For the first time in four years, the family of David and Tiffany O’Shell have spoken about the tragedy of the mistaken allegation of child abuse which led to the couple’s murder-suicide, in Henderson Colorado.
Jackie and Paul Cuin, Tiffany’s parents, spoke to the Denver Post about the events leading up to their family’s tragedy. The post also obtained medical, social services, and police investigation records relevant to their case.
In 2008, three-month-old Alyssa O’Shell was taken away from her parents after doctors found 11 broken bones in the infant’s legs. Dave and Tiffany were shocked when child protective services gave their daughter to a foster mother, as there were suspicions their daughter had been abused.
David and Tiffany, both police officers, frantically researched other explanations and countered the allegations. They thought their daughter could have brittle bone disease or that some other medical condition could explain her injuries. However, the doctor’s report said that Alyssa’s legs were broken with injuries “highly suggestive of non-accidental trauma”, such as violently twisting her legs.
The couple met with lawyers over the next two weeks and tried to devise some sort of defense to reunite their family.
David admitted that he had picked his daughter up by her legs, to playfully kiss her stomach. He was scrutinized during the investigation and began to fear that he would be charged with a felony. Tiffany began to believe that the only way she could keep her baby was to divorce her husband. The couple grew increasingly depressed.
Tiffany’s parents, Jackie and Paul Cuin, were also investigated, as they frequently babysat their granddaughter while David and Tiffany were at work.
On 30th June 2008, Tiffany and David were to meet their lawyers and an investigator. Their appointments were set to finish at 1pm.
Jackie began to worry when she heard nothing from her daughter who had said she would call. At 3pm Jackie called her daughter. There was no answer.
At 5pm Jackie drove to their house. She saw both of their cars parked in the garage and was scared to go inside. She drove home and got her husband who went inside.
Jackie told the Post, “I had already dialed 911 when I heard him scream."
Paul found his daughter and David dead in their bedroom. They hadn’t gone to their appointments. David had shot his wife as she slept and then took his own life by sticking two hand guns in his mouth and pulling the triggers.
Meanwhile, the doctors were running more tests on their little girl. The foster mother had expressed concern about Alyssa’s lack of development. Tiffany and David had also expressed this concern in the past.
One doctor noted that the child was making sounds and laughing but was having difficulty grasping objects, moving her limbs, and controlling her head. She also kept her thumbs in her palms. All signs pointed to a genetic illness.
On 9th July, ten days after her parents’ murder-suicide, Alyssa was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, which weakens limbs. Her grandparents got confirmation from a national spinal muscular atrophy association that the breaks in her legs were due to her condition.
Dr Gary Chan told Jackie, "I would guess some of these fractures may occur at time of delivery, but most occurred after birth from normal handling. It does not surprise me that Alyssa had fractures noted at 3 months of age."
The Cuins were granted custody of Alyssa, for the rest of her short life.
They tried to sue child protection services but lost the case.
Speaking to the Post, Paul said that the services department becomes “overzealous”, adding that they should focus on reuniting families.
He said, “They literally tore the family apart. And you have no recourse. You have to prove you're innocent to get your child back."
Child and family services director Darwin Cox said, “This was a terrible, terrible tragedy. We did the job we could with the best information we had at the time.”