What happened to Gabriel? 

Robert "Dave" Wilkes is currently in prison for killing his 3-month-old son. He swears he didn't do it. New evidence may prove his innocence.

Robert "Dave" Wilkes hustled to get done as soon as possible. He was moving from a one-bedroom apartment on Third Street to a larger one in the same building, and his young son, Gabriel, was being watched by a neighbor. It was Oct. 4, 2008, just one day before Gabriel turned 3 months old, and the infant was suffering from an upset stomach. In addition to handling the move, Wilkes dropped off some Tylenol for his neighbor to give Gabriel. It was a hectic day, but Wilkes says he didn't mind. He always wanted to be a father.

Around 8 p.m., Wilkes finally finished moving his things and picked up Gabriel from the neighbor's apartment. He hadn't set up the crib yet, so Wilkes laid his son down on a thick quilt in the bedroom. When Wilkes went to the living room and cracked open a soda, he says he heard gurgling and rushed to check on his son.

"When I picked him up, his head lolled to the side," Wilkes recalls on a recent fall afternoon.

Gabriel vomited. Wilkes brought his son from the bedroom to the living room, but Gabriel had stopped breathing. Wilkes started chest compressions on the living room futon.

"He wasn't coming to," Wilkes says. "His face kept getting redder."

Wilkes couldn't find his phone. In the panic, he says he forgot it was in his back pocket. When he ran to the neighbor's house, the one who had taken care of Gabriel earlier in the day, he screamed at her to call 911.

By the time EMTs arrived, Gabriel wasn't responding.

"It was kind of a blur after that," Wilkes says.

Gabriel's mom, Sonja Wilson, was working in the Missoulian packaging department when she got the call from a Community Hospital receptionist that her son wasn't breathing. The receptionist said Wilson should hurry.

She still remembers the scene inside the hospital room.

"The first thing I saw was my son laying on the trauma table with like eight doctors and nurses standing around himyou know, trying to revive him, giving him CPR, hooking him up to monitors," Wilson says.

She then realized Wilkes was in the room, to the right of the door.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

"There was Dave sitting on a stool with his knees up to his chest with his hands to his face and he was bawling," Wilson says.

Wilkes and Wilson sat together at the hospital until 1 a.m. Missoula Police Department detectives then came and took them to the police station. They questioned both parents, as well as the babysitter, about what had happened that day.

"That whole time I highly believed Dave didn't do anything," says Wilson.

Wilkes told the police the same thing he had told the doctors and the same thing he would later tell a jury: He didn't know what had happened to Gabriel. He didn't know what went wrong.



•••

Four years to the day after his son got sick, Wilkes, now 41, sobs quietly inside the Crossroads Correctional Facility in Shelby, where he's serving 40 years for deliberate homicide. Gingerly, he picks up a photo of Gabriel wearing a blue jumper. It's the only photo Wilkes has of his son, and he keeps it tucked away in an old Father's Day card in his cell. Wilkes says it's hard to look at the photo.

"He looked so much like me," Wilkes says.

Three weeks after Gabriel got sick and stopped breathing inside Wilkes' new apartment, Gabriel died. The autopsy showed signs of subdural and retinal bleeding and brain swelling. These symptoms are known as the "triad," and have traditionally been used to diagnose shaken baby syndrome.

SBS is now more frequently referred to as "non-accidental head trauma." There is no official record of how many people are prosecuted for inflicting high-force trauma on children in their care. Some experts estimate that as many as 200 individuals face such charges annually in the United States.

Authorities considered Wilkes a suspect in his son's death from the beginning. They believed he was stressed from caring for a newborn and managing the move into a new apartment, and accused him of violently shaking or slamming Gabriel. That was the prosecution's explanation of what happened when Wilkes went to trial on Dec. 14, 2009.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

"(Gabriel) died in Spokane in a hospice, after sustaining devastating, life-ending brain injuriesinjuries inflicted by this defendant, his own father, the day before he turned 3 months old," said prosecutor Suzy Boylan.

The babysitter who had cared for Gabriel testified that she smelled alcohol on Wilkes' breath on Friday night, the night before Gabriel got sick. She also smelled it on Saturday when Wilkes picked Gabriel up.

Boylan said the CAT scan and MRI immediately prompted Community Medical Center doctors to suspect Gabriel's injuries resulted from abuse. The child, Boylan said, sustained "severe non-accident trauma to the braintrauma that requires a great deal of force to be inflictedthe kind of force you would see in a motor vehicle accident, or a fall from a great distance."

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