Two-year-old Ocean Wright was in the care of her stepmother on an August evening when something went terribly wrong.
Tihani Bowman, then 21, told authorities she had just fed the kids spaghetti when she told Ocean to take a shower upstairs, with the help of Ocean’s 4-year-old stepsister.
Exactly what happened is the subject of inconsistent accounts. Tihani Bowman did not respond to requests for an interview. Christian Whiting, Ocean’s father, declined to speak about the case.
The one certainty is that Ocean suffered second-degree burns to her face, arms and legs, according to Ocean’s Hawaii Pacific Health medical records.
The burns covering almost 30% of Ocean’s body were “consistent with pouring hot liquid,” according to a report by a multidisciplinary panel of health care professionals who reviewed her case for the Department of Human Services.
“It is unlikely Ocean burned herself on four separate parts of her body,” the report by the nonprofit Child & Family Service states. “The findings in this case are consistent with child maltreatment.”
Medical professionals found “significant bruising” on Ocean’s buttocks and noted that Ocean had come to the hospital a few weeks before for unexplained injuries, the Child & Family Service report states.
Less than a month after she was burned, Ocean died with her mother, Sassidy Curry, by her side, surrounded by doctors. The Honolulu Medical Examiner ruled her death a homicide, which means simply that it was caused by another person.
Four years later, the case remains open with the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. No one has been charged with a crime — unusual for a juvenile homicide in Honolulu.
“It’s been four years, and I don’t even know what happened at all,” said Curry, who lives in Las Vegas. “It’s not fair.”
The police transferred the case to prosecutors in October 2018. The Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s office declined an interview request.
“The case is still open and is being actively investigated,” spokesman Matthew Dvonch said in an email earlier this year.
According to Randal Lee, a former city prosecutor and retired judge, the length of time that has passed is a bad sign.
“It’s now becoming a cold case,” he said.
Neither the medical examiner’s office nor the police department would share records about the case, citing the open investigation. HPD declined an interview request. So it’s impossible to know why the toddler’s death has never led to charges.
However, HPD did acknowledge that police made a significant change to Ocean’s case in the critical period after she was burned.
When officers first responded to Ocean’s hospital bedside, they thought the child had hurt herself and classified it as “second-degree endangering the welfare of a minor,” HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu said in an email. The misdemeanor charge applies when an adult “recklessly” allows or causes a child to harm themselves.
That decision had crucial implications for the investigation, according to an HPD source who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person is not authorized to discuss the matter. It meant that the case didn’t trigger an immediate response from the Criminal Investigative Division, which prioritizes felonies, and crime scene specialists didn’t collect evidence right away, the source said.
“That is a big screw up,” said Loretta Sheehan, a former city prosecutor who focused on crimes against women and children, after Civil Beat described the chronology to her. “If violence against a child is suspected, securing the scene is key. It is critical for a successful prosecution.”
Immediate action, for instance, might have allowed investigators to know how hot the shower was the day Ocean was burned. Adults can suffer third-degree burns if exposed to 150-degree water for 2 seconds, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. But young children have thinner skin than adults, according to the American Burn Association, “resulting in deeper burns than adults for the same temperature and exposure time.”
The shower setting is a missing piece of the puzzle that makes prosecution more difficult, said Lee and Sheehan, the former prosecutors.
Investigators in child abuse cases can also look for physical evidence such as water on the floor, blood or other evidence of a physical struggle, Sheehan said.
“You have to go and get the evidence right away before they can alter the scene,” Sheehan said.
Even without physical evidence, though, Lee said it’s still possible for child abuse prosecutions to proceed.
“It’s harder. Is it impossible? No,” he said. “I would turn over every stone because a little girl’s life was lost.”
Yu said that shortly after the initial classification, it was reclassified to first-degree assault, a felony that applies when a person “intentionally or knowingly causes serious bodily injury to another person.”
She didn’t respond to questions about the date of that reclassification nor the date that HPD processed evidence at the scene of Ocean’s injuries.
Following Ocean’s death, her case was reclassified again, Yu said, to second-degree homicide.
Curry said she hasn’t heard from prosecutors in over a year and half. She feels they’ve failed her.
“I never stopped fighting for her, even when everyone else gave up on her,” she said.
Curry said she met Ocean’s father, Christian Whiting, at a nightclub in California. She got pregnant unexpectedly and a paternity test confirmed it was his baby, she said.
Ocean was an intelligent child whose favorite person in the world was her brother, Kyree, Curry said. She was big for her age and loved wearing sparkly shoes and purses.
Around Ocean’s second birthday, Whiting petitioned for partial custody, according to court records. He was granted visitation rights for two months per year and every other holiday, she said.
Even though she was uncomfortable with the arrangement, Curry said she had to send Ocean to Hawaii, where her father, a cook for the U.S. Army, lived on Schofield Barracks.
“So I met him at the airport, me and my mom, and I gave her to him,” she said.
Curry said she didn’t know he had gotten married and was living with his wife, Tihani Bowman, and two other children: Bowman’s 4-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, and a 2-month-old baby Whiting had with Bowman.
At first Curry called and FaceTimed every day, she said. But Ocean would get upset when they hung up, Curry recalls Whiting telling her.
“So then the phone calls just stopped,” she said.
It was on Aug. 18, 2017, less than two weeks before Ocean was set to come home to Las Vegas, that Curry got a call from Whiting’s mother, Shirley, that something had happened to Ocean.
Curry got on a plane to Hawaii, arrived early the next morning and rushed to the hospital, she said.
When she found Ocean, the child was “mummified” in gauze. The mother said she didn’t recognize her own child.
“She looked at me like, ‘Mommy. Mommy,’” she said. “And I’m just crying.”
In a brief email, Shirley Whiting, Christian Whiting’s mother, declined an interview request on behalf of herself and her son.
Civil Beat made repeated attempts to reach Bowman – by phone, email, mail and through a former roommate – but did not receive a response.
Whiting’s and Bowman’s accounts of what happened contained “several inconsistencies,” according to the Child & Family Service report.
The nonprofit’s multidisciplinary team, funded by the state, is made up of licensed professionals who provide their assessments of the medical, mental health and psychosocial needs of children and families. Ocean’s team was made up of a pediatrician, a psychologist, a social worker and a nurse.
Whiting said he had gone to a party at a bowling alley with Ocean’s baby brother around 3 p.m. Ocean was left home with her stepmother, Bowman, and her stepsister.
Bowman reported that Ocean soiled her diaper, so she took her outside and hosed her off in the yard. She then gave Ocean something to eat around 4:30 p.m., the report states. Ocean’s medical records, provided by Curry, state they had spaghetti.
After that, Bowman said she told Ocean to take a shower because she still smelled from the dirty diaper. After some time, she said she also directed Ocean’s stepsister, who was 4, to check on Ocean while she went outside to smoke a cigarette.
Whiting and Bowman would later report that it wasn’t unusual for them to rely on Ocean’s older half-sister to help her bathe or change her diaper – responsibilities that the multidisciplinary team nurse wrote were not appropriate for a child that age.
Around 5:25 p.m., Whiting came home and was talking to Bowman outside when the older child came out to say that she found Ocean hurt, according to the account in the Child & Family Service report.
Whiting said he went to the bedroom and found Ocean sitting on the bed, wearing a clean diaper, with a towel wrapped around her and burns on her face and body, the report states. He also reported seeing skin in the bathtub.
“He became very angry and punched the wall twice, called his mother, then called 911,” the report states.
Paramedics arrived at 5:50 p.m. and were met by Whiting carrying Ocean, the report states.
“When asked if she knows how she got hurt, (patient) nods her head but does not elaborate (further),” a nurse wrote in the file that day.
As medical professionals treated Ocean’s burns, they discovered a large dark mark on Ocean’s left lower chest and numerous linear bruises on both sides of her buttocks.
Several weeks prior to Ocean’s scalding, in July 2017, Whiting brought her to Kapiolani Medical Center for Women & Children for an evaluation of facial abrasions and bruising, according to the Child & Family Service report. However, he left with the child before an X-ray could be scheduled because, he said, the emergency room visit was taking too long and he had to return to work, the report states.
Kapiolani Medical Center staff left a voicemail with the family in an attempt to follow up, but an appointment was never scheduled. That’s according to a separate Department of Human Services report the agency filed in court in support of a request by Curry, Ocean’s mother, for a restraining order to keep Whiting away from the girl.
The Child & Family Service team report, which was completed later, said both Whiting and Bowman denied knowing how Ocean received those facial injuries in July.
After Ocean was burned, the Child & Family Service multidisciplinary team determined that “child abuse/neglect has occurred” but the exact circumstances remained unclear. The couple had not been forthcoming with details to support their claims about Ocean’s injuries, according to the report.
“Under these circumstances, they cannot safely care for their children,” a psychologist wrote in the Child & Family Service report.
The couple’s two remaining children were moved into foster homes.
The report states that professionals with the Hawaii Children’s Justice Centers questioned Ocean’s stepsister in a forensic interview, a specialized method of interviewing child witnesses in abuse investigations. But that conversation was “inconclusive to any explanation or information regarding the injuries sustained by Ocean,” the report states.
“It was reported that she was seen singing and avoiding questions,” the licensed clinical social worker wrote in the report.
However, Ocean’s stepsister did report that the couple “hits Ocean with a ‘green belt,’” according to the Department of Human Services report Ocean’s mother filed in court. The report did not say how often that allegedly happened.
On Oct. 24, Bowman filed for divorce from Whiting. The divorce was finalized in May 2020. Their infant son was placed in the custody of Bowman’s mother, divorce filings show. Court records don’t indicate where Bowman’s daughter ended up.
Prosecutors can file charges if – and only if – they feel they have enough evidence to convict, according to Ted Coons, a former Honolulu homicide detective who was not familiar with the facts of Ocean’s case but agreed to speak about law enforcement investigations generally.
Child abuse cases, where there are few if any witnesses, are among the most difficult to prove in court, he said.
“It’s emotional, right?” he said. “Nobody wants to see a burned child. We all know that it’s wrong, a morally wrong, stupid decision. But if you want to hold somebody criminally liable, you have to have proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Coons said protections against double jeopardy prevent prosecutors from pursuing the same charge twice. So they’ve got only one shot to get it right, he said, and they take that seriously.
“Do you want to take a weak case where there’s probably a way better chance that you’re going to lose and that the defendant is going to be acquitted?” he said. “Or do you wait and see if you have another chance later on where you get something?”
People sometimes confess to crimes years after they happen, and prosecutors can use that against them, Coons said. There’s no statute of limitations on murder.
He said he’d rather let someone be free for several years while he waits for stronger evidence if it meant they’d ultimately spend the rest of their life in prison.
But sometimes, that evidence never comes, which can be very frustrating for law enforcement officials.
“Knowing how it happened and proving it are two distinct things,” he said. “You live with that forever.”
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