MASON CITY | Twenty-month-old John Snyder Jr. suffered a broken jaw, a skull fracture and a deep gash along his lower lip before allegedly being thrown into Willow Creek while still alive in July 1994.
The child drowned.
Testimony began Wednesday morning in the murder trial of Michael Cisneros, 38, formerly of Mason City. Cisneros is charged with first-degree murder in the death of the Mason City toddler.
Cerro Gordo County Attorney Carlyle Dalen took the jury through a sketch of the prosecution’s case during opening statements.
“Little John” -- as he was called -- lived with his father John Snyder Sr. in an apartment at 10 S. Adams Ave. in Mason City.
Dalen described how Snyder put his son to bed on the night of July 19 and awoke the next morning to find him gone.
The jury listened to the 911 call from Snyder reporting his son missing in July 1994.
The state’s first witness was Peggy Mehmen, a former Mason City Police Department dispatcher. The call made by Snyder Sr. was recorded at 8:20 a.m. July 20, 1994.
The tape was played for the jury.
“I just woke up this morning and I have a 20-month-old son and he’s gone,” Snyder is heard telling the dispatcher. Snyder said blankets belonging to his son were found outside his apartment door at 10 S. Adams Ave. Apt. 1.
“I guess he must have let himself out and laid down. He’s gone,” Snyder is heard saying on the 911 tape.
Police searched the apartment building and back alley. But no one had seen the child. Then the search expanded. A group of teenagers and a counselor from Francis Lauer Youth Services decided to go out and try and find the boy.
They were walking in tall grass along the bank of Willow Creek when one of the boys spotted a diaper and blue pajama bottoms allegedly belonging to Little John.
Police then called in a search dog named Charm. The dog and handler worked throughout the afternoon and evening on July 20. Finally at 10 a.m. on July 21, the dog found Little John’s body caught on a branch near the dam on Willow Creek. The only clothing the toddler was wearing was a white pajama top.
Dr. Dale Andres, former Cerro Gordo County medical examiner, determined the time of death as 1 a.m. July 20. But in testimony Wednesday Andres said the boy could have died hours earlier or later.
Andres said the broken jaw and the gash underneath Little John’s lip was caused by a “considerable blow to his face.”
A full body X-ray of the child found no evidence of old injuries which could point to child abuse, Andres testified.
Snyder came to the morgue at Mercy Medical Center-North Iowa in Mason City to identify his son before the body was taken to Sioux City for autopsy by State Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Bennett.
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Andres said Snyder was “flailing a little bit” trying to get to his son. The child’s body was covered except for his face.
Cisneros was charged with Little John’s murder after a DNA sample he gave upon being booked into the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Oakdale matched a DNA profile developed from four spots of blood found on the child’s pajama bottoms.
In the opening statement for the defense, Letitia Turner offered an explanation for the match.
She said Cisneros left his mother’s home on South President Avenue about 2:30 a.m. July 20 and started walking around downtown Mason City. At one point, he had to go to the bathroom. He went into the high grass near Willow Creek, relieved himself and then reached down and wiped his hands on something he found in the grass. The blood allegedly came from cuts on his hands made from earlier in the day.
“A connection between 518 S. President and 10 S. Adams doesn’t exist,” Turner told the jury. “He (Cisneros) doesn’t know these people. He never went there.”
Turner said the prosecution’s case will raise a “truckload of reasonable doubt.”
“Mr. Cisneros had nothing to do with the death of this child. But the bottom line is they are not going to be able to make that connection,” Turner said.
During testimony Wednesday, the jury was shown photos from the crime scene as well as the diaper and pajama bottoms found in tall grass near the creek.
Former Mason City Police Department evidence technician Clarence Lowell Willock testified about being called to the apartment on South Adams Avenue for a missing child.
“We started to treat the scene pretty quickly as a crime scene,” Willock said.
He told the jury that he believes a technician can never collect too much evidence.
The defense challenged the collection and storage of evidence. Willock said he stored the evidence in his locked office on July 20 before turning it over to the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation criminalists on July 21 after the child’s body was found. Four rolls of film containing photos from the crime scene were unusable after the film failed to advance in the camera. Willock’s report on the collection of evidence is missing.
In cross-examination, defense attorney Steven Kloberdanz asked Willock how he didn’t realize the camera wasn’t working.
“I can assure you I had absolutely no idea at the time I was taking pictures that it wasn’t working,” Willock testified.
As he was finishing his cross-examination, Willock referred to Snyder Sr. as Little John’s father, a violation of a motion in limine issued by Judge DeDra Schroeder Monday. According to DNA testing, Snyder Sr. is not the child’s biological father
Defense attorney Letitia Turner asked Judge Schroeder to declare a mistrial. Schroeder denied the request and admonished the parties to obey her rulings.
Testimony will resume at 9 a.m. Thursday in the courtroom at the Cerro Gordo County Law Enforcement Center in Mason City.