Chauncey Cohen loved feeding the baby turtles at the zoo, playing with his little half-sister, and zooming around in the Power Wheels Jeep his grandparents got him for his fourth birthday. But in the last six months of his life, Chauncey was afraid: afraid to go home, afraid to explain the bruises on his body, and afraid of his mother’s new boyfriend, Antonio Durham.
On June 2, Chauncey’s mother, Tania Merisca, rushed into Good Samaritan Medical Center in Brockton with her son’s lifeless body, saying the 4-year-old had suddenly passed out while she gave him a bath at the Holiday Inn Express. But by then, Chauncey had probably been dead for hours.
Durham, 32, was ordered held without bail Tuesday on one count of murder. Prosecutors say he punched Chauncey in the stomach so hard that the little boy bled to death internally. A not-guilty plea was entered on Durham’s behalf during a hearing in Brockton District Court. Merisca, 27, who also pleaded not guilty, was ordered held on $250,000 bail on a charge that she was an accessory after the fact.
“Four-year-old Chauncey Cohen was beaten to death; he was all of 35 pounds,” First Assistant Plymouth District Attorney Frank Middleton said in court. “As a result of the internal hemorrhage, and the complete lack of medical attention he received, he died a slow, steady death.”
Durham hid behind the paneling of the prisoners’ dock throughout the hearing; Merisca stood behind her attorney.
Relatives of Chauncey’s father, Chet Cohen Jr., wept in the first few rows of benches as Middleton described the little boy’s last days.
In a phone interview after the hearing, Katrina Askew, Chauncey’s paternal grandmother, said: “I couldn’t control my emotions. I’m just happy that justice is finally being served.”
Askew said Merisca and her son broke up more than two years ago, but remained on good terms. Chauncey spent Monday through Thursday at her home, she said, and Merisca was always invited to family functions.
“He was a good kid, a good heart,” she said of Chauncey. “We would go to the beach. We would go to the zoo. We bought him cars for his birthday. . . . He loved those things.”
When Merisca began dating Durham, Askew said, Merisca pulled away from her family, and Chauncey started turning up with unexplained bruises. Askew said she met Durham only once, and Chauncey, she said, did not seem to like him.
But when Askew said she confronted Merisca about her worries, Merisca insisted it was nothing.
In court, Middleton said Merisca told relatives Durham was “trying to ‘toughen up’ this 35-pound 4-year-old.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of Children and Families said the agency had no involvement with the family.
The last time anyone saw Chauncey conscious was Saturday, June 1, said Middleton, when hotel surveillance video shows Merisca and Durham checking into the Holiday Inn Express in Brockton.
Video from June 1 shows Merisca and Durham going in and out of the room, sometimes leaving the boy with Durham or alone, Middleton said, and video from June 2 shows Merisca leaving to go to work a little after 10 a.m.
At 3:43 p.m. June 2, video shows Durham leaving the room carrying Chauncey’s limp body up and down the hallway, his head rolling from side to side.
A housekeeper told police that she saw a man matching Durham’s description standing outside at a dumpster with a child’s body lying on the pavement, head resting on a rock and eyes open staring straight into the sun, in the 97-degree heat. She asked the man if the child was all right, and he replied that the boy was “a little sick.”
A second housekeeper who was in the room when Durham brought Chauncey back inside told authorities that Durham laid the boy’s body on the bed, assured her he was fine, and then tried to get her to go out on a date with him.
When Merisca came back from work around 7:14 p.m., Middleton said, the boy was probably dead.
Merisca and Durham smoked marijuana, Middleton said, before taking the boy to the hospital. Durham fled the hospital; Merisca left before her son was declared dead, according to the prosecutor, and began begging her brother and his girlfriend to lie for her and say they watched the boy all day. They refused.
Merisca eventually told officers that on Saturday night, she went out to 7-Eleven around 11:30, and came back to find her son sitting fully dressed on the toilet. The boy said his stomach hurt because Durham had punched him, said Middleton, and later that night, he vomited green fluid.
“When she woke up at 10 o’clock in the morning to go to work, he was nonresponsive,” said Middleton. “She kissed him, and his eyes didn’t move. He was not responding to her voice. . . . But she left anyway.”
Durham’s attorney, Elliot Levine, said his client has shown up for court dates, and that he has no history of violence toward his 7-year-old son. Merisca’s attorney, Sean O’Brien, said she has no criminal history.
Levine requested a cash bail of $15,000 and O’Brien requested $1,500 bail.
“I would think it would have been a very slow agonizing terrifying death for that little baby,” said Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz, who said prosecutors had to wait for the medical examiner’s report, which was only recently completed, to file charges. “Hopefully, justice will be there for Chauncey.”