Sarah Chilson-Cole avoids Rock Hill and Lancaster as much as possible. There’s just too much pain, she says.
“It’s become one of those places you just don’t want to go,” she said – places where her memories of her niece, the blue-eyed, curly-haired girl, hurt the most.
“I went to this place with Soren, and I went to this place with Soren, and we did this with Soren,” said Chilson-Cole, who lives in West Columbia with her husband, three daughters and son. “It’s hard knowing you were there with this person who was taken away like that. God may have gained an angel, but the world lost a star.”
That “star” liked to watch horror movies and play with her cousins’ toys. She enjoyed swimming and idolized her father. Her name was Soren Victoria Chilson. A year ago Wednesday, she died in her bathroom, her skull smashed and her brain hemorrhaged.
She was 5.
Deputies have blamed her death on her mother’s boyfriend, Phillip Bryan Gleason, a former Winthrop University student and Iraq War veteran who was wounded in action. He’s been charged with homicide by child abuse, a felony that carries up to 20 years in prison.
Early that Tuesday morning last year, Gleason, now 28, called deputies to report that something was wrong with Soren. He had been watching her while her mother, April Victoria Snipes – his girlfriend for at least six months – was at work.
When deputies arrived at the couple’s Craig Farm Road home in Lancaster, they found Soren unresponsive in the bathroom. Paramedics took her to Springs Memorial Hospital, where she died. An investigation began when deputies found her injuries suspicious. Those injuries included bruises on her chest, feet and back. Her brain injury eventually killed her.
Gleason told authorities he carried the girl to the bathroom when she started choking and coughing up blood after suffering a seizure. It’s a defense his lawyer, Rock Hill attorney Chris Wellborn, maintains.
The girl’s injuries are consistent with wounds that can be found from a variety of other conditions, Wellborn said. He debunks theories about shaken baby syndrome, which has been controversial in the courts and questioned by scientists over its validity as an explanation for a child’s death.
“It’s scientifically untenable. There has been enough that has come out in the past 10 years to show most of what we thought about shaken baby was absolutely wrong,” said Wellborn, who often consults with or represents clients accused in shaken baby cases. “It’s as scientifically reliable as saying the earth is flat. Effectively, it’s junk science.”
Conditions resulting in shaken baby diagnoses include swelling of the brain, bleeding in the brain and bleeding in the eyes. Critics say shaking a baby is not the only way children can suffer those injuries. Wellborn said he typically consults with other professionals and sources in alleged shaken baby cases.
Purple Heart recipient
During a hearing last April, Gleason was released on a $150,000 bond. Since then, “he’s in and out of the hospital,” Wellborn said. “He’s undergoing a lot of medical care. He was injured in a severe attack while he served in Iraq.”
Wellborn said Gleason was twice injured by an improvised explosive device, or IED. Gleason served in the U.S. Army from 2004 to 2008. An infantryman, he was deployed to Iraq from December 2005 to October 2006, when he was wounded in action. He received a Purple Heart before leaving the military as a sergeant.
He works “some” and has since tried to resume his education, Wellborn said. After he was charged, Gleason, a second-semester Winthrop freshman majoring in political science, was suspended from the university.
“He has always denied that he physically, intentionally ... abused this child,” Wellborn said.
Gleason declined to comment when reached at his Rock Hill home Tuesday evening.
No court dates have been set yet, said Sixth Circuit Solicitor Doug Barfield. He would not comment about any possible pending DNA tests, but said work is still being done on the case.
Gleason is the only person charged “at this point,” said Barfield.
Nationally, the infant mortality rate is dropping, experts say. Still, South Carolina remains above the national average in baby deaths, according to data from the S.C. Child Fatality Advisory Committee.
Kids Count, an initiative funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that aggregates child welfare data in all 50 states, ranked South Carolina last year as No. 45 in overall child well-being.
Last October, Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims’ Council and a member of the child fatality advisory committee, reported that the State Law Enforcement Division’s special victims unit was investigating 472 outstanding child deaths.
Fifteen percent of child deaths in the state, Hudson said, are homicides. Officials say family members are responsible for a bulk of the homicides among young children.
To curb those numbers, Hudson said state social services officials need to develop better assessment tools that would gauge what factors in child’s family or home might lead to an untimely death. Some of the obvious factors, she said, include a history of violence between spouses or partners that will inevitably “trickle down to a child.” Drug use by the parents, she said, is also an indicator of abuse.
Part of the victims’ council’s legislative initiatives include pushing for charges to be levied against parents – particularly mothers – who are aware of abuse, but do nothing to stop or report it, Hudson said.
“It’s common for adult child abuse victims to say, ‘My mother knew about it, my grandmother knew about it but nobody reported it,’” Hudson said. “People need to be mandated reporters at the family level.”
It’s a painful irony that the anniversary of her niece’s death is on Ash Wednesday, Chilson-Cole said.
Soren’s death has spurred streams of online activity, including Facebook pages dedicated to her memory, some of which demand “justice for Soren.” Her name and face have been sprawled on blog posts, message boards and advocacy websites.
Chilson-Cole’s email has been inundated by well-wishers, sympathizers and gossips, many of whom she doesn’t know personally. It’s good to know people care, she says.
No one in her family has stopped caring, either.
Chilson-Cole’s youngest daughter recites a “mantra,” she said, that includes the question of whether Soren is “with her daddy?” Soren’s father, Jeremy Chilson, died just a few days before Christmas in 2012. The impending anniversary hit another of Chilson-Cole’s daughters hard, sending her into a frenzy of tears recently. A third daughter questions “why God would ever allow that to happen?”
“It brings about a question of faith in all of us some days,” Chilson-Cole said. “I don’t have the answers as to why something like this could happen. It’s not for us to know.”
Their only comfort, Chilson-Cole said, is knowing Jeremy and Soren are together.
“She was always the one that got everybody smiling and laughing,” Chilson-Cole said.
Last year, Chilson-Cole told The Herald that she had a poor impression of Gleason when they first met. After her brother died, she did not have much contact with Soren’s mother and new boyfriend.
“If I would have had one inkling that this would have happened I would have been over there everyday,” she said.
A year later, she hasn’t spoken with April Snipes, now a newlywed. On Jan. 23, Gleason and Snipes married in York, according to York County Probate Court documents.
“I would have taken her in a heartbeat,” Chilson-Cole said about her niece. “She was my family. She was my little buddy. Some people just shine. God bless her, everyday of her life, she shined.”
The yearlong wait for a day in court doesn’t unnerve Chilson-Cole. An employee in the judicial system, she understands that Gleason is entitled to a fair trial.
No matter how long the wait for justice, “she’s still gone,” Chilson-Cole said. “No court date or hearing in the world is going to fix that.”
She hopes Soren’s story will serve as an example.
“You hear stories all the time about this child cases so similar to Soren’s,” she said. “It’s scary. Every one of those cases is a ‘Soren’ and every one of those cases could have been prevented. There has to be a better way than leaving these kids with these boyfriends.”
Nothing scared Soren Chilson, not even the horror movies she watched with her aunt. “She knew it was made-up. She had no fear.”
No fear and no idea “that the boogeyman would come into her house,” Chilson-Cole said. “The real one.”