Judgement in Delaware

The loss of a child was horror enough, but a vicious, political prosecution multiplied the suffering of the Mike Chase family

The ocean pounds the Delaware beach east of 42 Columbia Avenue; the sound washes through the loblollies and over the blue hydrangeas in the yard. Gulls wheel overhead in the sunlight that brightens a little white-painted chair at the edge of a brick-lined flower bed.

The garden, a dapple of sunshine and shade, is the work of 83-year-old Nicholas Chase, a retired law professor and attorney who is "Pop-Pop" to his grandchildren.

"I was teaching him about flowers," says Nick Chase, whose family has summered here for decades. "He sat in that little white chair and I taught him how to say the word flower. I was teaching him colors. It was just a quiet little place to relate to him. Now it's a memory garden."

The boy who sat in the little white chair was his grandson, Michael Oakley Chase, who died last Aug. 22 after being left for three hours in a parked car with the windows rolled up. Even reporters swallowed tears when Nick, from the witness stand, said he'd been teaching the boy to shake hands properly instead of using the palm-slapping high five he'd picked up from the big kids.

He would have turned two this January. He was Mikey to those who loved him, "the deceased" by order of the judge who presided over the prosecution of his father.

Mike Chase was indicted, tried, and ultimately acquitted of criminally negligent homicide for Mikey's death. The decision to prosecute has been denounced up and down the state of Delaware.

"This wasn't about Mikey," says Donna Chase, wife of Mike and mother of Mikey. "This was about how to get Mike."

Verdict at 10

Getting Mike proved to be a job. By the time closing arguments rolled around, lead prosecutor Mark Bunitsky's pre-trial puffery that he had "more incriminating evidence than has been released in the paper" had proved an empty boast. He was scrambling to salvage his case.

But nobody is ever certain what a jury is going to do.

Co-prosecutor Stephanie Tsantes gave the first summation, instructing the jury to "flush" emotion out of the case and see the world in black and white--no colors, no polka dots. She lectured the jury (most of the members of which have children) on what children do when they're put in car seats (failing to mention that they usually go to sleep--something a childless yuppie prosecutor would be unlikely to know much about). She smeared Mike's friend, Jay Prettyman, one more time, advancing the monstrous theory that within five minutes of Mike's discovering his dying child, Prettyman was coaching the Tennessean to save his skin and change his story from "I forgot about him" to "I didn't know he was there."

She ended with the brusque command: "Convict him."

After lunch it was defense lawyer Joe Hurley's turn. The jury began to smile as he tweaked Tsantes by asking them never to forget polka dots. He was wearing, as always, a polka-dot tie. After trial, jurors would remember his use of a quote from the movie Dead Man Walking--"When you lose a child all memories get sealed; sealed in a shrine"--to show why Mike would remember some details, like buying Mikey ice cream with sprinkles on top, while forgetting other details.

"Those sprinkles didn't break his heart."

Hurley dismantled the testimony of ambulance attendant Ryan Myers, whose statement that Mike said "I forgot" was crucial to the prosecution, since he had no relationship to other witnesses. Hurley painted Myers as a callow youth and reminded the jurors that almost every part of his cocksure testimony was contradicted:

"Impeached all over the ball yard.... Twenty-one years old and thinks he knows it all."

Bunitsky was the cleanup man and went to work with his customary ham-fisted zeal. Like Tsantes, he warned of the "emotional trap" and he labored mightily to show that "I didn't know" could really mean "I forgot." He finished up with an admonition, perhaps culled from some old-time prosecutor's book of hackneyed tricks, to remember Mikey Chase's coffin.

When the jury polled itself, the vote was eight for acquittal, three for conviction, and one question mark. The judge excused them overnight. The next morning, after another 20 minutes, Hurley appeared in the hallway outside the courtroom and mouthed the word "verdict." Someone ran to get Mike, who was out back smoking Luckies.

Finally the judge took his seat; then came the jury. Donna Chase was flanked by her sister-in-law, Toddy Chase, and by the family priest, the Rev. James Manion, who, unable to sleep, had stayed up praying most of the night and had a vision in the early morning hours: 10 o'clock.

Seconds crawled like slugs. Hurley slumped in his chair, crying openly. Mike stared at the table. John Sandy searched the juror's faces. They didn't look back.

They were looking elsewhere.

They found Donna and they smiled.

It was 10 o'clock.

Beaten up by thugs

Donna Chase was the sad-eyed lady of the courtroom. Sitting outside the door waiting to be called to testify against Mike, directing her gaze downward, watching the beige carpet. She is blonde and stylish, long-legged and slim. Although Bunitsky asked whether she could read and write, she is an interior designer with a degree and a portfolio. A Delaware columnist called her "stunningly attractive" but said she looked as though she'd been beaten up by thugs.

Small wonder. Consider the night when Mikey, more dead than alive, was being loaded onto a helicopter to fly 80 miles to a better hospital and the police chief decided it was a good time to make her go down to the station and give a statement. And consider that Delaware State Police investigators bullied her into leaving Mikey's deathbed to speak into a tape recorder.

But she got through it with help from family and friends--just, she says, as she will get through the difficult days ahead. She knows about rumors that she and Chase were fighting when she put Mikey in the car; that they put up a front for the cameras during the trial. That it's splitsville now that the verdict is in.

Wrong.

"Mike and I might be best friends. We probably are. We have loved each other for 13 years and been friends for years before that. The rumors are garbage. We've been dealt a lot. But my gut feeling?

"We're gonna make it."

Now that the legal ordeal is over, her family must start working through the stages of grief--again.

"Mikey was one of the most beautiful children ever put on this earth," she says. "People used to stop and ask 'Is he always this happy?' Mike and I used to say he only had two speeds: full-throttle and totally stopped.

"And now we're right back to where we were the day after the funeral. We've been there once. Now we have to go there again."

Donna Chase is aware that not everyone wishes her family well. There's a vocal minority of self-styled family advocates who still say Mike must answer for something. She wonders how people who claim to be defenders of family values can be so judgmental.

"I saw a bumper sticker that says 'Hatred is not a family value.' To me, that says it perfectly. I'd really like to get one of those stickers," she says. "We answered to a higher power the night we held Mikey as he died. Mike and I were together when all of our children were born and we were together when Mikey died. But their judgments don't hurt me; losing Mikey hurts me, and it hurts Mike and it hurts Mikey's sisters. There were only three things that were really precious to us, and we still have Kara and Kelsey. Maybe now we can get back the memories."

She says Mike is an extraordinary father.

"He was the king of diapers. He knew the state-of-the-art diapers, where to get the best wipes, formula. He knew the prices. The only thing was, he never felt comfortable with diaper bags, and China Inn used to have this little blue carry-out bag that he'd pack up and use.

"He gave the kids breakfast every morning," she remembers. "He'd take them to the office. We'd all go down there. We'd order pizza, pull chairs together for nap time. To lose our child because we work too hard? That's garbage. We believe you're supposed to work hard so you can be secure and give to your children. We lost our child because of a tragic accident

"Somehow, we've got to go forward. God, pity the people who aren't strong. People need to reach out, not be afraid. You don't just live day by day. You have to live hour by hour."

She recalls Hurley's remarks about Ryan Myers and believes they apply to her husband's prosecutors, as well.

"Ms. Tsantes, Mr. Bunitsky, they think somebody has to be to blame. I can't play in the league of the people who have done these things to us but I know some day some of them will look back and be forced to make changes in their lives. Mr. Bunitsky is old enough to know better, but he doesn't have the life experience."

She feels her family has taken a beating by the media. "Some of the television people have been respectful but some I don't understand. I don't understand things they did at the funeral [a TV camera crew blocked the funeral procession], at the church, at the cemetery, in our neighborhood.

"And I don't know what to say about the [Knoxville News-] Sentinel. As far as they were concerned, Mike was a headline and I was a nonperson," she says. "Somebody's got to write those headlines, but there was a cruelty in some of them that I just don't understand. Why tell the same story over and over and over and over and just keep going on and on and on?"

The Chases have saved all the stories for Kara and Kelsey to read when they are older, to spare them the heartache of having to search for information from outside sources.

"I've put away letters to them, too, in the event something happens to us," Donna says. "It's important they not forget about their little brother."

A series of commonplace events

It's the "if onlys" that drive Mike Chase crazy.

"It took a million little tiny things to make it happen," he says. "If I hadn't gone to the Rudder that Friday we wouldn't have been invited out to the farm on Sunday and we wouldn't have put our trip home off to Tuesday. Or if I wouldn't have called [family friend] Craig Belitz on August 5th to borrow the Suburban, or if Jay hadn't had horses and cornÊ..."

Nobody could have know that the commonplace, profoundly ordinary series of events that would end in tragedy had already begun to unfold last Aug. 18, when Mike and Donna took Mikey to the Rusty Rudder, a restaurant and bar in nearby Dewey Beach. They wanted to look up an old friend who now works for Jay Prettyman, owner of the Rudder and adjacent RudderTowne, a bustling complex of shops and restaurants with a marina out back.

Prettyman had met the Chases only a couple of times before but invited them to bring Mikey and his two sisters--Kelsey and Kara, then 8 and 5--out to his farm for a Sunday afternoon cookout. The Chases had planned to head back to Knoxville on Monday but decided to delay their departure by a day to enjoy the weekend.

The August visit to Rehoboth Beach, founded as a Methodist camp settlement with a Hebrew name meaning "room enough," is a family tradition. Mike and Donna and the kids get together with Mike's brother Steve and his wife Toddy at their house on Park Avenue, just around the corner from Nick and Louise's. There are bicycles to ride and the beach just blocks away.

For Mike, August means beach plum season, and he had picked enough that year to go through 100 pounds of sugar making the jelly that he planned to give away at Christmas. He says it is the world's best. (Nobody who knows Mike Chase would expect a less extravagant claim. He is a big, intense man given to big, intense enthusiasms.) He still had a gallon of plum juice.

But that could wait until Monday.

He went crabbing Saturday, and on Sunday there was the trip to the Prettymans. Donna piled Mikey into the blue-ruffled car seat that had been passed down from Kelsey and Kara, and they all got into the clunky, 1993 maroon Suburban with the high-backed seats and dark-tinted windows. Mike had borrowed it so his family would be safe and comfortable while traveling.

Jay and Patti Prettyman have a pond with ducks and a little tractor to ride on. There is a big, friendly golden retriever, a garden, and horses and cows. The kids got to pick corn and tomatoes to take home to their grandparents.

That Sunday afternoon remains stamped into Patti's memory.

"That little boy, he just stole your heart," she says. "Mr. Energy, smiles for his dad, eyes for his mom. He left little handprints of corn all over everything. We had steamed clams. And Mike just kept feeding little Mikey those clams. He'd never had them before and Mike was just amazed that he'd eat them. He kept saying, 'Look at my boy!'"

She remembers something else, too.

"He'd been running all over the place, but soon as they put him in that car seat to go home, he was asleep, just like that! I remember commenting on it."

Patti took a picture of Mikey and his red-haired sisters with Mike on the tractor. Mikey is sitting on Mike's knee, his white-blond hair glowing in the late afternoon sun. It would become a defense exhibit at the trial.

Jay blames himself for what happened.

"If they'd never come out here on Sunday, Mike wouldn't have gone down to the Rudder on Monday," he says, wiping his eyes.

A last day at the beach

The Chases tried to make the most of the last day of vacation. Donna took Kelsey shopping, Mike took Kara and Mikey for a bicycle ride on the boardwalk. Kara fell off and skinned her knee, so they had ice cream cones with sprinkles on top to cheer her up. Mikey made an ice cream mess.

When they got home, Donna scrubbed Mikey's face and changed his shirt and diaper. He was ready for a nap. Mike needed more sugar to finish his jelly, Donna was taking the kids for one last day at the beach.

Nobody knows exactly what happened next. Grandmother Louise offered to watch Mikey, who loved cars and riding with his daddy. Mike was going by the Rudder to thank Prettyman for Sunday's outing. Contrary to 10 months' worth of stories saying Mike was at the Rudder for "a business meeting" (also the prosecution's contention at trial), Prettyman says he dropped in unexpectedly.

In her taped statement, Donna recalled Mikey running around in the yard. She remembers saying that he "sure would like to go."

She said Mike had "one foot on the ground, one foot in the car," a phrase prosecutors would use to build their case. She also said she "didn't tap him on the shoulder." Finally, she would say Mike didn't know the baby was in the car.

In that confused and disjointed statement--coerced out of her around 10:30 Monday at duPont Institute in Wilmington while Mikey lay dying and Mike was still in jail--Donna recounted strapping him into the car seat, which was secured to the driver's-side seat in the second row even though Mike always insisted on putting the seat up front when he and Mikey were alone in the car. She said she'd expected Mikey "to be asleep before they got around the block."

At some point Mike went inside and asked his father to come along. Nick was reading and declined the invitation. Mike fixed himself a sandwich and read the sports page. When he went out and climbed into the Suburban, Donna came over to get her purse. Mike complimented her on her new blue bathing suit and drove away.

When Mike got to the Rudder, Prettyman was in a bad mood, and told him he'd had it and was going to sell the place. In his videotaped statement, Mike recalled telling Prettyman, "You don't want to sell your business. You just gotta control it."

Before long, Prettyman's friend George McMahon called about going to look at a piece of real estate. They invited Mike along, and he offered the use of the roomy Suburban.

But McMahon wanted to drive, since his son George Jr. was in the car waiting. It was parked near the Suburban. Because of the tinted windows, no one knew that they were within a few feet of Mikey.

Later, George's wife, Sharon McMahon, would testify that Mike said the kids were "all at the beach with my wife." She says she remembered wondering how many "all" were.

Upon their return to the Rudder, Mike resumed the pep talk. Later, he went out to the car and retrieved some computer printouts he'd brought with him from Knoxville and stashed in the back of the Suburban, once again coming within feet of Mikey.

Prettyman sobs aloud when he relives that afternoon.

"For me to talk to him, to get advice from him; it's like a young kid talking to Troy Aikman. I feel I kept him at the Rudder. He was trying to help me. It's a tragedy, tragedy, tragedy.

"And I know if Mike had known he was in that car, he would have just loved to bring him in, he'd have the biggest smile all over his face. He loves his children."

Mike, Prettyman says, "likes underdogs. If I'd been this big successful guy, he wouldn't have liked me as much. When he finally walked out of my place, he was saying 'PMA [positive mental attitude], Jay. PMA. Be nice to your help. You gotta be nicer.' Fifteen seconds later, he discovered Mikey. He tried to help me or he'd have been long gone."

Patti Prettyman was called as a witness. Jay wasn't, and the prosecution labored mightily to discredit him. Some years back, he got into trouble with the Internal Revenue Service and pleaded guilty to skimming on his taxes. The insinuation that he either bribed or threatened witnesses into giving testimony favorable to Chase was essential to the state's case.

'What kind of man are you?'

After Mike discovered Mikey and ran screaming into the restaurant with the barely breathing child and after the ambulance came and after Mike was taken to the police department, he would spend more than three hours chained to a bench, wild with grief, begging someone, anyone, to tell him what was happening with his son.

"Just SOP [standard operating procedure]," Dewey Beach Police Department officers would testify. But evidence shows they assumed Mike was drunk and informed hospital personnel of their belief.

Mike thinks the four witnesses who encountered him in the parking lot and said they heard him say "I forgot" also assumed he was drunk. "Those people, they pick up the paper the next day and see that I'm saying I didn't know he was in there, and they say, 'Hey, this old drunk from Tennessee....'

"If you opened the car door and found your child, what would you say?" Mike says. "My first thought was 'How the hell'd you get here?' My mind was running like a slot machine--you got two strawberries up and you're looking for the third one. Bananas, pineapples going by. The third one is the jackpot; the third one is the one that makes sense."

Jay Prettyman says Mike grabbed him by the lapels, slammed him against the wall and yelled, "I didn't know he was in there!"

Others testified that Mike said lots of things, including "I forgot;" "I murdered my boy;" "How could I forget?" and "How could I not know he was in there?" And "I didn't know. I didn't know. Oh my God, I didn't know."

"There's one thing I do know," Mike says now. "Everything happened so fast, and it was so crazy. There isn't anybody that really knows, with all the commotion. They all said I was over there talking to myself. I've thought about that a million times. But there was one word I never used: remember. I didn't say 'Boy, I don't remember this, I don't remember that.' I never used the word remember.

"What's imbedded in my mind is opening that door and finding my son."

Prettyman did what he could to help. He went to 42 Columbia and told Mikey's grandparents there had been an accident and they needed to find Donna.

"I didn't want to alarm them. Some things that happened that day will never leave my mind. So horrifying," Prettyman says. "I went back to the police department. There was Mike, chained to a bench, tormented, beating his head against the wall. I pleaded with them to let him go with his son but they put me back in this other room and wanted me to fill out an accident report. I did it the best I could, called my secretary and told her to get [attorney] John Sandy."

He also called Patti, who hurried down to Beebe Medical Center. There she saw Nick and Louise Chase, whom she did not yet know, at the front desk.

"I walked over and asked the lady behind the desk what had happened," Patti recalls. "She answered in a very loud voice, 'He was drinking all day at the Rudder while his baby was locked in the car.'"

The woman behind the desk may have been the same woman who denounced Nick and Louise: "What kind of people are you?" Louise Chase remembers a large, angry woman yelling at them. Rumors were all over the hospital.

Meanwhile, Prettyman's secretary got hold of John Sandy, who arrived at the Dewey Beach Police Department around 5:30 p.m., before the state police. A former prosecutor, he insisted on a breath-alcohol test.

"I'd been saying, 'I'm not drunk. Would someone please listen to me?'" Mike says.

He says Sgt. Robert Berry, the officer who manacled him to the bench, had a rapid change of attitude once the test was performed. "You should have seen Bob Berry's eyes when they gave me that balloon and it was zero-zero," Mike says. "He was the meanest cruelest cop to me I ever saw in my life until he realized I wasn't drunk. He kept yelling, 'What kind of man are you? Go in there and drink while your son is in the carÊ...'"

The next day, after Mikey died, Sandy accompanied Mike to the Delaware State Police office to give a videotaped statement. Afterward, two detectives embraced Mike and tried to give him the keys to the Suburban. A state police spokesman would call it an accident resulting from a "miscommunication" and the devastated Chases would fly home to bury Mikey.

The service was at the Church of the Ascension in Knoxville, and they sang "Jesus Loves Me" and "Tears in Heaven,' which Eric Clapton wrote after his own small son's accidental death. At the cemetery, they sang the "Barney" song--I love you, you love me. We're a happy family.

The little boy who so loved cars and riding with his daddy was buried with a set of keys in his hand.

Torment after the tragedy

Meanwhile the Delaware Department of Justice, headed by state Attorney General Jane Brady, started moving. Mike was not aware that anything was afoot.

"I left Delaware thinking it was okay, that the investigation was over," Mike says.

Mike's brother, Steve Chase, who lives in Rehoboth, monitored the situation.

"September, October, November, they say, 'No problem. Just cleaning up the investigation--no indictment.' In the meantime, they were preparing for Pearl Harbor. They had all this information lined up all that time," Steve says.

Brady's office started getting phone calls from Mike's friends, including, an informed source says, Vice President Albert Gore (Mike is a prominent Democrat). But there were others as well. In particular, Brady wondered why she was getting daily calls from the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

The phone at Delaware State Police headquarters was ringing, too. David Ford, a Blount County bail bondsman, claimed to have witnessed a similar incident shortly before Mikey's death.

Mike started smelling trouble.

"Two weeks after we got home, I heard through the grapevine that Holland Ingram had called Delaware," Mike says.

Ingram is a former Copper Cellar Corporation employee who filed suit against Mike within weeks of Mikey's death alleging that she had been sexually harassed for more than a decade. She told investigators she saw Mike leave one of his children in a hot car.

Mike believes the combination of Ingram's charges and the News-Sentinel's avid interest helped turn the case into a runaway train.

But Mike's attorneys had affidavits from two people swearing they'd heard Ingram vow last March to get Mike Chase. She wasn't called as a witness.

Ford testified in a pre-trial hearing and the judge ruled that the relevance of his testimony was outweighed by its inflammatory nature. Defense arguments turned on the legal research of Mike Chase's secret weapon--Nick Chase, who ranked first in his class at Georgetown University Law School in 1939 and taught there as well.

For months, Mike barely functioned.

Finally, he decided life was worth living.

"What am I gonna do, die? Take a Glock and blow my head off? That ain't gonna help Kara or Kelsey or my wife," Mike says.

In November, he went back to work as CEO of the Copper Cellar Corporation, just before Brady announced that her office would take him to the grand jury.

John Sandy petitioned successfully for Mike to appear before the grand jury. Bunitsky asked the judge to reconsider and got his way. Mike was denied the right to tell his side of the story; the grand jury didn't even see his videotaped statement. Bunitsky refused even to inform the jurors that Mike was available to speak to them. Then he attempted to have the record of these transactions sealed from public view.

The family passed a bleak Christmas and Mike was indicted in January. Joe Hurley joined his defense. Bunitsky extended a plea bargain. Mike refused and requested a trial before a judge. The motion was denied and a trial date was set. They were riding the runaway train.

After the acquittal, it was Jane Brady tied to the tracks: Why, Delawareans asked, did she prosecute based on such flimsy evidence?

She started looking for cover. First, she used the grand jury. Then she said the state police urged her to push the case forward.

There are many theories. Some say Brady--a prominent Republican who once ran for Joe Biden's Senate seat--saw political advantage in prosecuting a wealthy man who was an out-of-towner. Delaware lawyers point out that the Chase case could have gained her national prominence. Others suspect a darker motive: might someone, seeing an opportunity to eliminate a powerful Democrat, have picked up the phone and called in a favor?

Brady says she was damned if she did and damned if she didn't.

Steve Chase recalls the old legal clichŽ that a prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich if she so desires. "She conveniently ignored all but four witnesses who heard 'I forgot' and got a ham-sandwich indictment. My brother had the resources to fight this one-sided onslaught. What about the person who doesn't? When government avoids the truth in the interest of winning, the only people who do have a chance are the wealthy."

The whole Chase clan worked hard to insulate Kara and Kelsey from their parents' trouble. But children always know too much. And on the night Mike was acquitted, when the grownups were finally able to breathe again, there was a kids' squabble over some spaghetti. Kara pitched a fit, crying inconsolably.

Her mother explains it like this: "It was the nightmare all over again. The food came and the people came. But she's seen the turmoil that comes after the food and the flowers. I just want my children to smile and to know they don't have to take care of Mommy and Daddy anymore."

© 1996 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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