The case was always full of holes.
There was never much evidence to back up the prosecution’s assertion that 15-day-old Christopher Breazeale was killed intentionally 19 years ago by teenager Dale Higenbottom.
The only witnesses to what happened were young children, and the most damning document was an autopsy report that noted old bruising on the baby’s body.
Later, there was word of a jailhouse snitch who was trying to gain an early release for information he said he had about that night in December 1992.
And even though murder charges against Higenbottom were dropped last week for lack of evidence, prosecutors say they still are convinced that what happened to Christopher in Ringgold, Ga., public housing was a crime.
“We know Christopher Breazeale was murdered, but we have no evidence at this point in time to go forward and say who it was,” said Herbert “Buzz” Franklin, district attorney of the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit.
In his first media interview about the case, Higenbottom told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that he is finally free of the false allegations that nearly tore his life apart.
“I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” he said.
In the end, the questions swarming around the case — and the secrets that were exposed — devastated the families involved.
Lonnie Breazeale, Christopher’s father, had hoped a trial would bring him closure. He believed the district attorney had the answers.
Late last year, he told the Times Free Press that he believed the anguish of not knowing what happened to his son could be killing him.
“You have to go on with that pain for the rest of your life, never knowing exactly what happened,” he said, crying.
Months later, Lonnie Breazeale was dead.
Since he was charged with murder in 2007, Higenbottom had fought in hearing after hearing. He was preparing to go to trial this month when prosecutors dismissed his case. That’s a rare decision in a murder case, according to his attorney, David Dunn.
But Dunn said prosecutors never had any hard evidence.
When Christopher was taken to the hospital 10 days before Christmas in 1992, his skull was sunken inward and bruises covered his tiny head and neck. An autopsy showed some bruises were a few days old, but the death was ruled an accident. Christopher’s 3-year-old, mentally disabled sister had dropped him, the parents said.
The couple’s rocky marriage ended soon after. To many people’s surprise, Tracey Breazeale and Higenbottom started dating and moved in together. Her other kids loved Higenbottom; they called him “uncle.”
Lonnie Breazeale remarried and lost touch with their other three children, his ex-wife said. Lonnie Breazeale had a stroke in 2006, followed by a massive heart attack in 2009.
He blamed his health problems on the grief at losing Christopher mixed with the unanswered questions.
His stress and anguish multiplied when he learned a secret that had been kept from him, from everyone: His former wife and Higenbottom, 15 years old at the time, had been having an affair for 11 months before Christopher died. Neither ever told him the baby could have been Higenbottom’s.
He wouldn’t find that out until Higenbottom’s expected trial was approaching.
“Why?” Breazeale asked aloud. “He was a kid. She’s a grown adult.”
Tracey said she regretted the affair, but she had been lonely, her husband distant at the time.
Higenbottom won’t speak about whether Christopher was his or address his relationship with Tracey.
That’s not important anymore, he said. What matters is that he didn’t kill Christopher and that his prayers were answered.
“I want for everyone to see this and say, ‘Thank you, Lord,’” he said.
He first learned he was under suspicion in the summer of 2007. He was 30, with a steady job building signs, a serious girlfriend and an infant son.
Detectives tricked him into going to the police station to talk about child abuse, he said. Once he was there, investigators questioned him for 12 hours, calling him a baby killer and a liar. They showed him pictures of Christopher’s body. His sister said he came home and threw up.
He denied the charges over and over. He had a son and would never do anything to hurt a child, he said.
Weeks later, police came back around, asking for another interview. He refused.
Nevertheless, he said he was shocked when charges were lodged against him in late August: malice murder, three counts of felony murder, two counts of aggravated battery and one count of cruelty to children.
His sister-in-law and infant son looked on as police handcuffed him and led him away. As officers put him in the police car, Higenbottom tried to hold onto his son.
After eight days behind bars a miracle happened: His boss put up the cash for his $100,000 bond. His boss said he didn’t think Higenbottom could be guilty.
Higenbottom’s girlfriend, Brandi, also decided the charges had to be false. She married him that next January and decided to keep the accusations from her daughter and their son.
“I know that man. He didn’t do that,” Brandi Higenbottom said last week.
But for the next five years of their marriage, the charges weighed heavily on them. Each year near his son’s and stepdaughter’s birthdays, Higenbottom would pray that he would be able to spend another year with them.
Brandi tried not to think about the chance that he could be locked up for the rest of his life.
“Just the thought of losing my husband and my children’s father over nonsense,” she said, then paused. “It’s hard.”
They didn’t find out until Tuesday night that Higenbottom’s charges had been dismissed. He was driving home from business in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., when his wife called to tell him to hurry home.
When he walked through the door, she was jumping up and down as she delivered the news. He grabbed his kids and hugged them. Then he went to his closet, knelt and thanked God. His 5-year-old son prayed with him.
At the end of the prayer, the boy looked up at his dad and said: “You’ve done a good job, Daddy.”
“My biggest battle was trying to keep this all from my kids,” Higenbottom said. “Now I feel like I can spend all my time with my kids and not have this hanging over my head.”
As soon as the water is right he’ll take his boy fishing, one of his favorite ways to spend time with his son.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...