The Justice Files: A toddler’s death in rural Utah

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Utah) –  Lisa Vanderlinden was concerned about the behavior of her foster son.

The two-year-old wasn’t eating and was difficult to control according to her friend Tiffany Duncan.

“(Vanderlinden said) sometimes it was very difficult,” Duncan said during a court hearing in 2019.  “(She told me) he bruised easily and he fell a lot.”

Duncan was also a foster parent and considered Vanderlinden her mentor.  Vanderlinden lived in Myton, near Roosevelt

They often talked about their own foster children and the toddler was becoming the focus of their conversations.  But everything changed when she learned the two-year-old was not well.  It was a Saturday night in 2018 when Duncan received a phone call from Vanderlinden.  

“She said he was sick, he was throwing up,” said Duncan at Vanderlinden’s preliminary hearing. “She thought it was more than throwing up. She thought it was more like the flu.”

Vanderlinden, according to Duncan, checked on the toddler at three in the morning and went back to bed. The next morning he was dead.

Months later, Vanderlinden was charged by the Utah attorney general with one count of aggravated murder.  It carries a fifteen-years-to-life in prison. Investigators had pieced together medical reports and the autopsy that confirmed their suspicions.  

During Vanderlinden’s preliminary hearing Dr. Corey Rood, a pediatrician testified that the child should have been hospitalized prior to his death.

“The child is precipitously getting worse as the evening progresses,” Rood testified.”There’s more vomiting, there’s more blood. He’s not himself. He’s not active. He will then continue to have sepsis and shock which will lead to his death.”

The injuries were extensive. According to the autopsy, there were “dozens” of contusions and abrasions of the head, face, ears, neck, chest, abdomen, back, arms hands, legs, and feet.

“The primary problem is blunt force trauma,” Dr. Rood said.

Duncan said Vanderlinden claimed she didn’t know the toddler had injuries.  

“She really didn’t know,” said Duncan.  “She said that they weren’t there when (body) left her house.

The prosecutor then asked Duncan if Vanderlinden offered any explanation about the internal injuries.

“Her older son had jumped off the top bunk onto him on the floor,” Duncan said.

But Dr. Rood said a single episode would not have created the numerous injuries found on the toddler’s body.

In March, Vanderlinden admitted guilt and accepted a plea deal that reduced the charge to child abuse homicide.  

Judge Samuel Chiara: “To the charge of child abuse homicide, a first-degree felony, what is your plea?” Vanderlinden:  “Guilty.”

She will be sentenced next week.  In a court document filed this week with the Duchesne County district court, prosecutors with the Utah attorney general’s office said Vanderlinden should serve the maximum sentence of five-years-to life in prison.

“The defendant as foster mother and sole caregiver occupied a special position of trust to the child,” wrote Craig Peterson, assistant attorney general. “She betrayed that trust.

The toddler’s biological mother is scheduled to appear at Vanderlinden’s sentencing and issue a statement.

Marcos Ortiz
Emmy award winning journalist and producer, reporter of the Justice Files seen nightly on ABC4, begining his career in Blythe California with stops in Green River and Cheyenne Wyoming. He was hired to be KGGM’S political reporter in Santa Fe, New Mexico before arriving in Salt Lake City in 1992 as a general assignments reporter before moving into the crime beat.
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