Trial starts in 2008 overdose death of toddler

18-month-old found pill in pants pocket

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On Jan. 24, 2008, Sean Czambel, who had been self-medicating to help him cope with the death of his best friend, ground up some OxyContin and snorted it at his living room table.

Then he wrapped half a tablet in some cellophane and stuck it in the pocket of his pajama bottoms.

Later, when he got dressed, he threw the pants on his bed, forgetting that the powerful painkiller was in them. He still didn't remember when the woman he was dating came over later in the day with her 18-month-old daughter, Mr. Czambel told police.

Caitlin Stiffler spent the afternoon toddling between the living room and bedroom, pushing a green wheelbarrow and playing with Mr. Czambel's dog, Gannon.

Later on, after a nap in his bed, the little girl became fussy and tired. They thought she was getting sick.

Instead, according to the prosecution, her respiratory system was shutting down.

Caitlin, who was taken back to her Burgettstown home, was rushed to a Weirton hospital, then later flown to Pittsburgh.

She died two days later.

Her mother, Rachel Bellaire, and Mr. Czambel are on trial this week, charged with criminal homicide and endangering the welfare of a child.

Ms. Bellaire, 26, of Imperial will have her guilt or innocence determined by Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge David R. Cashman, while Mr. Czambel's case will be decided by a jury.

On Wednesday, Assistant District Attorney Lisa Pellegrini laid out the tragic circumstances of the case in her opening statement.

Ms. Bellaire, who was married to Caitlin's father, had been seeing Mr. Czambel and was planning to leave her husband to be with him instead.

"He loved that child, and he loved her brother," Ms. Pellegrini said. "He wanted to be part of their family."

But, she continued, Mr. Czambel hid his drug problem from Ms. Bellaire. She called him careless for leaving the OxyContin out where the little girl could find it.

A toxicology screen returned several weeks later showed Caitlin's urine was positive for OxyContin.

Mr. Czambel, 27, of Oakdale voluntarily called police and spoke to them in May 2008, telling them that he believed the little girl had gotten a hold of that half a pill he left in his pajamas.

"He admits he's careless, probably because of his addiction," Ms. Pellegrini said. "By his reckless conduct and gross negligence, he allowed little Caitlin to ingest an OxyContin."

But defense attorney Paul Gettleman told the jury that the case should never have been brought to trial.

The medical examiner found that Caitlin's cause of death was accidental.

"That's what this was. It was an accident," he said. "It was a tragedy. The fact that this little child didn't even get to live makes it exponentially more difficult."

But, he continued, "this isn't a morality trial where Mr. Czambel's drug addiction should be focused on. We really are talking about that day. He's not on trial for his lifestyle."

Without Mr. Czambel's admission to police about the OxyContin, the defense attorney said, the police would not have had a case.

"Because he was honest, because he was forthright, because he tried to help out, for the last four years he's been branded a murderer because he left a half of a pill in his pajamas when he got up."

Instead, Mr. Gettleman blamed Ms. Bellaire.

"It was the mother who laid that baby down on the bed. It was the mother who heard that baby crying. It was the mother who decided to take that baby home and not to the hospital," he said.

Because Ms. Bellaire's case will be decided by the judge, her defense attorney, Richard Narvin, did not make an opening statement.

However, he said afterward that there is no evidence to support any kind of homicide charges against his client.

"What Mr. Gettleman is trying to do is create a doubt in the jury's mind," Mr. Narvin said. "As soon as she saw her child was sick, she took her to the hospital. To say this would have been different if Rachel took the child to the hospital at 6 p.m. instead of 10:15 is fundamentally absurd."

neigh_west

Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620. First Published May 24, 2012 12:00 AM


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