On Jan. 17, Lacey Spears rushed her 5-year-old son, Garnett, to a hospital in Nyack, N.Y., reporting that he had been experiencing seizures.
A couple of days later, Garnett's sodium levels spiked and he was airlifted to another hospital. He was barely breathing, his pupils were blown and his skin was a pale gray color.
As the days went on, his mother never left his side, sleeping in the same room. And, as she had for years, throughout Garnett's young life in Decatur, Ala., and Clearwater before New York, Lacey Spears provided updates on her popular blog, "Garnett's Journey,'' and Facebook.
Doctors, baffled by the level of sodium in Garnett's body, confronted Spears. "Something isn't right," one doctor told her.
Garnett was alert and talking on the night of Jan. 20 when friends visited him and Spears in his hospital room. One of the friends later recalled the boy pleading with her: "Don't leave me."
It wasn't until the following morning, Jan. 21 — after Garnett's condition worsened further — that doctors called a child-abuse hotline, prompting police to get involved. The boy was taken off life support and declared dead Jan. 23.
Last week, after a long investigation, Spears was charged with second-degree murder. Prosecutors say Spears took Garnett into the hospital room's private bathroom and injected sodium into the feeding tube in his stomach. It appears to be a case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a rare mental illness that involves a mother's causing or inventing health symptoms so that her child gets medical care.
Chillingly, investigators suspect the medical abuse went back to the boy's earliest days in Alabama — and was fueled by the social media attention Spears gained on Facebook, Twitter and her blog.
• • •
When Garnett Spears was 5 days old, he went to an Alabama hospital with a high fever and ear infection.
At 10 weeks, Spears said Garnett stopped breathing at the same time his sodium level climbed. At the time, doctors could not explain why.
Garnett had trouble gaining weight and, at 9 months, doctors put in a feeding tube.
And then, when Garnett was 2, Spears brought him to Clearwater where they lived with her grandmother, Peggy Florence. Spears' Facebook postings showed it as a time of sandcastles, sidewalk chalk pictures and Garnett driving his electric tractor, stuffed animals in tow.
Spears would drive her grandmother on errands and shopping trips. She worked as a babysitter and joined a parenting group where she shared tearful stories about raising a sickly son whose police officer father had died in a crash. She also met mothers who sent their children to the Suncoast Waldorf school in Palm Harbor, like the one Garnett later would attend in New York.
"You've never seen a child so taken care of. Lacey was doting, very," Rebecca Paulen, a neighbor of Spears' grandmother, told the Journal News of Rockland County, N.Y.
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Paulen's husband, Ken, agreed: "She wasn't interested in dating or anything like that. She was totally devoted to him."
But the little boy was soon in and out of emergency rooms in Clearwater — once with a staph infection and blood leaking from his ears and his nose.
In June 2011, a member of the parenting group complained to Florida's Department of Children and Families that Spears was medically neglecting her son and would slap him till he cried. "Mom will slap him for no reason as hard as she can. He begins to cry and then she begins to love on him," the Journal News reported the complaint as alleging.
The complaint, the first of two that year against Spears, also accused her of taking Garnett swimming with his eyes and ears bleeding, and taking him on outings with high-grade fevers. Investigators did not find any marks or bruising on Garnett, and Spears denied all allegations of neglect and abuse. The agency classified Garnett as being at "intermediate risk" because of his age and troubled medical history, but closed the case with no followup services ordered.
Spears told the investigators she had become interested in holistic healing and an organic lifestyle.
In June 2012, when someone questioned her parenting, Spears issued a sharp rejoinder on Facebook: "No my child does not eat off plastic, have his food cooked in a microwave, play with plastic toys that light up and talk ... He isn't vaccinated, doesn't follow western medicine ... No I won't take his pacifier until HE IS READY TO LET IT GO!!! ... At the end of the day he is loved, natured, thriving, happy and always put 1st!!!"
• • •
In late 2102, Spears left Clearwater for New York state, settling in the Rockland County village of Chestnut Ridge.
She joined the Fellowship Community, an alternative lifestyle group founded by devotees of Rudolph Steiner, a philosopher who became known in the early 1900s for his efforts to find a synthesis between science and spirituality.
The Journal News reported that Spears learned about the Fellowship, in part, from one of the Clearwater families she babysat for: Jak and Nicole Plihal, whose three children she watched.
On its website, the Fellowship Community says it is dedicated to helping care for those with long-term illnesses. "As is now well known, a healthy normalizing setting is therapeutic for long-term care of those who are ill," the website says.
Spears told her followers online that it was the perfect environment for her and Garnett.
During the final hospital stay, Spears took to Facebook frequently, pleading for prayers as she posted pictures of her son on life support, writing that the pain in his head was making him scream out in pain.
Then, on Jan. 23, Spears posted a final Facebook declaration: "Garnett the great journeyed onward today at 10:20 a.m."
At first, condolences flooded in, but support for Spears diminished as friends learned about the police investigation and stories from her past emerged. And they learned that she had lied about Garnett's father. He was not a police officer who died in a crash; he is a garage-door installer still living in Alabama.
Investigators now are digging into Spears' 14 months at the Fellowship and the time she spent in Alabama and Florida, poring over medical reports and interviewing friends, hospitals and social service agencies that have fielded calls in the past about Spears' parenting. Police have also spoken to members of the parenting group in Clearwater.
• • •
Last December, a month before he died, Lacey Spears and Garnett made a return trip to where they had spent so many apparently happy days — her grandmother's home in Clearwater.
"Garnett liked purple and owls," Rebecca Paulen, the neighbor, said, so they filled his own little Christmas tree with purple owls.
Reporting: (Rockland County, N.Y.) Journal News series "Losing Garnett the Great,'' New York Times, Washington Post, WABC.com (Boston).