Two Upshur County residents arrested after 2-year-old dies from traumatic injury consistent with ‘shaken baby’ syndrome

BUCKHANNON – Two Buckhannon residents have been arrested on child abuse and neglect charges in connection to the death of a two-year-old infant who died from traumatic injuries consistent with ‘shaken baby’ syndrome, according to the Upshur County Sheriff’s Office.

Thomas W. Cunningham, 27, of Buckhannon, has been charged with child abuse resulting in the death of a child and child abuse resulting in injury, both felonies, after a two-year-old infant died and the infant’s one-year-old sibling was seriously injured after being left in Cunningham’s care.

Ciera N. Gillespie, 25, of Buckhannon, the mother of both children, has been charged with child neglect resulting in the death of a child and child neglect resulting in serious bodily injury, also felonies.

According to the criminal complaint in the Upshur County Magistrate Clerk’s Office filed by Upshur County Sheriff’s Deputy Rodney Rolenson on behalf of the Mountain Lakes Drug and Violent Crime Unit, the alleged incident occurred Monday, Nov. 28, 2022.

The criminal complaint says that at about 6 p.m. Nov. 28, Gillespie went to Walmart and left her three children — ages 1, 2 and 6 — in the care of Cunningham, her boyfriend, while allegedly knowing he was “under the influence of a controlled substance,” later identified as Percocet, according to the complaint.

Gillespie told police that as she was pulling into the driveway upon returning from Walmart that she received a call from Cunningham informing her that “something was wrong with [the two-year-old].”

“Ms. Gillespie stated as she went into the apartment, Thomas Cunningham handed her [the two-year-old] and his body was limp and blood was coming from his mouth and nose,” the file states.

Cunningham called 911 and Upshur EMS responded, but as the ambulance was pulling away from the residence, Cunningham allegedly “came running out with [the one-year-old] stating there was something wrong with this baby also.”

On Wednesday, Nov. 30, the two-year-old was pronounced dead at J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown.

During the course of his investigation, Rolenson interviewed WVU Medicine staff member Dr. Melvin Wright who said the manner of death was “traumatic injury consistent [with] ‘shaken baby’ [syndrome], and that the retinal injuries were the worse he had seen in 10 years,” the file states.

Dr. Wright said the injuries suffered by the one-year-old were also significant and also resulted from shaken baby syndrome. Wright told police that “it would have to be violent trauma with immediate incapacitation.”

According to the complaint, when interviewed at the Sutton detachment of the West Virginia State Police on Dec. 1, Gillespie, the mother, allegedly admitted she knew Cunningham was under the influence of a controlled substance when she left her three children in his custody. The same day, Cunningham told WVSP officers “that he had used Percocet to get high” while the three children were in his care.

Rolenson’s report concludes that based on interviews with Dr. Wright, Cunningham and Gillespie that Cunningham was “the sole individual” left to care for the three children at the time the two infants suffered traumatic injuries.

According to an email from the UCSO, Cunningham was arrested by the Upshur County Sheriff’s Office and Gillespie was arrested by the Sutton detachment of the West Virginia State Police.

The W.Va. Regional Jail site says Cunningham is currently being held without bond on the charge of child abuse resulting in the death and $100,000 cash-only bond on the second charge. Bond was set at $200,000 cash-only for Gillespie.

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