STANTON — Benjamin Wilkins confessed to making some bad judgment calls while babysitting his girlfriend’s daughter, but he came short of admitting that it was he who harmed the toddler, leaving her with life-altering injuries.
Wilkins, 26, was sentenced to from 10 to 15 years in prison Thursday in 8th Judicial Circuit Court.
He previously pleaded no contest to second-degree child abuse and being a habitual offender second offense. He was originally charged with first-degree child abuse, but he took a plea deal from the Montcalm County Prosecutor’s Office. He also previously pleaded no contest to a civil abuse/neglect charge.
Wilkins was the boyfriend of Samantha Slater, whose daughter, Brooklyn Weimer, has been hospitalized and in recovery since last March with several abdominal and brain injuries. Brooklyn, now 3 years old, was 2 when the abuse occurred.
Slater was also charged with child abuse, but a judge later dismissed the charges due to a lack of evidence at a preliminary examination. Slater was scheduled to go to a civil trial to learn whether her parental rights would be terminated, but officials from the Department of Human Services decided to withdraw their petition.
DHS will evaluate Slater and her behavior over the next year to determine whether she should have Brooklyn permanently returned to her or lose custody. The court continues to have jurisdiction over Brooklyn.
‘Not inclined to accept responsibility’
At Wilkins’ sentencing Thursday, Montcalm County Prosecutor Andrea Krause emphasized how Wilkins’ delay in calling 911 after Brooklyn was injured — a delay of up to 45 minutes — likely worsened the extent of the child’s injuries.
“This child is still obviously not recovered,” Krause said. “She has serious medical issues that will need to be dealt with for years to come.”
Wilkins’ attorney Thomas Wilson told the judge there was more to the case than has been made public. Wilson said Wilkins pleaded no contest to protect other people.
“My client fell on his sword here today,” Wilson said, “My client fell on his sword for the child’s mother. The sentencing in this case … is excessive under the circumstances.”
Wilkins spoke at length before he was sentenced, occasionally interrupting and arguing with Judge Suzanne Hoseth Kreeger.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Wilkins said. “I didn’t want to put Samantha at risk of losing her kids again. I didn’t want to see her lose her kids again so I tried to fix the problem myself, which was wrong. My biggest regret is as a parent I didn’t call 911 immediately. Instead I thought about Samantha before I thought about Brooklyn.”
Wilkins said he is not a violent person and has never been accused of harming anyone else. He said he will have to live with his guilt, but he came short of admitting it.
“I did not by no means cause intentional harm to this child,” he said. “It was my mistake. It’s my guilt that I have to live with that I know that something happened to Brooklyn while she was on my watch. I can’t let my guilt go from what I could have probably helped prevent a little more. Everything I tried to do I tried to do for the better of other people and it’s kind of exploded in my face, but by no means did I cause intentional harm to that child.”
Kreeger disagreed, noting that the severity of Brooklyn’s injuries indicate otherwise. Wilkins argued that Brooklyn had been feeling sick earlier that day.
“There was something already pre-wrong with her before,” he said. “As far as blunt force, I have no understanding how any of that could be. I still to this day do not know what happened. All I know is I failed to call 911 when there was a child that needed me to call 911.”
Kreeger pointed out that Wilkins was playing video games while he was supposed to be watching Brooklyn while Slater slept.
“Prior to being under your watch, Brooklyn was a talking, walking little gal that could feed herself, she was working on potty training and dressing herself and now Brooklyn has to work hard just to remain in a sitting position,” Kreeger said.
At this statement from the judge, family and friends of Brooklyn began sobbing in the courtroom.
Wilkins protested that he was trying to be a “good guy” by washing the dishes, making dinner and watching Brooklyn while Slater slept. Kreeger didn’t accept this explanation.
“Clearly you were irritated with this child,” Kreeger said. “Trying to be the good guy does not add up with severity of the injuries to this child. Had you been working that day instead of playing a video game and had this child been possibly cared for by some type of quality daycare we would be looking at entirely different situation.”
Wilkins continued to argue, but the judge cut him off.
“I appreciate that you are simply not inclined to accept responsibility for this situation,” she said.
“I’m holding myself accountable,” Wilkins protested. “I want to try to attempt to take back my plea, but I can’t because my guilt won’t let me.”
Kreeger then sentenced Wilkins to from 10 to 15 years in prison with no credit for time served, as Wilkins was on parole when the abuse took place. The sentence will be consecutive to the one- to four-year prison sentence for larceny in a building conviction, of which Wilkins was on parole for when the abuse took place.
‘She is a miracle’
Family and friends of Brooklyn wore brightly colored T-shirts with photographs of Brooklyn and “Justice For Brooklyn” emblazoned on the fabric. They gathered outside the courtroom after the sentencing for an emotional debriefing.
“He (Wilkins) should have got more, but we are glad that he is locked away and I hope to God that he never comes across another child again,” said Slater’s mother Lynda Sowles. “This baby is never going to be the same ever.”
“This baby is never going to be normal, never, but she’s always going to be our Brooklyn,” said Kristine Shambeau, the mother of Clayton Weimer, who is Brooklyn’s biological father. “We’d like to thank everybody for all the thoughts and prayers that the community’s been sending us, our friends and family and where we work.”
“She’s doing a lot better and she is a miracle,” Sowles added. “Brooklyn has a big family and we love her very much.”