GREENFIELD, Ind. — A 31-year-old father was sentenced to 65 years in prison with 2.5 years of probation Wednesday for the murder of his 1-year-old daughter.
While addressing the Hancock Superior Court, Matthew S. Wagoner insisted he was not solely responsible for her death and said he would appeal the court’s decision.
“I’m not going to apologize for what I did,” Wagoner said in response to the court’s charges. “I accept neglect but nothing else.”
At 9:32 a.m. May 28, 2015, Greenfield police received a 9-1-1 call from the Wagoner’s home. They found 1-year-old Zoey Wagoner lying on the floor just inside the home’s side door. Matthew Wagoner was kneeling at her side, doing chest compressions. Jessica Wagoner, Zoey’s mother and Matthew’s wife, was standing outside the home, crying, alongside a friend, Krista Coffin, who sometimes babysat Zoey.
When taking Zoey to the hospital, police saw the cut on her forehead and the bruises on her stomach, but what they didn’t see were the healing abrasions on her elbow, radius and humerus that were found during her autopsy. These were injuries sustained months before.
Later that morning, after an ambulance took her to Hancock Regional Hospital, Zoey was pronounced dead. Her cause of death was determined to be multiple blunt force traumatic injuries due to assault. She was beaten to death.
Zoey’s autopsy report also includes contusions of the lips and hemorrhaging of the eyes, neck and internal organs.
Matthew’s sentencing comes after months of investigation into Zoey’s death. Jessica has a sentencing hearing scheduled for March 2. She is facing charges of neglect of a dependent causing serious bodily injury, to which she plead guilty Feb. 3.
According to the case’s probable cause affidavit, Jessica went to work the morning of the 28th after leaving Zoey with Matthew. That morning, she got a text from Matthew saying Zoey had stopped breathing. Jessica called Krista and told her to come to her house immediately.
When she arrived at home, Matthew was already performing CPR on Zoey.
Zoey was born May 12, 2014, in Carmel, Indiana. Relatives at the hearing Wednesday described her as “always smiling” and “full of life.” Her favorite animal was the giraffe.
Jessica and Matthew moved into their new house in Greenfield on May 24, 2015, for Jessica’s new job, where she cared for mentally disabled people.
At that time, Indiana’s Department of Child Services had limited Matthew’s interaction with Jessica and her three children — Zoey, another girl, age 9 and a boy, age 12, both from a previous relationship. But text messages obtained by detectives between Matthew and Jessica show they were in constant contact. Matthew had continued to help watch the three children, without alerting their DCS caseworker, according to the probable cause affidavit.
Text messages between the couple also show they were aware of Zoey’s deteriorating health. Jessica said she was worried that if she took Zoey to the hospital, the staff there would call Child Protective Services.
“Every time I turned around, there was CPS knocking on my door,” Jessica said in an interview with Greenfield Sgt. Nichole Gilbert during the investigation.
State prosecutors sought the maximum sentence for Matthew, considering his criminal past, which includes a charge of child exploitation in Henry County.
In February 2014, Matthew was living in Knightstown, Indiana, with Jessica and her two children. After a neighbor’s child came forward that Matthew was abusing Jessica’s children, police found pictures of Jessica’s oldest daughter’s vagina on Matthew’s phone along with pictures of his own penis. These charges from Henry County remain pending.
Virginia McPherson, the next door neighbor of Jessica and Matthew, said she noticed the new couple move in next door to her. A few days later, she was sitting on her front porch with her Chihuahua-mix, Susie, when she saw Jessica walking by with Zoey in a stroller. She said she then got up to say hello to them.
“I’ll never forget the look on that child’s face,” she said.
As she touched Zoey’s hand, she said, Zoey didn’t smile. Even when Susie ran up to her there was no reaction from Zoey.
The next morning, while vacuuming her living room, she saw the police lights flashing in the window.
“I don’t sit out on my porch that often,” McPherson said, sitting in her living room. “Just something about that evening made me want to go out there. It never dawned on me that she lived in those conditions.”
During the hearing Wednesday, Lindsay Merriman, Jessica’s sister and Zoey’s aunt, read Matthew a letter she wrote to him.
“I am sincerely happy no other children will need to go through this,” Merriman read aloud. “She’ll never have a sweet 16 and never enjoy what you robbed her of.”
After the hearing ended, Zoey’s grandmother, Roxanne Lane, stood on the sidewalk outside of the Hancock County Courthouse among Zoey’s aunts, uncles and extended family. They were getting ready to let go of a balloon in honor of Zoey.
“You gotta keep her memory alive somehow,” she said before the family placed their hands together and let go. The phrase “It’s Your Day” was printed on the side.
Katlyn Lane, Zoey’s aunt, had a new tattoo on her ankle of Zoey’s favorite animal, a giraffe. She remembers watching Zoey for Jessica and giving her a different blanket every time she would start crying. She knew a blanket would always make her happy.
Most of Zoey’s family still lives in Knightstown and prefers to refer to Zoey without her legal last name. Now, they call her Zoey Lee and refuse to use the name “Wagoner.” When they buried her, they took measures to remove “Wagoner” from her gravestone.
“She got her justice today,” Lane said. “She saved my niece and other nephew. Somehow, in her one year of life she saved her brother and sister.”