On November 15, 1990, a 2-year-old boy named Billy Blankenship was reported to have fallen down the stairs in his babysitter’s care in Concordia, Missouri. The sitter, Tawny Sue Gunter, claimed she had put Blankenship in her basement and told him to stay there as she prepared lunch upstairs in the kitchen. She told investigators that he had tried to follow her up the stairs, but then tumbled back, hitting his head on the way down.
The little boy, who was found unconscious and critical, suffered a skull fracture. He was airlifted to Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, but was pronounced brain-dead the following day.
Ordinarily, that might have been the end of the story—but not in this case. Eight years later, in 1998, another child was injured while in Gunter’s care—this time, a 3-month-old girl, Mariah Sisco. On that tragic day, Sisco’s mother, the now-deceased Amy Younce Thomas, got a call from Gunter at work that the baby wasn’t breathing on her own. The infant died at the hospital later that night, with no official cause of death listed.
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“There was no evidence of trauma or injury. It seemed like it was SIDS; that’s all the [medical examiner] could determine,” recalls Dr. Lori Frasier, a Pennsylvania child-abuse pediatrics specialist who worked in Missouri at the time. “But it alerted people that this was the second death of a child in this same setting [with Gunter].”
At that point, police opted to re-open the official investigation into Blankenship’s death, and Frasier was asked to review emergency-room notes and X-rays from the boy’s file. What she found therein was disturbing.
“I was concerned about some of the findings in the records because there was a large skull fracture and retinal hemorrhages,” she says. “It seemed inconsistent with a fall down the stairs.” She suggested the investigators exhume the young boy’s body for further examination.
Frasier also remembers Billy’s parents telling her that “something was amiss with the way he died—there was a rush from the hospital to get his organs harvested, and there wasn’t a sufficient investigation.”
In 1998, Blankenship’s largely decomposed body was exhumed and sent over to the Missouri medical examiner, Dr. Jay Dix. According to Frasier, Dix (who is now deceased) agreed with her assessment that the fracture Blankenship had received was too severe to have occurred from a fall down the stairs.
Officers headed straight to Gunter to interview her—again—about what had taken place on the day of Blankenship’s fatal injury. But this time, an officer asked her to reenact, on camera, exactly everything that transpired while she was taking care of the boy.
On tape, Gunter says she’d heard a series of “thumps” from the basement while she was making lunch; when she went to the stairs to check it out, she told police she spotted Blankenship lying at the bottom of the steps, whimpering. “I thought I had just knocked the air out of him,” she says.
This admission was dramatically different from what Gunter had previously said about the events of that day; she had never before admitted to causing the child’s injury in any capacity. This detail of her “knocking the air out of him” led officers to believe Gunter had more to do with Blankenship’s death than they’d suspected, and she was officially charged with killing the tot.
At her trial in November 1999, Gunter pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in Blankenship’s death. She reportedly admitted to grabbing the child in a fit of anger, which led to him falling over the side of the staircase. Gunter received the maximum sentence of 15 years. No charges were ever filed regarding the death of Mariah Sisco.
Very little information is available about Gunter’s whereabouts today, though it’s believed that she’s now out of prison on parole. (The Missouri Department of Corrections declined to comment.) She popped up in 2017 to sign an online obituary guestbook for an infant who passed away in Concordia.
When asked about how often she sees these types of crimes in her work as a pediatrician and child-abuse specialist, Frasier says it happens more often than one might think. “What we see in statistics for these kinds of [child] injuries is that the majority are male perpetrators,” she says. “But the second most common perpetrator is babysitters—more often than mothers. I have seen a fair number of kids injured in the hands of daycare providers who are not licensed, [but] they seem like a nice person [so parents use their services].”
She calls this type of situation “desperation daycare”— i.e., when a mother is forced to turn to a suboptimal childcare provider because she needs to work and doesn’t have a lot of money to spend on childcare. This is most likely what happened with Sandy Blankenship (Billy’s mother), as well as with Sisco’s mother, who reportedly had expressed some concerns about using Gunter as a sitter following the death of Blankenship.
Though Gunter’s case hasn’t been in the media spotlight for many years, Frasier says she still thinks about it: “I haven’t heard anything new about the case, but it’s been in my mind a lot.”
She is content with the knowledge that the Blankenship family may have finally seen some justice. “The Blankenships were so appreciative of what was done for Billy, and they felt like they [finally] had some closure.”