NEW PORT RICHEY — Her friend needed a place to stay with his twin daughters, so Dreanne Jones opened her home. But after just two weeks, Jones told Thomas Ludwig to leave. She couldn't stand how he treated the tiny babies.
"F------ b----," Jones remembered him calling Diella, the fussier of the two. "Shut the f--- up. If you wake up your sister, I'm going to put you in the garage."
Weeks later, Ludwig, along with Diella and her sister Shyloh, landed with other friends in a home on Richwood Lane in Port Richey. They too said he treated the infants harshly and cursed at them. On the night of Dec. 20, 2008, authorities say, he lost his temper over Diella's crying. He allegedly slammed her head against a hard surface and shook her 7-pound body, causing hemorrhaging in her head. She died the next morning in a hospital intensive care unit.
Ludwig, 26, is on trial this week charged with first-degree murder. Authorities say the aggravated child abuse he inflicted on her resulted in her death.
Two doctors testified Tuesday about the severity of her injuries.
Leszek Chrostowski, the medical examiner who performed her autopsy, said the way her skull was crushed and the amount of bleeding in her brain could not have been an accident.
"A simple fall cannot cause injuries like this in a child," Chrostowski said. "Children are designed to have minor trauma. It happens all the time and they recover."
William Brooks, the pediatric emergency doctor who treated Diella at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, said the damage to her head looked like what happens to a baby in a car crash who is ejected and strikes a tree.
"It was a death blow," Brooks said.
Diella's short life leading up to that end was bleak too, according to witness testimony.
The twins were born to a mother in prison, and child welfare officials released the babies to Ludwig's custody. He had no stable home, no job and a lengthy history of arrests. The house Diella died in had no electricity and was littered with animal feces and dead roaches.
Diella's death drew as much criticism for the system that put her in Ludwig's hands as for the man accused of killing her. Her mother, Nicholle West, won a $250,000 settlement from the Department of Children and Families for its negligence in the case. More lawsuits are pending against other agencies.
Ludwig propped bottles in front of the babies' faces instead of holding them to feed them, witnesses said. They slept in a stroller or on the floor.
Jones testified that she would come home and find the babies there alone. Or, when she was there, Ludwig would walk out without telling her.
"It's okay, I'm right down the road," Jones testified he would tell her.
She said he never wanted help — not when she told him to change their diapers more often, not when she encouraged him to hold Diella to stop her crying.
"He was in my face telling me, 'That's the problem, everybody holds the baby. Let her cry, put her down,' " Jones said.
Taken together, his actions demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of how to care for an infant: "He was cursing and raising his voice, talking to the baby like she understood what he was saying," Jones said.
The trial is expected to conclude today, and the defense said Ludwig plans to take the stand. He faces life in prison if convicted.
Molly Moorhead can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6245.