CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, S.C. — Chesterfield County Sheriff Jay Brooks says a baby found dead inside a diaper box after her mother falsely reported she was kidnapped may have died from natural causes.
At a news conference Thursday, Brooks said an autopsy should help establish exactly how the 11-month old daughter of 19-year-old Breanna Lewis died.
Lewis is charged with filing a false police report and also improper disposal of human remains.
Her daughter, Harlee Lane Lewis, was found dead Tuesday, wrapped in a plastic bag inside a diaper box near her home.
Brooks said Lewis stuck to her false story about her daughter being abducted until a detective confronted her with evidence.
"She denied she knew where the baby was until we took a picture of that box and showed it to her," Brooks said.
Channel 9 learned that the coroner placed the time of death for the toddler at between 8 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. Tuesday. That's about six hours before Lewis made the 911 call claiming she was assaulted and her daughter abducted.
Brooks said it could be an accidental death. There were no signs of trauma on the child and it'll be days before lab tests results are known.
Brooks said the child slept in a crib in a house full of toys, blankets and sheets.
He mentioned suffocation as one possible explanation for her death.
Maj. Briana Davis with the Chesterfield County Sheriff's Office never believed Lewis's story.
"After 22 years of doing this job, certain things just didn't add up," Davis said.
She's one of two deputies who discovered the little girl. They were searching the isolated rental home on Jackson Road East when they discovered a large path and footprints.
"I was already in the mindset of ‘that baby is here somewhere, and it's not going to be good,’" Davis said.
Investigators questioned Lewis on Tuesday night for the second time and said she appeared incoherent and offered nothing new. She told them that the child was "hard to handle" and "pushed her to the limit."
"She became real fuzzy, to the point that she said she blacked out and had no recollection of what may have happened to the child," Sheriff Jay Brooks said.
Lewis initially blamed injuries and bruising to her face on the phony attack. However, deputies said that she was driving in North Carolina last week and was involved in a crash. She drove too fast around a curve and flipped her car, causing those injuries.
When paramedics arrived, she told them her baby was with her and in the car somewhere.
The paramedics were frantically trying to find the child in the car but Brooks said the child was not in the vehicle at all, but home with a babysitter.
The sheriff said Lewis has no criminal past. There's no Department of Social Services case in South Carolina, though they are checking with North Carolina authorities in Scotland County where Lewis is from.
The autopsy on the baby was completed Wednesday but preliminary results are not being released yet. Full toxicology and blood tests could take several more days.
Lewis is still in jail and has not had a bond hearing on either charge.
On Thursday morning, Brooks reiterated that the autopsy results weren't being released yet and that they would be handed over to SLED.
Brooks said they were concerned about the child being small for her age, and a lack of child-appropriate food that was in the house, so they were going to go back to the home with a DSS caseworker to take a look at that.
Brooks also told Channel 9 that the child’s death could still be ruled an accidental death since there were no obvious injuries to the baby. It could be weeks before all the medical tests are back to show what really happened to Harlee.
Brooks said he believes the baby's father committed suicide while holding her in his arms last September in North Carolina.
The case has been extremely difficult for investigators to talk about, which was clear listening to the sheriff Thursday morning.
"The biggest part of this, the hardest part of this, is how do you put a dead child in a garbage bag and just throw it away," Brooks asked.
Brooks said the deputies who found Harlee’s body will undergo counseling.
"We've got to be better at protecting our children," Brooks said. "In a case like this, a police officer who sees a dead child never forgets that face -- and can never go to sleep at night without seeing that face. And when you're as old as I am, it makes sleeping a challenge."
Brooks said Lewis’s mother was torn over whether to pay her daughter’s bond or pay for the baby's funeral and burial expenses.
Lewis is in jail on a $71,000 bond.
He also said there will be a candlelight service for the child on June 6 at 6 p.m. at the courthouse on Main Street. The public is invited to attend.
Anyone with information is asked to contact the Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office at (843) 623-2101. The State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) is also assisting in the investigation.
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