My Sweet Angel
By John Glatt
St. Martin's Press
418 pages, $27.99
Five years old, little Garnett Spears writhed and screamed in pain as his body tried to shake off the poisonous amounts of salt his mother had poured directly into his stomach feeding tube.
Any other child might have spit it out or vomited to stop the abdominal pain and the headache his swelling brain caused as it pressed against his skull. But Garnett's mother, Lacey, kept adding more salt, at least three different times. She took him just beyond the view of the video camera that suspicious physicians had installed in Garnett's hospital room. Yet the video eventually would provide enough evidence to put her behind bars for 20 years to life.
Garnett was physically unable to vomit, as a result of surgery when he was nine months old. No sooner would the concentration of salt in his blood decrease, than Lacey would take him into the bathroom and emerge moments later, as the salt made its way through his body.
While Garnett drifted into brain death, Lacey fed her online following photos of his suffering and updates to inspire sympathy for her "heroism" caring for such a sick child year after year.
Her unsuspecting groups of fans, one group for each of her separate accounts, held online candle vigils, along with a fundraiser. That is, at least until misgivings led the fund's organizer to return all the contributions to their donors, infuriating Lacey. The different accounts spoke to one group to whom she had told Lies A, perhaps Garnett's grandparents, another with Lies B, say girlfriends. Thus the groups were less likely to compare notes on the various stories Lacey made up throughout Garnett's life, tailored to her fawning audience.
Worst of all. Most shocking of her atrocities. How to show how evil, how uncaring Lacey was and perhaps still is? Worst of all, as the child writhed and screamed in pain, she stood by, texting and sending on her phone, and said nothing. Hour after hour. She told no one what she had done, so that they might ease little Garnett's suffering, or at least try to dull his agony. She knew how much salt would raise the amounts shown by blood tests, then waited by the little boy's bed until the score was high enough for the doctors to rush to his aid--all in vain, of course.
Adding to the weirdness, after Garnett's death, police searching Lacey's home found a kind of makeshift shrine, with candles and a large box of sea salt, all assembled before the boy died. Did she believe she had time to hide the salt? Did she even care, at the end? Those questions remain unanswered, as she serves 20 years to life at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for his death.
Lacey was a weird child, a weird teen-ager and a weird young-adult baby sitter. The children she cared for developed pain and bleeding from their ears, among other ailments, which would stop when Lacey was away. She posted photos with the children, saying they were her own. She went to nursing school, learning which symptoms were difficult to diagnose or treat, as well as how to sabotage treatments.
She developed a romantic crush on a man she called Blake and told everyone he was Garnett's father who had died in a motorcycle accident. Only when she posted a picture from a commercial photograph service and said it was Blake, did any of her friends see the ruse. Author John Glatt tracked down the original model for Blake, who said he had seen Lacey three times or so.
She eventually decided to give birth to her own child and trapped a neighbor, Chris Hill, into a sexual affair that she ended after becoming pregnant with Garnett. She maintained the "Blake" lie for years and denied Hill's paternity, forbidding him to visit his own child.
Various far-fetched versions of her life served Lacey's purposes as she moved from state to state with Garnett, enrolling him in a school based on the educational principles of Rudolf Steiner, founder of the Waldorf Schools. They moved into a community supporting the school, and Garnett became their "Little Mayor" because of his cheerfulness and friendly greetings to everyone he met. He remembered their names and seemed to be a happy little boy until his mother was around.
Glatt, author of nearly two dozen true-crime books, uses meticulous research methods in gathering the facts and then making them comprehensible. In the years he spent on "My Sweet Angel," he documented countless interviews, did not mix up what Source A told him with Source B's information.
He put it all together in a narrative that keeps the reader's attention, even though we know the outcome: it is right on the cover and the flap, wherever. But a certain level of suspense is maintained as we see how Lacey Spears' mind functioned--or malfunctioned--and how she trapped those around her into her scheme.
Her behavior is called Munchausen syndrome by proxy by some and second-degree murder by the court. When Glatt visited her at Bedford Hills she told him she fully expects to be exonerated.
She complained to Glatt that in prison, staff and other inmates sprinkled salt on her food. Authorities put a stop to the taunting. Lacey Spears says she is a victim of medical mistakes that deprived her of her son.
Finally, Glatt assembles testimony and evidence into an orderly narrative of Lacey's trial. He gives readers a context that makes sense. He tells us at last what we have seen but not really noticed.
Torturers know that they can speed up a prisoner's confession by making the prisoner watch his or her child being tortured. But not Lacey Spears. She never told anyone what she had done. She could have informed the doctors and perhaps eased her child's suffering and saved his life. Instead, she watched him writhe, scream and die as she updated her online posts.
Stephanie Shapiro is a former News reporter and editor.