Rica had reported being abused by her stepmother as early as 2017

By Harriet Sokmensuer
November 20, 2019 02:32 PM
Credit: Missing Person Awareness Network NFP

An Illinois woman has been convicted of murder for abusing her 8-year-old stepdaughter to death.

On Tuesday, a McLean County jury found 41-year-old Cynthia Baker guilty of murder, aggravated battery, endangering the life of a child and domestic battery in the death of Rica Rountree, WGLT, News25 and WMBD report.

Baker was arrested in May, four months after Rica, her stepdaughter, died in a Peoria hospital.

On Jan. 26, Rica was taken to the hospital when she became unresponsive after having stomach pains for several days, according to Department of Children and Family Services records obtained by PEOPLE. Medical staff found a large bruise on her abdomen. She was taken into surgery for internal injuries but died during the operation, WGLT reports.

After her death, Baker was questioned but denied ever hurting the girl, according to the station.

However, during their three-month investigation, police uncovered cell phone videos of Baker abusing Rica by forcing her to strip naked and hold cans for long durations of time. The video shows that whenever Rica’s arms would fall, Baker would put her hands around the child’s neck and say, “Do I need to put a collar on you?”

In another video, Baker can be seen dragging Rica to her bedroom by the neck.

During Baker’s trial, the jury was shown multiple videos, including one of Baker kneeing Rica in the back before hitting her head against the wall, 25 News reports.

“For most, it’s unthinkable but for Rica, it was normal,” Erika Reynolds, McLean County Assistant State’s Attorney, said during closing arguments Monday. “In the 407 Stanhope residence, Rica was treated as less than as this defendant’s punching bag and her pain served as entertainment for the entire family.”

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The doctor who performed Rica’s autopsy reported that she had slowly died from internal injuries after Baker kicked her in the stomach. He also reported that the girl had 67 marks as a result of extensive abuse all over her body.

Speaking to WFLT, Rica’s mother, Ann Simmons, said her daughter had been let down by those around her.

“Everybody failed her. I failed her,” Simmons, who is currently serving 2.5 years in prison for a forgery case and for failing to complete the terms of her probation on an aggravated DUI charge, told the station.

According to DCFS, Rica died 16 days after her mother was sentenced. Rica is one of 103 children who have died this year while involved with DCFS in Illinois, WGLT reports.

Rica had reported being abused by Baker as far back as 2017, according to the DCFS records.

Simmons criticized DCFS, saying, “My daughter should have not have ever died. It should have never been this way.”

In a statement to WGLT, DCFS said Rica’s case was under investigation.

“DCFS is deeply saddened by the loss of Rica Rountree,” the agency said. “During her time with her father, DCFS conducted multiple investigations into allegations of abuse and found these allegations to be unfounded. There is currently a pending investigation into this death and we are committed to understanding exactly what happened in this case and being fully transparent with the public. DCFS is working closely with the new administration to review our practices, policies, and procedures in order to fully live up to our mission to protect vulnerable children in Illinois.”

Baker is set to be sentenced in February.