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Ricky Holland's story: Parts 1 & 2 in 14-part series

11:39 AM, Dec 3, 2007   |    comments
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On a raw January day in 2006, Tim Holland fell to his knees after leading police to the skeletal remains of his son Ricky in a Michigan swamp. "What have I done?" he wailed as he looked at the black plastic garbage bag partially submerged in the icy water. "What have I done?" What could anyone have done to save Ricky? What did anyone do? Ricky's story got national attention when the search for the missing 7-year-old turned into an ugly case of murder at the hands of his adoptive parents, Tim and Lisa Holland. They convinced authorities they were a deserving couple seeking to build a family through the foster care system. But a Free Press investigation shines new light on how their dark, secretive world unraveled, and Ricky with it. Confidential documents provide disturbing new details about his life, death - and those who were supposed to protect him. Ricky came into foster care as a bright child hurt by neglect. His problems only grew, masked by powerful drugs and the Hollands' manipulation of teachers, social workers, doctors, child welfare investigators and others who looked for abuse but didn't always see it or act. Would you have seen it? Could you have saved Ricky? Read his story and decide. It won't be as easy as you think. Chapter 1: Ricky enters foster care Casey Gann was 19 and homeless when she brought her 3-year-old son to the Jackson County Department of Human Services to place him in foster care seven years ago. Tears in her eyes, she asked for a few minutes alone with Ricky. "I talked to him and told him that he wasn't going to be with Mommy," she said. "I just told him that he was going to be going with somebody else, living with somebody else, until Mom could get it straightened out to where I would be able to take care of him. "After I got done saying that, I said, 'Is that OK?' " Ricky nodded. "Before he left, he gave me a big hug and a big kiss and said, 'I love you, Mommy.' " Then Ricky was led away. The boy had been through a lot already. He'd traveled between California and Michigan three times on a bus with his mom. He'd bounced around homeless shelters and the homes of friends and relatives. He may have been sexually abused. He'd had a rough way to go from the start. His mother was just 16, a small-town girl from Springport in Jackson County, when she gave birth to Ricky on Sept. 8, 1997, in Chula Vista, Calif., a town on San Diego Bay near the Mexican border. Casey Gleason had hooked up with the much-older Rick Gann and followed him to the West Coast from Michigan. Rick was 39 when his son was born. They weren't yet married when they brought Ricky home to a chaotic household where drugs were used. A half-dozen or more people lived there, on and off, including Casey's father. Casey said she tried to shield Ricky from the partying that went on in a backyard guesthouse dubbed "the Office." To Rick, a 300-pound Army veteran on disability for deteriorating vertebrae, Casey was the neglectful parent. He said she would put Ricky in a walker or high chair and pay no attention to him. But if Rick was serious about being a dad, he blew it when he was busted in April 1999 while crossing into California from Mexico with several pounds of marijuana. "It was like his third or fourth time," Casey said. "I told him not to 'cause he was going to get in trouble. And then my dad woke me up the next morning and said, 'Casey, I don't want you to cry or get upset, but Rick's in jail.' " By then, she didn't really love Rick anymore. She caught a bus for Michigan with Ricky. The two of them drifted around central Michigan, going back to California once more to visit Rick. But when he landed back in jail for violating parole, Casey and Ricky caught another bus to Michigan in early 2000. Things didn't go so well. Casey couldn't find work. Once she did, it didn't last long. She went from boyfriend to boyfriend. Ricky was along for the bumpy ride. Two complaints alleging that he was being abused were lodged with Child Protective Services in Jackson County that summer. One, in June, said Ricky was dirty and had a bruise on his body that looked like someone had hit him with an open hand. Another, in July, said he'd been whipped with a belt. Little is known about the allegations and nothing was ever proved. By September, Casey was out of options to provide for Ricky. On the afternoon of the 23rd, she turned Ricky over to the State of Michigan. Tim and Lisa Holland marry ... It would be six years before Lisa Holland would be found guilty of first-degree murder and child abuse in Ricky's death and Tim Holland would plead guilty to second-degree murder. The two met in the spring of 1997 through an online dating service. The relationship deepened quickly. A few weeks after they began dating, Tim asked Lisa's father for permission to marry her. After their Nov. 29, 1997, church wedding in Williamston, Tim and Lisa honeymooned in Las Vegas and moved into a small apartment in Haslett, near Lansing. Tim worked first as a security guard at a Meijer in Lansing, then as a private investigator, even buying a Glock semiautomatic handgun. Lisa's jealousy emerged early. She flew into a rage when Tim went for a walk and ended up talking with a woman who managed the apartment complex. Lisa accused him of having an affair and pointed the Glock at him, Tim said. But he never filed a police report and later sold the gun. Years later, he told police he never knew what was going to set his wife off. "If I'm not home at a certain time, she's yelling and screaming at me," he said. Tim began working as a warrant enforcement officer with the Jackson County Friend of the Court on March 16, 1998, the same day as his supervisor, Ward Staffeld. Staffeld said Tim left early that day - and many others - after getting a call from Lisa. She controlled him, Staffeld would later tell authorities, and he advised Tim to "get away ... while he still had a chance." But Tim stayed with Lisa and, to satisfy a job requirement that he live in Jackson County, they took out a $70,000 mortgage on a three-bedroom home on a large lot in Summit Township, just south of the Jackson city limits. ... and begin to plan a family By mid-2000, Lisa and Tim Holland, then 27 and 31, had weathered a bad patch in their marriage, and baby fever struck. Lisa became increasingly wrapped up in the desire to have a child, even consulting with a doctor about fertility treatments. Earlier in the year, Tim had talked about divorce. He complained at work that his wife was lazy and, though she didn't have a job, wasn't doing anything around the house and had maxed out their credit cards. "He was up at 4:30 doing laundry because she didn't know how to do laundry," coworker Robin Walling said. "She didn't know how to cook, didn't know how to clean. He said, 'She doesn't know how to do anything!' " But when he'd bring up divorce, she'd bring up her ailments, including headaches she thought might be a sign of a brain tumor. And if he gave her an ultimatum, she "threw herself on the ground and started kicking, just like a child," Walling said Tim told her. After they gave up on fertility treatments because of the cost, Lisa hit on the idea of foster parenting. It was a pathway to adoption: The state pays you to care for children while judges and social workers sort out the best course. Wanting a family, too, Tim backed off from divorce. They applied to become foster parents through the Jackson County Department of Human Services and took the training. Background checks described them as upstanding citizens. Staffeld wrote a letter of recommendation, calling Tim "an outstanding human being" and Lisa - someone he didn't know well - "a lovely person." "Any children assigned to his care would be fortunate to be living under his roof," Staffeld wrote. The Hollands' provisional foster care license came through Sept. 21, 2000. The state said they could have up to four foster children 5 and younger, though none who was highly aggressive or destructive or had severe emotional or physical impairments. Tim and Lisa Holland were ready for a child. Chapter 2: Hints of trouble Ricky Holland lasted only nine days in his first foster home. His foster mother found him trying to fondle a younger boy, and because she operated a day care center in the home, Ricky had to go. The 3-year-old landed with Tim and Lisa Holland on Oct. 2, 2000. He was their first foster child and they thought he was a gem. But a few weeks later, Tim walked in on something disturbing. Another foster child who had been placed with them, a 6-year-old boy, was on top of a naked Ricky. Ricky wasn't protesting. It was another instance of sexually tinged behavior, often a sign of an abused child. Lisa called Child Protective Services. The Hollands weren't found to be at fault. They met with caseworkers to discuss safety measures and installed a monitor and alarms on the boys' bedroom doors. The 6-year-old soon was moved to a different foster home. One form of discipline: No dinner Three more foster children - siblings 7, 4 and 2 - arrived at the Hollands' in early January. Teresa and Darren Bloodworth had lost custody of the kids temporarily because their house was dirty and needed repairs to remove lead paint. Lisa Holland, who by then had a part-time job at a Rite Aid, quit to be a stay-at-home mom. The oldest sibling, Teresa May Bloodworth, now 13, said she often arrived home from school and found Lisa watching television while Ricky and her 4-year-old brother, Dallas, were locked in their room, presumably for misbehaving. Teresa May said Lisa used other forms of discipline, including a version of time-out in which she'd have the kids hold pennies against the wall with their noses. A penny had to stay in place for a minute for each year of the child's age. If it fell, the clock started over. Two or three times, Lisa sent Ricky and Dallas to bed without dinner, Teresa May said. She said she fixed macaroni and cheese with chopped-up hot dogs for the boys after Lisa fell asleep, carefully relocking their bedroom door afterward and cleaning up the dishes. Tim later said he took over child-care duties when he came home from work. Teresa May remembers that Tim was always nice to her and took her out to dinner with the other kids for her birthday. Lisa Holland's complaints grow It wasn't long after Ricky arrived in the Hollands' home that Lisa's complaints about him to his foster care worker began to grow: He was hyper, aggressive with other children, sneaky, constantly getting into things and putting himself and others in danger with his actions. She insisted she needed a higher difficulty-of-care subsidy for him. So the caseworker at the Jackson County Department of Human Services, Theresa Bronsberg, arranged for an evaluation by child psychologist Jerel Del Dotto of Birmingham, who worked two days a week at Foote Hospital in Jackson. After tests, Del Dotto decided that Ricky's problems fell into a catchall category - disruptive behavior disorder - but said he didn't think further medical or psychological intervention was needed. He thought the boy could be managed with proper parenting. Lisa didn't agree with his diagnosis. She also complained to Bronsberg that Ricky was wandering the house at night and urinating in spots, and being disruptive at the Head Start program he attended. At the school, Ricky was viewed as a normal 3-year-old who had flashes of defiance. Tests showed his basic skills and emotional development were typical for his age. And Bronsberg noted only one weakness in Lisa's parenting skills: She was allowing Ricky to have too much control. Overall, Bronsberg told her superiors, Ricky and the Hollands were coming together as a family. Therapist says Ricky needs TLC After observing him for 10 months, Susan Honeck, Ricky's therapist at Catholic Charities of Jackson, concluded that Ricky was suffering from reactive attachment disorder caused by the separation from his birth mother. Once, while playing with two plastic horses during a counseling session, Ricky said, "The little horse is going to die if it can't be with its mother." Honeck thought he needed a soft touch and urged Lisa to "touch Ricky on the shoulder or to gently touch his cheeks to get his attention to focus on her when speaking to him." But once, Honeck observed Lisa pinching Ricky's cheeks with one hand hard enough to pucker his lips, to force him to look at her. "It was not a loving touch," said Honeck, who thought Lisa always seemed overwhelmed by Ricky. Honeck also told Bronsberg that Ricky needed special attention, "in a household where he had one-on-one contact and was the only child." But her advice made little impression at the Jackson County DHS. The Bloodworth children left in April 2001, but that July, a new foster child - a 4-month-old boy - arrived at the Hollands'. The next month during a visit at the DHS office, Ricky's mother, Casey Gann, found a bruise on his buttock. Ricky told a protective services investigator that he'd fallen on a toy. Lisa Holland said she didn't know how he came to be bruised, but that he did play aggressively with toys. Child Protective Services decided there wasn't enough evidence to open a formal investigation. Ricky starts getting medication By September 2001, Lisa was asking for a new psychological assessment of Ricky. Bronsberg arranged for an appointment with Dr. Aurif Abedi, a child psychiatrist at Foote Hospital. After the first session, based on his observations and others' previous assessments, Abedi diagnosed the boy with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder - the diagnosis Lisa had sought for months - and reactive attachment disorder, the bonding problem that Honeck detected. Abedi put Ricky, who had just turned 4, on Ritalin, a stimulant often prescribed for hyperactive school-age children to help them focus better. When preschool children are prescribed Ritalin, experts say, it's generally because the children are disturbed and other therapies haven't helped. Abedi advised the Hollands to keep an eye on Ricky's moods and continue his weekly counseling with Honeck. Through the fall, Ricky's behavior worsened. "Ricky's developmental accomplishments regressed to their previous levels of defecating in his pants and on his bed," Abedi wrote at one point, reflecting what Lisa reported to him and the DHS, and documentation she provided from the Head Start school. "His behavior at school was again aggressive and violent with the other children. ... The skills Ricky was developing are being undone, and his emotional state is currently very fragile." In a recent interview, Abedi recalled that during one visit, he suggested Ricky might need hospitalization. Tim Holland asked him whether there was another option. Abedi prescribed a mood stabilizer for Ricky. "We made that change and it worked for him," Abedi said. The doctor, who said he sees 60 to 80 children a week, said he spent perhaps 20 minutes with Ricky during visits and had to rely on what his caregivers told him. The Holland family "came to me and looked like a perfectly normal, average middle-class family," Abedi said. "Looking back on that case, it all comes down to: Were they really telling me what was going on? "God knows what was going on in that house." TUESDAY: A dog leash and a pair of handcuffs.

BY JACK KRESNAK, FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

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