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Father charged in baby's death

PORT RICHEY — Diella Ludwig's life began in prison, one of the twin girls born to a mother who got in trouble again and sent to live with a father who had no steady job, no car, no place of his own.

Her life ended just two months later, on Dec. 20, in the bedroom of a rental house on Richwood Lane. Her tiny skull was fractured; there was hemorrhaging. A medical examiner would later say she died of blunt head trauma.

On Tuesday, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office said the 24-year-old father, Thomas James Ludwig, killed her. Ludwig never admitted to the crime, but his two unidentified roommates told investigators they heard him swearing at the baby when she wouldn't stop crying. Then they said they heard a banging noise and, then, silence from the baby.

Ludwig is charged with first-degree murder. Diella's twin, Shyloh, is now in state care.

Ludwig's adoptive parents and sister say they don't know what happened that evening, and that they have never known him to be violent toward anyone, let alone to his daughters. But as much as they love Ludwig, they say they wonder: Why did the state let him, a twentysomething with few skills or prospects, take the baby girls in the first place?

"He didn't have the abilities to meet the needs of these kids," said Steven Ludwig, who, with his wife Debbi, gained national attention in 2000 for their adoption of 16 children, including Thomas. "I'm sure his heart was in the right place, but it was a very untenable situation."

It turns out that the Department of Children and Families is asking the same questions of itself.

A 12-page report released by the department late Tuesday night reveals that officials missed a number of red flags, including Ludwig's unstable living arrangements, his initial refusal to submit to a drug test and his lying about his address.

Officials also acknowledge that they failed to follow a number of policies, including ones that would have forced them to analyze much more carefully whether Ludwig provided the best environment for the girls.

"Once the children were released to Thomas Ludwig, an assessment of the service needs did not appear to comprehensively address the multiple risk factors including a young parent now with infant twins, lack of stable housing and employment, admitted drug use and refusal to submit to two prior drug screens," the report said.

DCF regional director Nick Cox said Tuesday night that Shyloh, the surviving twin, apparently had a leg injury when she was taken to the hospital for an evaluation following the death of her sister.

He said that the cross-jurisdictional red tape from Marion County, where the twins were born, to Pasco County, where the father lived, may have gotten in the way of setting a clear path for the children's care.

He said no one ever called for a case review meeting — what the department calls a "staffing" — to figure out what was best for the babies.

"We needed someone with a sense of urgency," Cox said. "It's difficult to understand why we had no planning or preparation in place for the birth of these kids.

"I wish to God somebody had had that staffing," he said, "and we might not have been in this situation."

• • •

Diella and her sister, Shyloh, were born to Nicholle West, days after she was sent to Lowell Correctional Facility in Marion County. Her arrest record includes felony methamphetamine possession and grand theft. On Oct. 3, she was arrested for violating her probation and sent to Lowell.

West told caseworkers that the biological father, Ludwig, should get the girls. And not long after they were born, Thomas Ludwig had his sister, Justine Greer, drive him to a Marion County hospital to pick up the twins.

"He was excited that he had these two little girls," said Greer, 28.

Steven Ludwig said his son was under the impression that he was the only one who'd take care of the girls.

"He was convinced nobody was going to do anything to help these kids," he said. "He kept pushing forward."

According to the DCF report, child protection workers in Marion County failed to evaluate whether Ludwig had the proper home environment. Then, the report says, Pasco County child protection investigators — a team from the sheriff's office that works on behalf of DCF — made the same mistake.

One Pasco County investigator met with Ludwig three times over 38 days, "with each home visit occurring at a different address which Mr. Ludwig stated was his residence," the report says. The last contact was on Dec. 1, less than three weeks before the death of Diella.

The report raises a number of red flags about Ludwig's behavior, including his lying about his address, his inability to show he had places for the girls to sleep and his initial refusal to submit to drug testing.

In addition, Ludwig, whose criminal record includes larceny and worthless checks, had been a subject of previous abuse reports, the details of which are redacted on the DCF document.

Pasco sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said the department had provided services to Ludwig, including helping him find a day care center for the girls. Ludwig had also signed up for food stamps and WIC, though his family says they were helping him buy diapers.

Cox, the DCF official, said the Pasco sheriff's team had helped Ludwig sign up for a parenting class last month, but that investigators were apparently not told that the class was full.

Neither Marion-based or Pasco-based investigators ever ranked the case as a high-risk one. The importance of that designation "cannot be understated in the Ludwig case," the report says. "This is precisely the kind of case the procedure was developed for; to prevent the breakdown of communication between various individuals and agencies."

• • •

Thomas Ludwig, along with his two siblings, were adopted by Steven, an insurance salesman, and Debbi, a stay-at-home mom, when they were children. The Ludwigs, who live in a 5,400-square-foot home near the water in Port Richey, are strong Christians who homeschooled all 16 of their adopted children and their one biological child.

One of Thomas' biological brothers, Andrew, gave the family such a hard time — terrorizing his siblings, flinging picture frames, punching holes in the walls — that the couple locked him out of the house in 2000, afraid he would hurt the other children.

In a widely publicized case, the police charged the couple with neglect. A month later, amid public outrage, the charge was dropped.

Back then, a 15-year-old Thomas tried to explain Andrew's behavior. He recalled seeing him beaten in foster care. "I was basically just like Andrew," Thomas told the Pasco Times back then. "When we came here, everything changed. We were taught to obey and started fresh."

Times researchers Shirl Kennedy and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Father charged in baby's death 01/27/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 29, 2009 9:51am]

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