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MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS IN BABY'S DEATH

His name was Noah.

He was a baby boy who died in a Buffalo hospital, two days after he abruptly stopped breathing in a large Victorian house in Olean.

He died a violent, mysterious death -- a death caused by a brutal beating.

And in less time than it took for an ambulance to wail down South Seventh Street to the house where his limp body lay on the floor that warm Wednesday afternoon in mid-September two years ago, his death shattered the lives of two young women.

One still mourns her son.

The other sits in state prison, jailed for a crime she insists she didn't commit.

His name was Noah. What follows is as much as anyone -- except one person, the killer -- knows of his story.

Noah Boser was 7 months old when he stopped breathing in the house on Seventh Street, a home day care run by Christina M. Smith, just before 3 p.m. on Sept. 18, 2002.

His mother, Bethann M. Boser, had dropped him off a little more than an hour earlier.

That hour, like a few other aspects of this crime, remains a mystery, but what happened after Noah's death played out more like a macabre drama.

As he was taken off life-support machines in Women and Children's Hospital, police hunted for the killer. That's when Smith volunteered to take a polygraph test, to clear herself. The test ended in an unexpected statement -- which police said was a confession, but which Smith says was not.

Today, she's an inmate at Albion State Correctional Facility. She decided, earlier this year, to forgo a trial, instead taking a plea that allowed her to accept a prison sentence without admitting guilt. In an interview with The Buffalo News, she talked about her case for the first time.

"If there was anything I did that caused harm, then I deserve to be here," said Smith, 34, sitting in a cement-walled room in the prison. "That's what I believe. But I didn't do it."

Meanwhile, Bethann Boser believes her baby's killer is in prison.

"I hated God for a long time," said Boser, 26. "God had given me this special gift. And he took him away from me for his own reasons."

Noah died of head injuries, an autopsy showed. Medical examiners ruled that he had been beaten on the back of the head with a blunt object -- so forcibly that his brain ricocheted around inside his skull.

But his head was not bleeding, his skin not bruised or broken, when he arrived at Olean General Hospital.

And the two women tell very different stories of what happened to baby Noah.

Parallel lives

Both Smith and Boser are Olean natives and come from families with deep roots in the Southern Tier.

Each decided to attend St. Bonaventure University, and each knew what it was like to have a first child born out of wedlock, to struggle as a single mother.

Smith graduated from St. Bonaventure in 1996 with an accounting degree. For four years, she worked as a business specialist for Cattaraugus County. Then in 2000, pregnant with her second child, she and her husband, Scott, decided she would open a day care.

"I wanted to be able to help people who work at night, single mothers, people like that," Smith said. "This was my whole life. This was all I did."

Boser graduated in 2000 with a degree in elementary education. At the time of Noah's birth, on Feb. 13, 2002, Boser was working part time as an event coordinator in St. Bonaventure's School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She also was working night shifts as a "victim specialist" at a women's shelter.

By the spring of 2002, Boser was looking for daily child care for Noah. When she learned that Smith ran a day care near her apartment, it seemed ideal.

"I thought, 'Oh wow, we knew her,' " Boser said. "She had kids of her own. She was right down the street from my house."

Boser needed to work that Wednesday afternoon in 2002, to help run an event at St. Bonaventure.

Boser said she called Smith to see if she could watch Noah for longer than usual that day. The day before, Noah had gone to a doctor's appointment -- where he got some vaccinations -- and then stayed at Smith's house until 8 p.m.

Smith remembers a last-minute phone call, too. She said it came at around 11 a.m., and that Boser was anxious for her to take Noah for the day. Smith said she responded that Noah could come at 1:30 p.m.

Boser dropped Noah off at Smith's house and then left for work. She said her one big regret is that she never kissed her son goodbye.

"He gave me the biggest smile. I had never seen a smile like that before," Boser said. "I said, 'Bye, sweetie, I love you.' "

Smith remembers it differently. She said Noah was fussy and irritable when he arrived at her house, which was unusual for him. He wouldn't take any juice from his bottle, which was also unusual. Police records show that she told officers about those concerns at the time.

"He just started to get really fussy," Smith recalled. "He was cranky. That's not typical. But he was just cutting teeth the week before, so I figured that's what it was."

Whatever Noah's mood was that day, one thing remains clear: He stopped breathing slightly more than one hour later.

The 911 call

Here's where the stories of the two women diverge.

Boser believes that Smith struck Noah forcibly on the head because she was stressed over her personal life, including the fact that her eldest son, then 13, had been sent home early from school that day for bad behavior.

"I think she just struck him because he was there," Boser said.

Smith insists that she didn't hit Noah and that he must already have been injured before he was dropped off.

"I have no idea how it happened," Smith said. "But it did not happen at my house."

Smith told police that Noah went down for a nap at about 2:40 p.m. At 2:59 p.m., Smith placed a call to 911. A tape of the call reveals a panicked woman:

"He's not conscious and he's not breathing," Smith gasps into the phone.

On the tape, Smith tells the 911 attendant that Noah is lying on her couch. The attendant orders Smith to put Noah on the floor, lift his chin, cover his mouth with hers and blow two small breaths.

"He's not doing anything," Smith says, crying.

The attendant asks Smith how old the baby is.

"Seven months. He had his shots yesterday. I laid him down for a nap on his belly, we just started laying him on his belly . . ."

A few moments later, she cries into the phone: "Oh my God."

And then: "I'm scared."

By 3:02 p.m., an ambulance crew arrived at Smith's house.

At 3:11 p.m., when Noah was admitted to Olean General Hospital, doctors examined him and made a preliminary diagnosis of cardiac arrest, according to hospital records. Doctors noted on hospital paperwork "no evidence of head trauma."

Meanwhile, Boser, at St. Bonaventure, got a phone call from campus security and rushed to the hospital.

"I was crying on the way to the hospital," Boser recalls. "I was crying so hard I got sick and threw up in my mom's Jeep," Boser recalls. "It was horrible."

Noah didn't die right away. He was flown to Women and Children's Hospital, where he was kept alive for 48 hours. On Friday, Sept. 20, his life-support machines were turned off.

"I was pleading with God, please take my life, please take anybody's life," Boser said. "Please show me a sign that everything's going to be all right."

As family and friends stood around his bedside, Noah died.

Focusing investigation

In the days after Noah's death, police interviewed Smith and Boser; Cristopher Rowand, Noah's father; Mike Flynn, a man Boser had a relationship with at the time; Nick Davison, another man Boser was close to; Smith's older son; and others.

Rowand, who was in Cattaraugus County jail at the time, told police that Noah was born after he and Boser had a brief relationship in 2001.

Flynn, who was at Boser's apartment on Monday and Tuesday, according to police records, told police that Noah "appeared fine" when he saw him last on Tuesday morning.

Davison told police he saw Noah Tuesday evening and then again on Wednesday, the day Noah stopped breathing. He said Noah seemed to be in a "good mood."

Smith's 13-year-old son was initially interviewed because he was known for bad behavior and had been sent home from school early that day for infractions. But police ruled out the son when he told them he was doing errands during much of the time period in question -- and produced time-stamped receipts from the library and drugstore to prove it.

Polygraph test

Police weren't getting very far. Then something happened that changed everything: Smith volunteered for a polygraph test.

Smith made the offer the day after Noah died. She said she did it because she wanted to clear herself.

"I know I didn't do anything," she said. "I hoped it would make them stop questioning me."

That Monday morning, Smith -- shaken after seeing her house on the TV news -- swallowed an anti-anxiety drug, Lorazepam, that her doctor had prescribed to help her calm down after Noah's death.

At 9:30 a.m., police officers arrived at her house to tell her she could take the polygraph test immediately. Smith went to the State Police barracks in Olean. She said recently that she wouldn't have taken the medication if she had known she would be tested that day.

Lorazepam, according to the National Institutes of Health, can cause dizziness, drowsiness and weakness.

5-hour session

Smith's polygraph session lasted from about noon to nearly 5 p.m.

First, Smith said she "accidentally" bumped Noah's head against his car carrier.

Then she said she "squeezed" Noah's head while walking him, trying to make him stop crying.

Later, she said her dog, a Pekinese, might have jumped on Noah's head while he was laying on the couch.

Finally, shortly before 6 p.m., Smith signed a statement. This is what it said, in part:

"I laid him on his stomach on the couch and he was still fussing and crying and I started rubbing his back. I sat on the couch, at his feet and he would not stop. I hit him in the back of the head, with my left hand, where his head is sort of flat . . . When I hit him I said at the same time, 'Noah, come on.' My hand was open and I hit him with the flat of my hand. I really wasn't trying to hurt him I just wanted him to stop."

Smith today maintains that she offered those four scenarios to give her questioner answers that would satisfy her, so the test would stop. She said she never admitted hitting Noah with force -- definitely not with enough force to cause massive trauma.

She said that when she signed the statement -- after five hours of questioning with no breaks for food or drink, and after spells of dizziness -- she didn't know what she was doing.

"I didn't even read the statement I had signed," she said. "I couldn't see it. My eyes had swelled shut from crying."

Baby Noah's head

The crucial question about Noah's death remains: When did he suffer the head injuries that caused him to stop breathing, then to die?

The autopsy does not specify. It says Noah's brain was bruised and "extremely swollen," with a small amount of bleeding. The back of his head was swollen and had hemorrhaged. All the suture lines of his skull had separated, and there was hemorrhaging behind his eyes.

The medical examiner ruled Noah's death a homicide, caused by being "beaten on the back of the head with a blunt object."

But medical and legal experts contacted by The Buffalo News said that Noah's autopsy leaves room for disagreement as to how and when he was injured.

Noah's death would have happened right after the injuries were caused, said Dr. Mary E. Case, co-director of the division of forensic pathology at Saint Louis University and chief medical examiner for four counties in Missouri. She said Noah could have been hit with an object or shaken sharply.

"It happens immediately," she said. "As soon as the child is significantly injured, it happens -- it doesn't take minutes or hours. The child would be immediately symptomatic and unconscious."

But another expert argued that Noah's injuries could have happened earlier that morning, the day before or the previous week.

"(Noah) could have been battered six or seven or even 10 hours before this death happened," said Dr. James Baumgartner, associate professor of surgery at the University of Texas at Houston and an expert who testifies in head injury cases.

Local defense attorney Anne E. Adams concurred and said baby death cases are hard to argue in court precisely because the autopsy reports -- like Noah's -- can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

"You can have babies who are hit seven or eight days before they start exhibiting problems," she said.

Charles F. Gallagher, Smith's attorney, planned to argue at trial that Noah's injury could have been caused in different ways and at different times, but that Smith did not do it during the hour Noah was at her house.

Boser, who acknowledged that she was aware of initial police questions to determine whether Noah could have been fatally injured before he was dropped off at Smith's day care, denies that she -- or anyone in her household -- could have hurt Noah in any way.

"I can't even hurt a fly, let alone hurt a child," she said. "Let alone hurt my child."

Records kept by Noah's pediatrician in Olean show that Noah was a well and healthy baby up until his death.

The aftermath

After signing the statement, Smith was arrested.

As her murder trial approached, she began to fear that the community of Olean had turned against her. Her "confession" had been splashed across the front page of the local paper.

On the day her trial was to begin, in November 2003, she decided to take a plea -- an Alford plea, which meant she would not have to admit any guilt, even though she would accept a prison sentence.

"I didn't think I was going to get an impartial jury," she said. "And I didn't want to be away from my kids any longer than I had to. I wish I had gone to trial -- but I'm glad I did what I had to do for my kids."

Before Smith's sentencing, on charges of second-degree manslaughter, letters poured into Cattaraugus County Court. Three people -- including the dean of St. Bonaventure's journalism school, Lee Coppola -- wrote letters asking for a stiff sentence for Smith. Forty-two people wrote letters on Smith's behalf, asking for leniency.

On Jan. 20, 2004, Judge Larry M. Himelein sentenced Smith to three to nine years in prison.

These days, Smith is struggling through her first year in prison.

Gallagher, Smith's attorney, said that Smith never waived her right to appeal the case. That may happen, he said, although no appeal has been filed.

Meanwhile, Boser is caring for her second son, 15-month-old Connor, and working part time at St. Bonaventure. Connor goes to a day care center at a local church a few times a week.

The Boser family is still reeling from the shock of Noah's death, Boser's mother said.

"I have days when I feel we're starting to move on," Kathy Boser said. "But then I have days when I think my family is never going to get beyond this."

e-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

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