When 3-year-old Jessika Haberle stopped breathing Feb. 23, 2009 following a nap on her a bed, she was dirty.
Her hair was dirty, her legs were dirty, and the soles of her feet were “filthy,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Dan Greco said Monday in Washoe District Court. Her home at 930 Lepori Way in Sparks was also dirty and cluttered with items dangerous for a small child, he said. Three empty prescription methadone bottles belonging to her mother, Tracie Schuler, were found on the table near the bed where Jessika slept.
Toxicology and hair analysis concluded the toddler who loved cartoon character Sponge Bob Square Pants had more than nine times the lethal amount of methadone in her system that would kill an adult, Greco said. The hair testing showed that before she died Feb. 23 from the massive overdose that night, she had twice ingested methadone since August 2008, he said.
Greco told jurors Monday afternoon during opening statements that Schuler was responsible for her daughter’s death by either intentionally giving the girl the dangerous drug to sedate her, or negligently leaving her bottles around so her daughter could accidentally ingest the drug.
Schuler is the first person in Washoe County to be prosecuted for a fatal methadone poisoning, authorities said. She is charged with second-degree murder, child neglect causing substantial bodily harm and a gross misdemeanor of child endangerment related to the condition of her home.
But her public defender, Jennifer Lunt, said being a lousy housekeeper did not mean Schuler was a murderer. She said the methadone levels in the girl’s system were exaggerated because they were tested after the girl died, which causes a natural spike in the body.
“There is no question that Jessika had methadone in her system,” Lunt said. “The question is how did it get in her system.”
Greco said that Sparks police detective Jason Woodard had videotaped Schuler outside the police department following a March interview where he told her Jessika died of methadone poisoning. In that footage, Schuler blames herself several times, saying “I killed my (expletive) kid,” “it’s my (expletive) irresponsibility” and “I did it.”
But Lunt said those statements were not an admission of guilt, rather a distraught mother who knew she was the only one who was supposed to have the methadone. Schuler also asked the police to shoot her and called herself an “(expletive) idiot.”
During an earlier interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal, Schuler said she was breast feeding her daughter, which is why the drug was in her system. She said Jessika needed to gain weight so she could have surgery to repair two holes in her heart. She said the breast feeding was helping her gain weight. The girl also still wore diapers.
Greco said that every Thursday Schuler received a four-pack of prescription methadone bottles from a local clinic. The bottles are supposed to be kept in a locked box, with a padlock. Schuler was warned verbally and in writing that the bottles are dangerous and are to be kept away from children.
Schuler has told the Gazette-Journal she is a recovering heroin addict who takes prescription methadone to curb her cravings. She was taking the drug when she was pregnant with Jessika, who was born addicted and was given methadone to wean her off the narcotic. Greco said there was no medical or legal reason why the girl would have methadone in her system when she died.
Jessika’s father and the couple’s roommate worked full-time, leaving Schuler as the girl’s primary caregiver. The girl died after she was left alone with Schuler on Feb. 23. Her father noticed she had stopped breathing, and their roommate called police.