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April 4, 2014

Mother, boyfriend tested positive for meth following death of child

CULLMAN — The mother and boyfriend accused of aggravated child abuse in her one-year-old son’s death tested positive for multiple drugs including methamphetamine, according to a Cullman County investigator’s sworn affidavit obtained by The Times via an open records request.

Crystial Vialonda Ballenger, 23, and Jeffrey Hugh Brown, 37, both of Cullman, were charged with aggravated child abuse in connection with the death of Ballenger’s son, Hoss Wayne Benham, who reportedly died after being left in a bathtub on his first birthday, March 11. His death has been ruled a homicide but a specific cause of death has not yet been released.

Ballenger admitted she and Brown used methamphetamine on Sunday and Monday prior to Hoss’s death on Tuesday and again on Wednesday night after his death, court records show.

Ballenger tested positive through a court-ordered drug test for marijuana, methamphetamine, amphetamines, and MDMA, also known as ecstasy. Brown tested positive for benzodiazepines, methamphetamine, amphetamines, and MDMA.

According to the probable cause statement signed by Cullman County investigator Bethhany Shaddrix, Benham had the following injuries: burns to feet, lesions to rectum, bruising to scrotum, and blunt force trauma to head and face area.

The Cullman County Circuit Clerk’s office released new documents on Wednesday after The Times filed a records request with Cullman County Clerk Lisa McSwain. The records were stamped as filed March 17.

The infant’s body was sent to the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences in Huntsville on March 12. It could take up to a year to determine an official cause of death, said Cullman County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Max Bartlett. Shaddrix and Bartlett attended the child’s autopsy, conducted by Dr. Valerie Green, at the Department of Forensic Science in Huntsville.

Green stated the victim had bruising on the back of his head with skull fractures, numerous bruises on his body, both new and old. The victim had injuries on the bottom of his feet consistent with burns, and injuries inside of his mouth consistent with cuts. The report stated the victim had rectal tearing consistent with sexual abuse, but could not confirm until further forensic testing was completed.

“We’re waiting on the pathology report to return with the cause of death and at that point the staff and the district attorney will talk and if it’s appropriate to file additional charges, it will be done at that time,” Bartlett said. “Through that report the determination will be made if it’s a homicide or some other cause of death. We are still gathering evidence regarding the case. The maximum bond for a child abuse charge has been set and it’s been sufficient at this point.”

Brown and Ballenger remain in the Cullman County Detention Center Thursday on $30,000 cash bond each.

The new court records state investigators interviewed Brown’s juvenile daughter in the early morning hours of March 12. The juvenile lived in the home with Ballenger, Brown and Benham. In regards to the apparent burns on the baby’s feet, the juvenile told investigators he may have gotten burned a few weeks prior when walking over heating vents in the floor or stepping on a tack. Ballenger reported her son had just started learning to walk and could only do so by holding onto things.

“Hoss is spoiled and wants to be held all the time,” the minor told investigators, according to the court records.

The juvenile said she would often babysit the child when Ballenger and Brown would walk to Warehouse Discount Grocery and that Ballenger did not have a vehicle and was unemployed. The teen said she didn’t notice any bruises on Benham the day before he died when she was giving him a bath.

She also said Brown would stay in the bathroom with the baby when he was given baths.

“Crystial stated on the night of March 11, Jeff was giving Hoss a bath and she walked into the bathroom and witnessed Jeff holding Hoss under water for 20-25 seconds,” Shaddrix wrote in the affidavit. “Jeff told Crystial he was teaching Hoss how to float and that he could hold his breath. Crystial stated Jeff allegedly tried to perform CPR because she didn’t know how to perform CPR.”

Ballenger also told investigators she witnessed Brown giving her son Tabasco sauce as punishment to make him stop crying, and she would give the baby cough medicine because he was cutting teeth.  

Lauren Estes can be reached at laurene@cullmantimes.com or 256-734-2131, ext.  137.

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