HOUSTON – Who could hurt a child?
It’s a question that still brings tears to the eyes of our most seasoned law enforcement officials, and a story ‘The Evidence Room’ explores in Baby Grace.
The awful discovery in Galveston Bay
On October 29, 2007, a fisherman found a blue container washed up on an island in Galveston Bay. What he found inside triggered a nationwide outcry and an investigation that took detectives from Galveston to Spring, Texas, then north to the state of Ohio.
“You see things in this job that, unfortunately, you witness man’s inhumanity to man, and there’s no way some of it ain’t going to rub off on you or going to stick to you,” says Chief of the Bayou Vista Police Department Jimmie Gillane. “This one stuck to me. Pretty much because it was a child, and it was our job to protect her, and we felt like we hadn’t accomplished our job. That we let her down.”
During that time, Gillane was a deputy with the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office. That day, he was assigned to go with the fisherman who found the container. Inside, the fisherman believed was the body of a young girl.
Gillane says when he opened the lid, he immediately saw flashing lights.
“It was a plastic tote that, you know, like a Wal-Mart or Home Depot or Lowe’s, somewhere like that,” he recalls. “He said that he had seen a child’s shoe, and then when he opened the container, it was flashing at him. So, I knew what kind of shoes he was talking about. I bought some for my niece. I go over there, I pull the top off, and I see the shoe flashing.”
The young girl’s body was inside two trash bags before being put in the container. Gillane remembers a small opening in the trash bags, and when he slightly pulled the hole wider, he could see a child’s leg. At that moment he called for a crime scene unit and began securing the area.
“Nothing prepares you for it, and once you see it, you’ll never stop seeing it. Eventually, you got to make friends with it, or you’ll drive yourself crazy thinking about it,” says Gillane. “I’ll tell you what, that was the coldest, quietest night I’d ever spent on the water out here.”
Child found in plastic container named ‘Baby Grace’
Galveston County Sheriff Detectives, Sgt. Mike Barry and Lt. Tommy Hansen were wrapping up another child homicide investigation when they got the call that deputies had found another child’s body. The pair waited at a boat dock near the causeway for the boat carrying the child’s body to arrive.
“It was like, ‘Oh, my God, here we go. Here’s another one, another child,’” says Hansen.
The deputies began calling her ‘Baby Grace’ the night she was found.
“It gave the child a reality to it by having a real name versus Jane Doe,” Hansen adds.
‘Baby Grace’ was then taken to the Galveston County Medical Examiner’s Office.
“I went home and cleaned up, and then I went directly to the morgue, which is customary to go witness the autopsy. That’s the only autopsy out of all the murders that I ever worked that I didn’t witness. I didn’t watch it. I went in the other room,” says Barry. “I couldn’t do it.”
The detectives’ next course of action was to find out Baby Grace’s identity.
“We’re 60 percent water here,” Hansen says. “So we, through the years, have inherited many, many cases, and this is an example that they weren’t killed here, but we wound up with the body because they were dumped into the water.”
Identifying ‘Baby Grace’
The detectives discovered the clothes on ‘Baby Grace’ were Target brands, including those light-up tennis shoes.
By the time they found her, ‘Baby Grace’ was in an advanced state of decomposition. Investigators believed she was dead for some time before being tossed into the Galveston Bay. The medical examiner would later determine ‘Baby Grace’ likely died from multiple skull fractures.
To help identify her, the duo immediately called for nationally renowned forensic artist Lois Gibson. When Gibson got to the morgue, she took pictures of ‘Baby Grace’s’ face and clothing. Once home, she finished a sketch of ‘Baby Grace’s’ face in 45 minutes.
“[She’s] decomposed, and rotted, and horrific, but you draw a pair of cute eyes because it’s a baby. There’s no beard or mustache. It’s just smooth skin. It’s a smooth egg of a face, and of course, the lips are going to be full and cute.” Gibson says. “I went to dental school, so I know how to draw the baby teeth.”
Gibson shared that the entire process eventually gave her a nervous breakdown.
“I was trying to hold it together, and it was unreal. It ripped me up because my baby, Tiffany-Celeste, looked like this girl. So I go to the morgue and see a rotting corpse, and it looks like my baby. So I held it in,” Gibson says.
The media would soon get that sketch along with pictures of ‘Baby Grace’s’ clothing.
Three days after releasing ‘Baby Grace’s’ sketch nationwide, the Sheriff’s Office received a call from ‘Baby Grace’s’ grandmother in Mentor, Ohio. Sawyers told investigators she saw Gibson’s sketch online and believed ‘Baby Grace’ was her two-year-old granddaughter, Riley Ann Sawyers. DNA testing would later confirm Sawyer’s suspicions.
Who Murdered Riley Ann Sawyers?
As hundreds of tips were pouring in, a woman showed up at the Galveston County Sherriff’s Office with her attorney.
“[Hansen] contacted me and said, ‘Hey, you know, we need to go in. There’s a lady coming in to be interviewed. She’s coming with an attorney. Captain wants us down there,’” Sgt. Barry says. “So we go down here, we had no knowledge of what was about to take place.”
They didn’t know they were about to interview Sawyers’ mother, Kimberly Trenor.
Over several hours, Trenor told detectives her husband, Royce Zeigler, II, was increasingly unhappy with Riley’s behavior. During her interview, she says Zeigler pushed her to be more aggressive with her disciplining Riley. Trenor told them Zeigler felt Riley didn’t have proper manners and was too rambunctious.
“He could not comprehend dealing with a two-year-old child. A two-year-old is a two-year-old. They’re going to, they’re going to run rampant and drive you crazy sometimes, but that’s what two-year-olds do,” says Lt. Hansen. “He couldn’t, he couldn’t cope with that, and he was determined to change her habits like she was a 15-year-old, not a two-year-old.”
Trenor explains she became pregnant with Riley when she was in high school. The young mother and daughter moved to Spring, TX from Ohio after Trenor met Zeigler playing the online game World of Warcraft. She confessed to detectives Riley died in July of 2007; three months before she was found in the bay.
“It started off with discipline that morning. It was his decision. He was going to stay home, and he was going to help discipline this child and break the child of these bad habits of which he did not like,” says Barry.
Trenor told detectives Zeigler instructed her to run a bathtub full of cold water and to hit Riley with a belt when she misbehaved. When Riley screamed from being hit with the belt, they would shove her head underwater.
Trenor also said Riley didn’t like the taste of children’s Tylenol, and the pair would shove her head underwater when she wouldn’t take the medicine.
“He said, ‘We need to break her,’” Trenor told Hansen and Barry during the interview in 2007. “He wanted me to shove her head underwater, and I found myself doing that and hitting her with the belt.”
Riley would try to run away and Zeigler would put a belt around her waist or neck and yank her back. At one point, she says Zeigler yanked Riley back so hard she fell and hit her head on the tile floor.
“That was the beginning of the end when she hit her head. And then, of course, they tried to force medicine down her or hold her in cold water, and it was just one disaster after another,” says Hansen. “[Riley] went through hell on earth for hours and hours.”
“Riley’s last words were, ‘I love you, mommy.’ That’s a quote from the mother,’ says Barry.
“You looked in her eyes, what did you see?,” asks KPRC 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.
“She had remorse, but I think only because she was caught. To be honest with you; she was so wrapped up with trying to make this man happy, a position where she was willing, in my opinion, to sacrifice her daughter,” says the sergeant.
Interviewing the stepfather
Next up was Zeigler. At first, he denied knowing anything about Riley’s death or that ‘Baby Grace’ and Riley were the same person.
The detectives say Zeigler initially claimed Trenor told him a Child Protective Services worker from Ohio came by the house and took Riley away.
During a follow-up interview, Zeigler admitted he knew Riley was dead. Telling them he was home the day she was killed. However, he claims he was in another room when she died, denying having anything to do with her death.
“I am not at all convinced that there’s not more to tell, and the reason I say that is because there’s been a number of times in the interview today when we have reached, you have good memory to a lot of things, but when we reach something that’s critical or crucial moment, ‘well, I don’t remember I had a, I blacked out,’” Hansen tells Ziegler during the second interview.
“He was really more interested in protecting himself and dumping the heat back on his wife than himself, point blank,” says Hansen. “It was all about protecting me and, you know, I didn’t do this, and she did it.”
Detectives found a mountain of evidence when they searched Zeigler and Trenor’s house. Investigators say after the murder the pair went to Walmart and bought the blue container, bleach, gloves, a shovel, duct tape, an anchor chain, and quick-dry cement.
While searching the home investigators found a notepad with ‘Rules for Riley’. Inside were nine rules written in both Trenor and Zeigler’s handwriting. After killing Riley, the two cleaned her body with bleach, dressed her, put her in garbage bags, and placed her in the blue container. The detectives tell us the couple couldn’t find a place to dispose of Riley’s remains, so they kept the container in a detached garage.
The investigators then interviewed a ‘Geek Squad’ employee who came to the house to work on Zeigler’s computer. He reported smelling a horrific odor coming from the garage but had no idea the source of the smell.
“The computer gave us everything we needed to know. Where he’d been researching disposing of bodies, burial sites, cleaning up crime scenes,” Hansen adds.
Hansen says a check of the computer also revealed a phony letter from CPS in Ohio. The detectives say Riley’s grandmother was calling Harris County law enforcement and asking for a welfare check on her granddaughter. They say Zeigler and Trenor forged the letter as a way to trick them into believing Ohio CPS took Riley away. The investigators also found what they characterize as suicide notes from Trenor and Zeigler.
A handwritten note from Zeigler referenced “past sins,” and Trenor’s note read, “My heart is black dead. There is nothing left.”
Eventually, the couple decided to throw Riley’s body into Galveston Bay.
“When they came here, they didn’t bring any cell phones. They avoided all the toll bridges so cameras wouldn’t catch them,” says Sgt. Barry. “This is his plan, not hers.”
Trenor gave birth in 2008 to another child while awaiting trial. Barry says members of Trenor’s family took custody of the child. Both Trenor and Zeigler were found guilty of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
A Promise Made And Kept
“We promised her that night while we were waiting that we would find out who did it, and we would take her home,” Gillane tells us.
He found it somewhat surprising Riley’s body was found, given that it had been tossed off the old causeway bridge and had to float five miles past tugboats, barges, and pleasure crafts to the island where she washed ashore.
“She wanted us to find her, God wanted us to find her, the universe wanted us to find her and wanted to make sure the people that did that, didn’t do that to anybody else,” he says. “I’m glad we were able to take her home like we promised.”
Gillane and Barry served as pallbearers at Riley’s funeral in Mentor, Ohio. The island where she was found is now called “Riley’s Island” and a cross was placed where her remains were discovered.
“Occasionally, Riley comes back to visit, and I’m okay with that. You got to make friends with them,” Gillane says. “Any cop has those moments, and if they haven’t yet, they will.”