Cousin charged in 6-year-old’s freezing death

Published 9:42 am Tuesday, March 18, 2014

BEMIDJI — A 22-year-old Bemidji woman was charged Monday with manslaughter for allegedly leaving her 6-year-old cousin to freeze to death on a subzero night last month.

Rachel Stacey Downer appeared in court in Beltrami County on a second-degree manslaughter charge and was released on $100,000 bond, reports said.

Downer’s young cousin, Mercedes Mayfield, was found curled up on the front step of a Bemidji apartment building early on Feb. 27. The child’s mother, Malika Peoples, called emergency services around 6:30 a.m. to report her daughter was stiff, frozen and unresponsive.

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The girl was dressed in a winter coat and hat, with a boot on her left foot. Her right boot and her mittens were found on an outside step. Temperatures that night hovered around 19 degrees below zero, with a wind chill of 32 below, the criminal complaint said.

The last time the child was seen alive was the evening before. Downer was going to take her cousin to her apartment to baby-sit her that night, but changed her mind and didn’t tell Mercedes’ mother, according to the complaint.

Mercedes helped Downer carry her things to her car. Downer said she watched the girl enter the building, then got in her car and left. Downer told police Mercedes had shut the apartment’s safety door gently, so it would not lock her out.

According to the complaint, Downer was supposed to be watching Mercedes and a 3-year-old sibling, as well as Downer’s own 2-year-old son, while Peoples was at work. Peoples told police that she hurt her arm at work and took pain medication to help her sleep while Downer watched the children. The family ate dinner together, then Peoples went to bed early. When she woke at 6 a.m., neither Downer nor Mercedes were in the apartment.

“Ms. Peoples said that she then called Downer and asked her why she had taken Mercedes home with her when she knew Mercedes had school,” the complaint said. “Ms. Peoples said that she then looked out her front window and saw her daughter lying on the front step. She then went outside and pulled her into the entryway and called 911.”

Rescue workers tried to revive Mercedes, but she was pronounced dead at the scene. The Ramsey County medical examiner’s office reported that she died from hypothermia due to exposure to the freezing cold.

Downer is due back in court March 24. The public defender’s office, which is representing her, did not immediately return a phone message Monday.