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Wichita father stomped daughter to death, isolated girls to keep abuse quiet: plea

A 52-year-old Wichita father pleaded no contest Thursday to charges alleging he repeatedly abused his two young daughters so horrifically that he killed one of them last May.

The stomping 8-year-old Jeanetta Gatewood endured in her final moments was so traumatic that it ruptured her heart.

The girls, who were 8 and 9 when their father was arrested, were tortured for months in 2022 and 2023, prosecutors say. Thomas Ross Gatewood kept his daughters so isolated that neighbors of their home, 626 N. Oliver, had no idea he had children, even though they’d been there since 2018, police and prosecutors have said. He had been the girls’ sole caregiver since at least May 2021, when their mother was moved out for medical reasons.

Gatewood was also careful to keep the girls from places where the abuse might be noticed and reported, prosecutors say: They didn’t attend school and hadn’t seen a doctor or dentist since they were born. They weren’t allowed outdoors to play and were often locked in their rooms from the outside with latches held in place by screwdrivers.

Gatewood kept his daughters fearful of the outside world by telling they could become infected with Covid-19 or be poisoned by fentanyl, according to testimony at his preliminary hearing last fall and a factual basis for the plea read aloud in court Thursday.

He confined them to the house to keep the abuse quiet, prosecutors say.

Jeanetta died on May 8, 2023, after a particularly brutal attack by her father at their east-side home, near Central and Oliver.

Prosecutors said in court Thursday he stomped her so mercilessly that day that her heart ruptured.

Doctors who performed her autopsy also found broken ribs, a broken leg, a broken tooth, head wounds, head to toe bruising and pattern wounds indicating she had been whipped with an object.

Many of the injuries were in healing stages but without medical care, they didn’t mend correctly, prosecutors said.

Jeanetta’s 9-year-old sister was also beaten, whipped and held hostage during the months-long confinement. X-rays taken of her body after she was removed by police from Gatewood’s care found her pelvis, spine, ribs and teeth had all been broken. The Eagle is not naming her because she is a juvenile and to protect her privacy.

Police learned of the abuse only after Gatewood called 911 on May 8 when Jeanetta stopped breathing following the stomping episode. She was pronounced dead at 7:36 p.m.

On Thursday, less than a year after he was charged with a bevy of crimes related to the abuse and Jeanetta’s death, Gatewood agreed to plead no contest to nine charges: one count of first-degree felony murder, three counts of aggravated battery, two counts of kidnapping, two counts of aggravated child endangerment and one count of aggravated intimidation of a witness.

He received that last charge for ordering his 9-year-old daughter to lie to the police about how her sister died. He told the girl to say she was responsible for killing her sister — that it happened after she had hit Jeanetta with a hardback book during an argument, causing her to fall and slam her head against a desk. He threatened to beat her if she ever revealed the truth, prosecutors say.

After the girl was taken into protective custody, she eventually spoke up about the extent of the abuse and how her sister really died.

Dressed in an orange jail jumpsuit and with a defense attorney at each side, Gatewood gave Sedgwick County District Judge Jeffrey Goering mostly one-word affirmative answers to questions about whether he had talked to his attorney about the plea, understood the charges, was agreeing to go forward voluntarily and other matters. He entered the plea ahead of his jury trial, which had been scheduled to start Monday.

In exchange, prosecutors agreed to dismiss two counts in the murder and abuse case and several others in another criminal matter Gatewood had pending.

When he is sentenced, the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office plans to recommend a prison term of 25 years to life for the murder plus as much as 20 1/2 years for the other convictions. Gatewood’s defense lawyers can argue for less. The judge could impose more prison time than either side wants.

A sentencing date has not yet been set.

Gatewood and the girls’ mother, Brandy Gatewood, have previously faced criminal charges in Oklahoma for abusing two of their other children in 2009. The Gatewoods were also investigated by police in Minnesota in 2006 after their infant son died.