Rita Miller has been bringing her children to the park for a couple of years, but she never noticed the angels.
And then she did, just the other day.
An angel statue stood stoic at the base of a Live oak beside the playground. Another angel lay on its side in the shrubs. Yet another cradled a puppy. The city does not know who puts the angels in Lighthouse Park. They just appear.
Miller tries to believe in angels but wrestles with her faith. She longs to feel the presence of the baby girl she lost almost four years ago.
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Ma’Leah Grace’s father beat the 23-month-old to death. Oren J. Lewis fractured his daughter’s skull and spine, bruised her and battered her hard enough to bust blood vessels in both eyes.
He was recently sentenced to life in prison for capital murder but is appealing the conviction.
Miller, her three remaining children and her parents are serving life sentences without Ma’Leah.
“It’s not easy waking up every day,” she said, “and knowing you’ll never see your child again.”
She walked over to the robed angel under the oak, showed the angel to her children, Mikah, 4, and Olivia, 2. Maybe, she said, the angel is a sign. Maybe Ma’Leah is still with them.
“I’ve prayed since she died that she would come to me in some form or fashion,” Miller said, “but I haven’t had any memorable feeling of her presence.”
Future killer wins custody
She and her children come to this park at least once a week. She moved to Harrison County after Ma’Leah’s murder. She just couldn’t live any longer in Hancock County, where her parents raised her.
Lewis won custody of Ma’Leah 57 days before she died, the Chancery Court order shows. He was a teacher and a coach, first in Hancock County and then in Harrison County. Lewis also was remembered for his days as a football player at Pearl River Community College and Louisiana Tech.
He had no history of abuse that Miller knew of, but she feared he would not take care of the toddler.
Miller was not in a great position to take care of Ma’Leah, either. She lived in a motel where she was on call 24 hours a day as manager at a salary of $9 an hour.
When Lewis sued for custody, she had no money to hire an attorney.
She also had a chaotic history with men. Her parents had custody of her oldest daughter.
Mikah was a baby. A babysitter usually cared for Ma’Leah and him. At the custody proceeding, the babysitter testified for Lewis, Miller and her father said. The babysitter thought Ma’Leah needed a home with a mom and dad. Miller was given four hours’ visitation every other Sunday.
Miller, her parents and other children last saw Ma’Leah on Aug. 18, 2013, at her parents’ home. She was especially loving that day. Ma’Leah sat in her grandfather’s lap and ate fried mullet. Lots of fried mullet, he said.
A week later, Oren Lewis called 911 to report his daughter was unresponsive. She was treated at Hancock County Medical Center, then airlifted to Children’s Hospital in New Orleans. Her mom said there never was much hope she would wake up.
Medical professionals suspected abuse from the start, notes from Children’s Hospital show. A representative of the hospital’s child-abuse program talked to Lewis, the notes indicate. When Ma’Leah suffered her injuries, he was the only adult in the house. His wife was at work.
“Around 10:45-11 p.m. he heard ‘boom, boom,’” the notes say. “He rushed into the room to find Maleah (sic) on her back on the floor with her foot stuck in the railing of the bed and she was unresponsive.”
Ma’Leah was taken off life support and pronounced dead Aug. 27, 2013 – two weeks and two days shy of her second birthday.
She loved shoes. Her mom put her favorite flip flops on her grave.
The family waited for justice. They waited almost four years. Prosecutors subpoenaed Miller to testify. Although she was never called to the stand, she was not allowed in court during the testimony.
Her parents sat through the trial in Hancock County Circuit Court. Nobody was allowed to leave the courtroom during testimony, said her father, Ricky Gable.
Prosecutors played the 911 tape. Lewis sounded so dispassionate while he was talking to the dispatcher, Gable thought. Gable said that he could hear his granddaughter gurgling in the background. Then they showed the pictures of her in the hospital bed, alive but dead.
Gable didn’t even cry at his own mother’s funeral. But he started crying in that courtroom. At his request, a bailiff ushered him out.
A sign from Ma’Leah
Gable walked to his truck. He got his insulated mug of coffee and walked the short distance to Ma’Leah’s grave. The back of her headstone says: “Sleep our beautiful angel on your pillow in the sky. Angels are forever so we’ll never say goodbye.”
He sat there, smoking and drinking his coffee.
He always called Ma’Leah by a derivative of her middle name, Grace, because that was his own mother’s name.
“I told Gracie, ‘I love you sweetheart,’” he said. “I’ll see you soon. I saw two butterflies flying around her gravestone and I knew everything was going to be all right. I knew that Gracie was telling me everything was going to be OK.”
Miller was able to join her parents for closing arguments. By all accounts, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Burrell offered a passionate summation.
The murder weapon, he said, weighed 310 pounds and stood 6 feet, 2 inches tall.
Medical records show Ma’Leah weighed 18 pounds and was 2 feet, 9 inches tall.
Gable believes his daughter has learned from the tragedy. She seems to be doing better these days. Miller even listens to his advice. She has taken a sabbatical from dating. She manages a tobacco store and tends to her children in a three-bedroom apartment.
She thinks about Ma’Leah every morning when she wakes up. And she’s given those angels in the park some thought. Ma’Leah, she thinks, is a guardian angel, watching over the family.
“I am a Christian,” Miller said. “But I don’t know if I will ever see her again. If and when I do go to heaven, I don’t know if I would recognize her. It would be a disappointment to know that I would never see her face again.”