On July 9, 1989, in St. Louis, Missouri, a young mother rushed her critically ill baby to the hospital. The baby was three-month-old Ryan Stallings. Since birth, Ryan had suffered from chronic gastric distress. On the day Ryan was brought to the emergency room, his breathing had become labored and he was vomiting uncontrollably. According to his father David, Ryan was immediately placed in the pediatric intensive care unit:
"It was just a shock to see a little baby incapacitated the way he was. It was to the point where they said, well, they don't know how long he's going to be here. We don't know what's wrong with him yet. So you may as well just go to the waiting room and stay out there until we can tell you what's wrong."
David and Patty Stallings rented a hospital room to be near their son. After three agonizing days, the Stallings learned that Ryan would recover. The diagnosis, however, was shocking. Ryan had been poisoned. Patty Stallings was annoyed that authorities immediately considered her a suspect:
"They were very polite, yet suspicious. They would not allow us to see Ryan alone. There would have to be two nurses or a doctor present. We were never allowed at his bedside alone. That bothered me, but I still didn't understand. Because I wasn't looking at it the way they were, I guess."
That same day, the police were brought in to investigate. According to Patty, detectives interviewed her husband in a separate room:
"We were split up and talked to by detectives. They immediately started asking me, 'Is there a problem at home? Are you and David fighting?' They were saying that they knew that that baby had been poisoned by either me or my husband. It infuriated me, and I was just... I was devastated. I was blown away... Ryan was my world... He was perfect."
Ryan's condition improved. After twelve days, he was released from the hospital, but not to the custody of his parents. Patty and David's contact with Ryan was severely restricted. According to Patty, they were allowed only a one-hour visit each week on Thursdays:
"I just could not wait till Thursday. I would tell everybody over and over and over how last Thursday went. That was my life..."
The parental visits continued for five weeks. During the sixth visit, Patty was left alone with Ryan a short time. Three days later, Ryan suffered another severe attack of vomiting. Once again, he was rushed to the hospital. Once again, the diagnosis was poisoning. Authorities came to Patty's house with an arrest warrant:
"We were getting out of the car, and they said, 'Stop right there.' I turned around, and I was, like, 'Come on into the house.' They said, 'You're not allowed to go into the house.' They immediately slapped handcuffs on me and said, 'You're under arrest for assault.'"
Patty Stallings was arrested and charged with assault. While Patty languished in jail, her son was dying. Ryan was placed on life support systems. David Stallings found himself trapped in a private hell:
"The doctors come up and tell me that they have a feeling that Ryan's not going to make it and that maybe I should contact a minister and have him baptized. I tried to get Patty up there and all I got from the judge was, 'No, absolutely not. I'm not going to let a baby-killer up there.' I said, 'This lady did not kill this baby.' When they finally came back to me and told me that 'We need to know if we can turn him off,' I told them, 'Go ahead and shut the machine down.' But I wanted to be in there with him. So for three hours, I sat there with him in my arms, knowing that Patty couldn't be there, watching this meter on this machine go down each time his heart would beat."
On September 7, 1989, Ryan Stallings died. He was not yet six months old. His mother, Patty, was now charged with first-degree murder and held without bail. She was not allowed to attend Ryan's funeral. A few weeks later, Patty discovered she was pregnant again. Six months later, David Stallings Jr. was born. Even though David Sr. was not a suspect, he was not allowed to take his son home. The baby was placed in foster care. Ironically, this devastating blow would turn out to be a stroke of good luck. Without it, Patty and David Stallings might have been accused of poisoning their second son.
When David Stallings Jr. was two weeks old, he began to exhibit symptoms identical to the ones that had plagued his brother Ryan. This time, the diagnosis was different. David Jr. had a rare genetic disorder, MMA, in which the body produces chemical by-products that are similar to the chemicals found in antifreeze. Unsolved Mysteries contacted an independent medical expert about MMA:
"It would be very simple to confuse the diagnosis of MMA with multiple poisonings because the symptoms are very similar. But more importantly than that, MMA and other similar disorders are very rare, and the majority of doctors either will never have seen a case, or if they have seen a case, didn't know that they saw it, and actually confused it."
While prosecutors evaluated the medical evidence, Patty Stallings was released from jail. However, Patty was still denied visitation rights with her new born son:
"I thought it was over, as far as the nightmare of being accused of hurting Ryan. I was positive because even my lawyer said it was over. There was no way that they could not see the truth right in front of their eyes."
Yet local officials continued to pursue Ryan's case. Their position was that Ryan Stallings had not died from MMA. In the judge's chambers, they cited four expert witnesses. The judge refused to allow the diagnosis of David Jr. presented to the jury. George McElroy was the prosecuting attorney on the case:
"We were concerned that if it came out that David Jr., or Ryan for that matter, had this methylmalonic acidosis, unless it could be shown that he actually died of that or it was some kind of a contributing factor to his death, we believe that that would not be relevant and in fact might cause the jury to go off on a wild goose chase and make a decision based on something that's really not relevant."
Without the medical testimony, the case against Patty seemed airtight. The prosecution focused on the events of Thursday, August 31, 1989, Patty and David's sixth parental visits with Ryan. It was on that visit that David's parents were invited for the first time:
"About twenty minutes into the visit, my mom and dad decided to leave. Patty and I had the rest of the time with him. I escorted my mom and dad out and walked down to the hall. I was out of the room no more than forty-five seconds at the most."
According to George McElroy, Patty was alone with David anywhere from three minutes to eight minutes:
"During that time she did actually feed the child a bottle. The child again got the same symptoms it had before, came back into the hospital, was diagnosed with ethylene glycol poisoning. But the state believes, and certainly circumstantial evidence suggests, that she slipped ethylene glycol, or antifreeze, into the bottle during that feeding."
However, David Stallings disagreed that his wife fed their newborn son while she was alone:
"That's incorrect. What happened was, I walked back to the cubbyhole where Patty was with Ryan. He started getting a little cranky, so I reached into the bag, took the bottle out, and started feeding him. I saw the bottle. I did not see any discoloration in the bottle whatsoever. There was nothing done to that bottle. Absolutely nothing."
But the jury sided with the prosecution and on March 4, 1991, Patty Stallings was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Each visit with her son was limited to one hour. David Stallings Sr. was allowed to see his son once a week:
"I cannot see how they can live with themselves, knowing that they sent an innocent woman to jail for the rest of her life for something that she didn't do. If Ryan would have been correctly diagnosed with MMA, none of this would have happened. None of these series of events in the last two years would have happened. It all depended on whether he was correctly diagnosed, which he was not."
Update: Shortly after this story aired, doctors from all over the county called to say there were familiar with MMA. Dr. Piero Rinaldo, a renowned scientist from Yale University, even performed tests that confirmed MMA was the cause of Ryan's death. Consequently, the prosecuting attorney dropped all charges against Patty Stallings. David Stallings Jr. was finally allowed to come home.