District Judge Bruce Pickett did not mince words Wednesday when describing the impact felt by the not-yet-2-year-old victim in the case against James Dunkle Jr.
“I’m going to assume that there’s going to be restitution requests for potentially the rest of the victim’s life,” Pickett said.
The long-term damage to the victim, who was beaten, dropped and thrown by Dunkle back in February, is not known, but doctors told the family they do not expect him to ever fully recover.
Pickett sentenced Dunkle to a fixed term of eight years in prison with an indeterminate period of 22 years for a unified sentence of 30 years. The unified sentence is the maximum allowed by law for felony injury of a child with an enhancement for great bodily injury.
Dunkle called 911 after the victim, his girlfriend’s son, began struggling to breathe. He told family and police the child had fallen off the bed.
The child was taken to Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center, then to Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. Doctors quickly concluded the injuries were far too severe to have been caused by an accidental fall.
The victim had one collapsed lung with the other one partially collapsed. He had breaks arm, leg and skull with bleeding in his brain. He also had multiple bruises.
Dunkle later confessed to having a “mental breakdown” and abusing the child.
The child’s father and grandfather both gave victim impact statements to the court, sharing their fears the damage will follow the boy as he grows up.
Joshua Niederer, the victim’s father, said he wakes up in fear, wanting to check on his son.
“Having doctors tell you your son will never be the same boy that he would have been because of the abuse he suffered was the most devastating, heartwrenching thing a parent could ever hear,” Niederer said.
Dave Hardiek, the victim’s grandfather, said he and the parents had to be trained to insert a feeding tube while the boy recovered. He showed the court a strap used to restrain his grandson’s right arm in the hopes of forcing him to use and strengthen his weakened left arm. Hardiek said the victim was left-handed before the abuse, but now struggles to move the left side of his body.
Hardiek said he was next door to Dunkle and the victim, and was expecting a call to ask him to babysit that day.
“I regret I never went to the front door of (the victim’s) house,” Hardiek said. “I just feel so guilty inside (that) I just walked home.”
Hardiek’s daughter called to tell him Dunkle had told her the victim was struggling to breathe. He went over to find his grandson lying on the bed, wheezing. Hardiek was afraid to pick him up, thinking it could worsen the injuries. He instead recorded his grandson to document the damage.
“You people will never really know the emotional impact this type of tragedy will cause for the family and the people who witness it,” Hardiek said.
He also mentioned the financial harm caused by hospital bills and travel expenses to stay with the victim in Salt Lake City.
Public Defender Neal Randall acknowledged his client had caused serious harm to the victim and his family. He offered little defense, saying only that Dunkle had a limited criminal history and felt regret for his actions.
“He’s always wanted to contact the family to express his remorse,” Randall said.
Bonneville County Deputy Prosecutor Alex Muir said Dunkle’s crime was particularly egregious because the victim was so young.
“He was happy. He was healthy. He was thriving, and the defendant took that away from this child,” Muir said.
Dunkle gave a statement apologizing for the abuse.
“I don’t deserve forgiveness, but I do pray we all in time can heal from this,” Dunkle said.
Before handing down his sentence, Pickett said the presentence investigation did find mitigation in that Dunkle was physically abused himself as a child.
The judge noted, however, that the presentence investigation found him to be a high risk to reoffend. Pickett wondered how the injuries would affect the victim’s abilities through his childhood, teen years and into adulthood. He also cited the impact caring for him would have on the family.
“This isn’t like a broken bone that’s going to heal, and they’re going to be done in a year,” Pickett said.