Uncovering Answers in Child's Death

By Robert Goodrich Of The Post-Dispatch | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), December 5, 1996 | Go to article overview

Uncovering Answers in Child's Death


Robert Goodrich Of The Post-Dispatch, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Michelle Leann Morgan, 4, was laid to rest 35 years ago. Authorities, who received information that she was slain, exhumed her remains Wednesday.

Authorities exhumed the skeletal remains Wednesday of Michelle Leann Morgan, a 4-year-old girl they believe was murdered 35 years ago at her home near Mascoutah.

St. Clair County Coroner Rick Stone had hoped the small body, buried in the O'Fallon, Ill., city cemetery, would be in a concrete vault. Instead, it apparently was buried in a wooden casket that had completely rotted away. Digging was halted and Illinois State Police forensic expert Mark Johnsey rushed home to change from suit to coveralls so he could use a trowel to remove the remains bit by bit, "like an archaeological dig," as Stone described it. No detailed examination was done at the cemetery, but investigators took notice when Johnsey found a broken rib that appeared to match one n oted on medical reports. The remains will be examined in a laboratory at St. Mary's Hospital in East St. Louis by a pathologist, Dr. Raj Nanduri. St. Clair County State's Attorney Robert B. Haida ordered the exhumation. Stone said its purpose is simple: "We would like to gather some more physical evidence to buttress testimony we've taken during the investigation." If someone is charged in Michelle's death, the key witness is sure to be Michelle's older brother, George Morgan, now serving time in a Jefferson City prison. He was only 8 at the time, but he says the death of his little sister remains seared in his memory. Authorities have already gathered old medical records that corroborate in detail what Morgan claims to have witnessed. `Like A Rag Doll' In statements to investigators and letters to Stone, Morgan gave this account: It was Aug. 9, 1961. Michelle had turned 4 three weeks earlier. She and George were playing outside their rural home near Mascoutah. Their stepmother became enraged at Michelle, accusing her of lying about something that Morgan said was so trivial he doesn't remember what it was. But he said he does remember the woman seizing Michelle and pushing her head repeatedly under water in an outside rinse tub, then dragging the child inside. Morgan said he watched through an open doorway as the stepmother forced his little sister to lie on the floor and threatened, "Tell me what you did or I am going to stomp you." As Michelle continued to protest, he said, the woman carried out her threat, bringing her heel down on the girl's midsection again and again. Morgan said his sister's body bounced on the floor, "like a rag doll." Later, at the dinner table, Michelle vomited blood clots. Their stepmother, he said, told Michelle she better eat them. At that point, Morgan recalls, their father and stepmother left the room briefly. Michelle asked him what she should do. "You know how (she) is," he recalled telling his sister. "You better do what she says." But as Michelle tried to carry out the ghastly order, their father returned and told her to stop. The next day, Morgan recalled, they were at a friend's house when Michelle complained that her legs were weak. She then collapsed and was taken to the hospital at Scott Air Force Base. After a day or so, Morgan asked if she had died, and his father said that she had. A Genealogical Search The case might have remained forever closed were it not for a genealogical search Morgan began last year. He wrote for a copy of his sister's death certificate and was surprised to see the cause of death listed as "viral pneumonia." Morgan wrote to a funeral home, saying that was false. His letter was turned over to Stone, the St. Clair County coroner, who began to investigate. Michelle's death might still have remained mostly a mystery except that the armed services keep records assiduously. "Back to George Washington," as deputy coroner Robert Shay testified at Michelle's inquest last June. In the last year of her life, Michelle was treated at least two dozen times at the hospital at Scott for injuries or unexplained illness. …

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