EDITOR’S NOTE: This article contains graphic content.
MOUNT PLEASANT — One of the first things Jennifer Schriever noticed about Sterling Koehn was he was small and light when she offered to babysit the infant and his 2-year-old sister shortly after the children’s family moved to Alta Vista in 2017.
Schriever said she also noticed Sterling, while otherwise a clean and happy baby, was raw with diaper rash. She said she treated the rash, and the next time she babysat, in mid- to late July 2017, the baby had gained some weight and had less of a rash.
Schriever took the stand Tuesday as testimony started in the state’s case against Sterling’s father, 29-year-old Zachary Koehn, who is charged with murder and child endangerment in the 4-month-old’s death.
Koehn’s trial was moved to Mount Pleasant from Chickasaw County because of extensive publicity in the case. The baby’s mother, Cheyanne Harris, 21, also is charged but will be tried separately.
Sterling was found dead in Koehn and Harris’ Hilltop Avenue apartment Aug. 30, 2017, after Koehn placed a 911 call saying the child had died.
Prosecutor Coleman McAllister, an assistant Iowa attorney general, told jurors Sterling had been in the same diaper for nine to 14 days when medics were called to the apartment. He said the diaper was full of feces that had attracted bugs. The bugs had laid eggs that had hatched into maggots.
The diaper’s contents irritated the baby’s skin, which ruptured, and e coli bacteria set in, McAllister said.
He said Sterling died of malnutrition, dehydration and the infection.
“He died of diaper rash. That’s right, diaper rash,” McAllister told jurors during opening statements.
He said Koehn was responsible for what happened to his son.
“He directly caused Sterling’s death,” McAllister said.
McAllister said it wasn’t a case of an inexperienced parent, noting Koehn’s then 2-year-old daughter was also at the apartment, and she was healthy.
He said Koehn had money to buy food and baby supplies because he had a $35,000-a-year job driving a truck from chicken farms in Wisconsin to a Charles City processing plant overnight. He said Koehn used drugs, and a friend who came over to the apartment to use drugs didn’t know Koehn even had a baby.
Tragedy, not crime
Defense attorney Les Blair III told jurors what happened was a tragedy but not a crime.
“Nothing anybody says throughout this trial will soften that,” he said.
He said often when there is a tragedy, there is a rush to blame.
Reed Palo, chief deputy for the Chickasaw County Sheriff’s Office, attended Sterling’s autopsy. He described finding maggots and larva when the medical examiner began to remove the layers of urine-soaked blankets and clothing from the child.
Sterling wore a hoodie that appeared to be for a larger child, a onesie and pants. Palo said there was an acrid, acidic smell distinctly different from decay. The maggots were different colors.
“As the diaper came off, you could see the skin had broken down,” Palo told jurors. “It just looked like it had been there a long time.”
Palo said he, too, was startled by how tiny Sterling appeared for his age.
Schiever said Koehn had not yet called 911 when he told her Sterling had died. She said she noticed him smoking a cigarette outside and pacing, and when she asked what was wrong he told her, “My baby boy is gone. ... We don’t know what to do at this point.” She said she told him to call 911, and he went inside.
Earlier Tuesday, first responders testified about finding the baby in a swing seat in a back bedroom.
Toni Friedrich, a nurse and first responder with the Chickasaw County Rescue squad, was the first to arrive at Koehn’s apartment, and recounted how she was thinking about CPR and other measures to take when she was en route in her personal car.
Koehn stated in the 911 call at 12:55 p.m. that day his girlfriend had checked on the baby at 9 a.m., and when she checked again at 11:30 a.m., she found the infant had died.
Friedrich said Koehn showed no emotion when he led her to the bedroom. He flipped on a light switch, muttered something she didn’t catch and left the room.
She said the child wasn’t breathing, and she found his arm was cold and stiff when she checked for a pulse.
“His eyes were open, and it was a blank stare,” she said.
“This isn’t right. This is not a baby who I can do CPR on,” she said.
When she touched his chest, she found his clothing was crusty, and when she moved his blanket, gnats flew up, she said.
“The whole room was hot ... and there was a stench of urine in the whole room,” she said.
Tina Shatek, a former first responder and postal carrier who helped Friedrich find the apartment and followed her inside, said it was clear she couldn’t help revive the child, and she went to console Koehn and his girlfriend.
She said Koehn told her he had been sleeping because he drove trucks at night. She said he was “quiet, no tears.”
“I would have been hysterical,” she said.
On cross-examination, the defense asked if it was possible Koehn showed no emotion because he was in shock.
Chickasaw County Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Rosol told jurors the swing seat was stained brown and the blanket was wet with what he suspected was urine because of the ammonia odor. He said he had to hold his breath.
Rosol said he found fresh diapers bundled in the room but didn’t locate any used diapers. A baby bottle found in front of the swing and formula that had started to separate. He said he found a can of formula three-fourths full in a cabinet over the sink. A second can was almost empty.
Schriever said she encountered Koehn and Harris at a park with their dog about two days after Sterling’s death. She said they were talking about funeral plans.
“They seemed to be pretty happy,” Schiever said.
At one point Harris said she thought law enforcement was out to get them, she said. Harris tapped Koehn’s arm and said she told him they should have taken his daughter and their dog and ran, Schriever said.
Testimony is scheduled to resume on Wednesday.