year-old girl living in Smithfield, North Carolina, with her mother, Helen Reyes, and Helen’s boyfriend, Jonathan Richardson. They lived in a barn on Richardson’s grandparents’ property, which lacked basic amenities such as running water and a bathroom. The only bedding available was a solitary air mattress on the floor.
Despite the grim living conditions, Teghan was described as a “very energetic, vivacious and lovable child.” She loved the colour purple, butterflies, and catching lady bugs in her grandmother’s garden. She was born to Helen and Jerry Skiba, but due to the fact Jerry was serving time at Craven Correctional Institute in New Bern after a felony drug trafficking conviction, he was not involved in his daughter’s upbringing.1
Much like Jerry, Richardson also had a criminal record. He had a conviction for simple assault and injury to personal property. This case related to an incident in 2007 when he broke the windshield of his then-girlfriend’s car during an argument. He was given six months’ probation and ordered to pay restitution. He was also convicted in Wayne County in 2008 of driving while impaired.2
On 6 July, 2010, Teghan was left in the care of Richardson while her mother, Reyes, went to New Mexico for Army Reserves training. Just ten days later, Richardson brought Teghan to UNC Hospitals at Chapel Hill where it was discovered she was suffering from “severe bodily injuries.” Richardson had told medical personnel in the emergency room that Teghan had fallen out of bed.3
Upon closer inspection, however, Teghan was found to be covered in bite marks, cuts and had suffered severe head trauma. There was also evidence that Teghan had been tortured and sexually assaulted. Police were immediately called to the hospital. One of them commented: “You think about how bad you think it is, and it’s that times ten. There’s no excuse for it. It was really just a disgrace to the sanctity of human life for a human body to be tortured like this. It was just a senseless act of violence.”4
That night, Richardson was arrested on a felony child abuse charge, and over the weekend, medics worked tirelessly to try and save Teghan. On Monday morning, however, she tragically succumbed to her injuries. In announcing the sad development, Johnson County Sheriff Steve Bizzell said: “Over this past weekend, a community, law enforcement officers, doctors, nurses and medical staff came to love a little four-year-old girl, Teghan Skiba, who was a victim of child abuse.”
The child abuse investigation swiftly transformed into a murder investigation, and detectives embarked on the family’s home where they searched the barn and also a room inside Richardson’s grandparents’ home, where he sometimes stayed. They seized a handful of ominous items including guns, knives, duct tape and drug paraphernalia.5
In the wake of Richardson’s arrest, he told investigators that he had become angry when Teghan wet the bed that they were sharing. He said that he “lost it” and whipped her with a drop cord. He further said that he suffered from bipolar and that “little things” set him off. He was subsequently charged with felony first-degree murder, and was ordered to be held without bond.
Reyes was also interviewed in the aftermath of her daughter’s death, and she claimed to investigators that she was afraid of Richardson. The sheriff commented: “You would think if she was afraid of him, and if she knew the conditions that she had resided in with him, that she would have used some common sense before leaving that child with him in those conditions.”
As details of Teghan’s murder were made public, the Army publicly commented that if Reyes needed help with child care during her training, she could have asked them. As a single mother, she should have been required to come up with a “family care plan” that outlined how her daughter would have been cared for. According to a spokesman for her reserve unit, the 535th Military Police Battalion, Reyes did not provide a plan.
Over the past decade, the Army had launched and strengthened a range of programs to help ease the burden of training and deployment. This included family care plans which applied to soldiers who were single parents, single pregnant women, dual military couples, and soldiers caring for an elderly family member. It is the soldier’s responsibility to file the plan, and it’s kept in their personal folder.
After searching, the Army discovered that Reyes had actually come up with a family care plan, but in the plan, she listed her mother, Maria Reyes, as the sole caretaker for Teghan while she was away.6
Wake County child welfare officials determined that Reyes had failed to protect her daughter and entrust her to an appropriate caretaker before she left for training. Reyes was subsequently charged with negligent child abuse causing serious bodily injury. According to investigators, Reyes “had first-hand knowledge that this type of abuse had occurred prior to July 5 by Jonathan Richardson.”7
An investigation into Reyes’ involvement in her daughter’s abuse uncovered that she had known about the abuse that was being inflicted. On one occasion, she had watched as Richardson forced Teghan to chug a Corona and two Natural Light beers. Moreover, she knew that Richardson had beaten Teghan while she made a trip to a convenience store. Detectives also learned that Reyes watched Richardson whip Teghan, yet she did nothing to help her daughter or protect her.
Sheriff Bizzell said: “The child had been disciplined in a manner that was not appropriate in the presence of the mother. Helen Reyes, in my opinion, neglected her duties as a mother. This so-called mother failed to provide the care that children need, desire and deserve.”8
The investigation into her involvement only continued, and detectives learned that Reyes didn’t just know her daughter was being abused, she had an active role in the abuse. She had subjected Teghan to verbal threats and intimidation and she had forced her to consume alcohol and had even subjected her to physical beatings and had bitten her. According to investigators, the sexual abuse happened after Reyes had left for training.
Despite having an active role in Teghan’s abuse, Reyes was subsequently released after posting $50,000 bond. The Johnston County District Attorney’s Office had requested that the bond be increased to $250,000. They argued that Reyes was a “flight risk” because she was in the Army Reserves and had family out of state. The judge, however, denied the increase.9
In August, a grand jury indicted Richardson on first-degree murder and first-degree rape. They found that he had used his hands and electrical cords as “deadly weapons” inflicting serious personal injury on Teghan and terrorizing her. Sheriff Bizzell also announced that there was nothing to indicate that Richardson’s grandparents had no knowledge of the abuse going on in the barn on their property. He stated: “They are good people, very well known in the community.”10
District Attorney Susan Doyle announced that if Richardson were convicted of Teghan’s murder, she would be seeking the death penalty.
The murder trial began in February of 2014, and during opening statements, Richardson’s defence attorney, Jonathon Broun, made the shocking admission that Richardson had killed Teghan. He said that his client had struck Teghan’s head against the wall, which ultimately killed her. He argued that Richard had not intended on killing Teghan, and that he should not be convicted of first-degree murder.
According to defence attorney Broun, Richardson’s actions were the result of mental illness, his inexperience of taking care of a child and his uncontrolled anger, which he said had built up from years of abuse and neglect by his parents. He stated: “Jonathan never intended to kill Teghan. But out of anger, he caused the injury that killed her.”11
According to Prosecutor Paul Jackson, over the course of ten days, Teghan had been subjected to a horrific assault. She was sexually assaulted, bitten more than 63 times and flayed with a split extension cord that had left bits of copper embedded in her body. He said that Richardson’s trial is “about the ten days that he inflicted grievous pain and suffering on this four-year-old child through deliberate, repeated acts of sadistic abuse.”
This was countered by defence attorney Broun, who claimed that despite the evidence, Richardson had not sexually abused Teghan. He also maintained that he didn’t derive any sadistic pleasure from the abuse he inflicted. He claimed that Richardson loved Reyes and Teghan, and wanted the three of them to be a family. He stated: “Jonathan loved Teghan. But he was unequipped to take care of four-year-old as a 21-year-old man can be.”
The prosecutors called on various witnesses who testified about Teghan’s condition in the hospital. Nurse Mary Allison Butler revealed that when she saw the injuries inflicted on Teghan, she was so overcome with emotion that she confronted Richardson in the emergency room. She sad she jumped on top of him, grabbed him and tried to rip out his throat. Through tears, she said: “It was horrible. We see a lot of stuff. At that point, I couldn’t take any more.”12
Dr. Keith Kocis told the jury that he had never seen injuries like those he saw on Teghan on any child in his 25 years as a doctor. He stated: “These scars, these whip marks, these injuries to her skin that were all over her body, I mean there was essentially no part of her body that was spared.” He testified that Teghan could have been violently shaken, because she had brain injuries that were similar to other cases.13
The jury next heard from a crime scene investigator who testified about the state of the barn where the family were living. She said that it was littered with trash and faeces and smelled of urine. The prosecution then presented a short video that was found on Richardson’s phone. It showed him yelling at Teghan to repeat back certain phrases. She was standing with her back to the camera, and was holding up her arms despite the fact they were clearly fractured.14 In the video, Teghan begged Richardson not to hurt her.
In a photograph that was presented to the jury, Teghan could be seen with a black eye. In another photograph she was holding a beer and cigarette in her hands. Reyes testified about the photograph, and said that it had been sent to her by Richardson. She said she didn’t know whether it was a joke or not, but admitted she knew that Teghan was being abused. She stated: “He told me that he had whipped her for throwing up on a chair.”15
During the trial, the defence team argued that Richardson’s upbringing taught him that physical abuse was what a parent did. His mother had hired a hitman to kill his father, who survived after being shot in the head. According to the defence, Richardson’s father neglected him and physically abused him.
The defence had hoped that testimony regarding Richardson’s upbringing would sway the jury in his favor, and result in a lesser conviction. However, their attempt was unfruitful, and the jury ultimately found Jonathan Richardson guilty of first-degree murder, felony child abuse, kidnapping, and first-degree rape.
The trial then entered the sentencing phase. “Life in prison without parole is a slap on the wrist in this case. Justice demands that he receive no better fate than he gave Teghan. Justice demands that he receive no better than he gave Teghan.” said Johnson County Assistant District attorney Greg Butler.
Once more, Richardson’s defence team painted a picture of him as a man who was abused as a child and who had an undiagnosed mental disorder.
Defence attorney Broun said: “Today, we are not asking for forgiveness or leniency of Jonathan. Forgiveness would mean no punishment, and that’s already been guaranteed that Jonathan is going to be punished. Leniency would mean punishment that is not harsh and severe, and no matter what you decide today, Jonathan is going to be punished harshly and severely.” Instead, defence attorney Broun asked for mercy. He maintained that Richardson did not intend to kill Teghan, and that the accidental nature of her death was a mitigating factor.16
The jury deliberated for only a few hours before sentencing Jonathan Richardson to death. Outside of court, Teghan’s maternal grandparents, Gerald and Sarah Skiba, said they were satisfied with the jury’s decision. They were both wearing purple, Teghan’s favourite colour, and said that hearing gruesome details of Teghan’s murder in court were difficult. Gerald said: She just wanted people to love her, and she just showed her love so freely and then somebody like that just comes in and just tortures her, you know, hurts her, and that’s – I don’t know, it’s hard to put into words.”
In 2019, Helen Reyes pleaded guilty to child abuse, admitting she showed “reckless disregard for the welfare of the child, resulting in serious bodily injury.” She was sentenced to 18 to 31 months in prison.
- The News & Observer, 24 July, 2010 – “Army Says Child-Care Help Should Have Been Available”
- The News & Observer, 21 July, 2010 – “Suspect in Girl’s Death: I Lost It”
- CBS – 17 WNCN, 18 July, 2010 – “4-Year-Old Torture Victim Dies; Suspect Faces More Charges”
- The News & Observer, 20 July, 2010 – “Man Charged in Girl’s Death”
- CBS – 17 WNCN, 20 July, 2010 – “Search Warrants Released in Death of 4-Year-old Girl”
- The News & Observer, 31 July, 2010 – “Mother of Slain Girl Remains Free on Bail”
- Associated Press, 29 July, 2010 – “NC Mother charged in Death of Girl”
- The News & Observer, 30 July, 2010 – “Mother Saw Boyfriend Abuse Girl”
- CBS – 17 WNCN, 30 July, 2010 – “Mother of Slain child Released on Bond”
- Cleveland Post, 12 August, 2010 – “Richardson Indicted for First-Degree Rape and Murder”
- The News & Observer, 24 February, 2014 – “Trial Opens for Man Accused of Torturing, Killing 4-Year-Old”
- FOX – 8 WGHP, 26 February, 2014 – “Investigator in Teghan Skiba Murder Trial Describes shed”
- ABC 11, 28 February, 2014 – “Doctor Says He Nearly Vomited”
- The News & Observer, 25 March, 2014 – “Defendant’s Mental State Debated”
- ABC 7, 14 March, 2014 – “Teghan Skiba Allegedly Begged Jonathan Richardson Not to Hurt Her”
- The News & Observer, 3 April, 2014 – “Jonathan Richardson Sentenced to Death”