The grandmother of an Evansville toddler who died under suspicious circumstances in May made her first court appearance Tuesday morning. Tiffney Johnson, 42, has been charged with neglect of a dependent causing injury in connection with the death of Kaylei Carter. Despite public outcry for additional arrests, officials with the Vanderburgh County Prosecutor’s Office tells Eyewitness News that they don’t expect to issue any additional arrest warrants.
According to the affidavit used to get a warrant for Johnson’s arrest, two people who were in the apartment alongside Johnson and Carter told detectives that there was synthetic marijuana and loose tobacco on a table. The witnesses told detectives they saw the toddler put some of the loose synthetic marijuana or tobacco in her mouth, according to the affidavit.
One of the witnesses implored Johnson to take Carter to a nearby hospital but it didn’t appear Johnson followed through. In an interview with detectives, Johnson stated that she had not taken the child to the hospital nor did she provide the child with any sort of medication, according to the affidavit. Johnson also reportedly admitted to smoking synthetic marijuana the night before Carter died.
Carter had synthetic marijuana in her system at the time of death, according to the coroner’s report.
Because Johnson was the only person tasked with taking care of Carter at the time the toddler ingested the synthetic marijuana, prosecutors couldn’t file charges against anyone else, said spokesperson Whitney Riggs.
Johnson appeared in Superior Court via teleconference and the court issued a not guilty plea on her behalf. Johnson indicated that an attorney has been hired on her behalf. Prosecutors have also filed an habitual offender enhancement charge against Johnson, which carries a possibly penalty of 6 additional years to her sentence.
Supporters of Carter’s biological and step fathers sat in the front row of the gallery. The group also vowed to attend as many of Johnson’s court hearings as possible.
“I have two girls myself. I’m a mother myself. You don’t do this to your children,” said Jocelyn Hunt, a family friend. “Kalei had to be sick. There was neglect from her mother and grandmother.”
According to a supplementary report obtained by Eyewitness News, detectives were contacted by Chief Deputy Coroner Steve Lockyear. Lockyear told detectives that Carter’s blood had tested positive for synthetic marijuana. Additionally, Dr. James Jacobi, a forensic pathologist, ruled the cause of death to be from Streptococcal Sepsis, a fast-attacking infection.
Later that month, on June 29th, Dr. Jacobi told detectives that sepsis attacks the body quicker for children than it does adults. Detectives also noted that Johnson had reported that Kaylei had a fever prior to her death. Furthermore, according to the supplemental report, Dr. Jacobi said there were not enough case studies to determine what levels of synthetic marijuana would be lethal for a child.
Dr. Jacobi said that if Kaylei had had only tested positive for the synthetic marijuana and not the sepsis, he could have possibly ruled the death as an overdose, according to the supplemental report.
Even though she’s of no relation to Carter, Hunt said the little girl’s death still makes her emotional. That’s why she has vowed to continually advocate for justice.
“It hits me hard because it’s a baby. They’re innocent. No one should hurt a child,” Hunt said.