Mon. May 20th, 2024

A Baton Rouge mother was accused of murder after police say she punched her toddler in the torso for playing with her contact lenses, causing her to hit her head and die hours later, before the family reported her missing.

24-year-old Lanaya Cardwell and her partner, 30-year-old Phillip Gardner, were both booked on counts of second-degree murder Wednesday in the death of 2-year-old Nevaeh Allen.

Gardner, who identified himself to investigators as the girl’s stepfather, faces a second-degree murder count because police say he failed to help the girl after she complained about suffering from stomach pain and that the Nevaeh may still have been alive when he stuffed her into a suitcase before disposing of her body in a remote forest in Mississippi.

SEE ALSO: Mother And Stepfather Of Louisiana Toddler Nevaeh Allen Charged In Child’s Death

Gardner had already been jailed for allegedly disposing of the child’s body.

“Over the last several days, since we first received the call, it was our highest priority to bring Nevaeh home,” Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul said Wednesday in announcing the arrests. “It saddens me to … discuss the fact that this beautiful, innocent angel is no longer with us.”

The graphic details about the case emerged in affidavits for Cardwell and Gardner’s arrests released late Wednesday.

Police say Gardner was caring for Nevaeh and two other young children, aged 3 years and 11 eleven months, Friday morning at their apartment on West La Belle Avenue while Cardwell was in the bathroom preparing to go to work.

SEE ALSO: Body Found In Remote Area Of Hancock County Is Missing Louisiana Toddler

The warrant says that’s when Nevaeh picked up her mother’s contact lenses. Angered, Cardwell allegedly punched her daughter in the torso with a closed fist, police say, causing Nevaeh to fall and hit her head on a cabinet.

Cardwell then “forcefully grabbed” Nevaeh and took her to another room, the warrant continues.

Gardner told police he heard what sounded “like two adults fighting” in the next room.

When Cardwell and her daughter emerged, Gardner said Nevaeh was crying and had a large bruise on her forehead.

Gardner told investigators that he then drove Cardwell to work and that when he returned home, Nevaeh refused to eat and complained about stomach pain.

Then, he said the girl laid down on the couch, where Gardner said he later found her unresponsive.

He told police he tried to resuscitate her and, when that didn’t work, he admitted to getting rid of the body.

SEE ALSO: Caregivers Of Missing Toddler Questioned As FBI, Police Continue Search For Missing 2-Year-Old In Louisiana

According to the affidavit for his arrest, Gardner stuffed the girl into a “small suitcase” and loading it into his car and taking off to Mississippi with his 3-year-old and 11-month-old in tow. Police say he told them he left his cellphone at home to avoid being tracked.

When he got to a remote area around Pearlington, Mississippi, police say he placed Nevaeh’s body “into a makeshift grave deep in the woods.”

“Gardner disposed of the suitcase in the woods,” the affidavit goes on to say, “and disposed of the victim’s clothing in a trash can.”

Then, he drove home and filed “a false missing persons report,” police say. Initially, he told police he woke up from a nap to find Nevaeh missing. That story changed during interrogation, police say.

Police say Gardner could not explain why he chose not to contact authorities, except that he wanted to protect the girl’s mother. Police say Gardner knew of previous incidents when Cardwell had been abusive with Nevaeh.

FBI agents interviewed Gardner’s children, who also described “a history of verbal and physical abuse” by Cardwell, according to the affidavit. Police say the children “gave detailed accounts” of Cardwell grabbing Nevaeh by the head and yelling at her. The children told police that Nevaeh’s mom struck her on the face because the girl played with her contact lenses, authorities say.

Two days later, police found Nevaeh’s body in the Mississippi woods.

An autopsy showed several bruises on the girl’s face and head, swelling to the brain and marks on her face “consistent with that of a hand print,” police say. The girl’s thighs and buttocks were covered in bruises. The coroner reportedly also observed injuries on the girl’s abdominal wall, “which were consistent with being punched in the abdomen,” the affidavit continues.

SEE ALSO: Louisiana State Investigating 1-Year-Old’s Death In Foster Care; Foster Parents Charged With Murder

After the autopsy, police said a forensic pathologist told them “it cannot be ruled out that the victim was still alive at the time that Gardner placed her in the suitcase and suffocated to death prior to succumbing to the other injuries.”

In addition to the second-degree murder allegation, Cardwell was booked on a count of perpetration of second-degree cruelty to juveniles.

The affidavit explains that Gardner accused of second-degree murder, too, because “all persons concerned in the commission of a crime are principals whether present or absent, and whether they directly commit the act constituting the offense, aid and abet in it’s commission, or directly or indirectly counsel or procure another to commit the crime are principals.”

By that standard, the affidavit states, “Gardner was a principal to this crime.”

Cardwell gave an interview to WAFB-TV on Friday not long after the family reported Nevaeh missing and a massive law enforcement search was ramping up.

“I don’t know what could have happened. I don’t know what went wrong,” she said tearfully. “I wish I would have stayed home from work, I don’t know. That’s all I know.”

She said she last saw Nevaeh that morning before going to work, when she brought the child to the corner store and got her some snacks and apple juice.

“That’s the last time I seen my baby,” she said, sobbing into the camera. “When I went to work, she had on her yellow dress with the pineapples on it, and she should have still had on that dress.”

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By Buffy Gunner

Independent Journalist + Business Owner | Lover of all things true crime. Mantra: Only YOU can be YOU. | Los Angeles Born |