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ST. GEORGE — An exhaustive investigation into the death of six-year-old Gabriel Britt back in March 2001 was capped off Tuesday night with the arrest of the child's mother.

Renee Britt was charged with homicide by child abuse. A warrant for the arrest of the child's father, Terrence Britt, was also issued, with detectives unable to locate the man and speculating that he has left the area.

Maj. Tim Stephenson of the Dorchester County Sheriff's Office and the Britt Task Force arrested Renee Britt about 9 p.m. Tuesday without incident, and transported the woman to the detention facility in Summerville.

Stephenson said the investigation into the death of the boy almost two years ago had never stopped, but had "continued to roll along, with pieces falling into place as we proceeded. It finally became compelling enough that we were confident we could go to trial."

Investigators were always sure that the case would be resolved, and posters with the boy's picture are still hanging throughout the sheriff's department and jail. Stephenson said that the task force still had some work to do, and that they were taking measures to locate Terrence Britt.

The two other Britt children were taken into protective custody by DSS at their home Tuesday evening.

Gabriel Britt was reported missing from the family's home outside St. George on a Saturday morning in March of 2001. His parents told police at the time that the boy must have unlocked the front door and wandered away as the rest of the family was sleeping, something he had done several times before. The parents warned deputies that since he was autistic, Gabriel would hide from people he did not know.

More than 1,000 volunteers joined the search for the boy over the next week, some coming from as far away as Florida, Georgia and Ohio and eventually covering 10,000 acres around the rural Texas community. The efforts to locate the child would become the largest missing person search in the history of the state, with volunteers using dogs, on horseback, on foot and in helicopters to try and find the boy before freezing weather moved into the area.

Eight days later, neighbors found the child's body in an isolated pond 400 yards from his home, a pond searched three times by police divers who all noted the murky water and lack of visibility.

An autopsy concluded that Gabriel's death was due to drowning, and also noted bruising damage to the child's kidney and bowel. When the pond was drained to determine if a submerged object somehow injured the boy, nothing was discovered that could have caused the internal damage. The coroner concluded that the child had received a massive blow to his midsection just prior to his death in the water.

A call for help

Three days before Gabriel was reported missing, a 911 call by one of the family's other two sons charged that the stepfather, Terrence Britt, had beaten him and withheld asthma medication. That call, along with information uncovered by detectives investigating Gabriel's death, prompted DSS to remove the two remaining boys from the home and place them with relatives.

The boy who dialed 911 later admitted that he was spanked after trying to break up a fight between Terence and the boy's mother. Both boys were eventually returned to the care of their mother, with the proviso that the father not live on the premises until completion of anger management counseling. He spent several months in counseling and did move back into the family home.

Andy Savage, the Britts' lawyer, said that the whole family continued to have a tough time dealing with their youngest child's death, and continued to have counseling. With the sheriff's department investigating the child's death as a criminal matter, the family called for a second autopsy. A month after the boy's body was recovered from the pond, a second autopsy was performed in an effort to further determine the cause and circumstances of his death.

After extensive forensic testing was performed, the results concluded that since no diatomes, or algae particles, were found in Gabriel's bones, the boy had been placed in the water after death. The case was then reclassified as a homicide.

Voodoo science

As the case dragged on into 2002, detectives had assembled more than 10,000 pages of evidence for review by Berkeley County Solicitor Ralph Hoisington. He determined that for a successful trial and conviction, other evidence would be needed, and has been directing the task force investigation for more than a year.

Savage always maintained the innocence of Gabriel's parents in the boy's death, saying that all medical experts he had consulted with agreed that everything pointed to drowning.

"The whole diatomes issue is just voodoo science," the attorney said. "I've asked the detectives for any cases anywhere that relied on diatomes as scientific evidence and have never received a response."

Throughout the investigation, Savage has insisted that the Britt parents were victims themselves and shouldn't be treated as suspects. He said he's always believed that the death was a tragic accident of a child wandering off into the woods, falling into a pond and drowning.

"I don't know how the case could be solved, because there was no crime to solve," Savage said.

Dorchester Sheriff Ray Nash said on Wednesday that he was very proud of the task force, and that an unbelievable amount of work had been accomplished to get to this point.

"We never gave up," Nash said. "The investigators have worked every day on the case and for the last year have had an intense collaboration with Solicitor Hoisington and his staff. I'm very pleased with the outcome, pleased with the work of the investigators and pleased that this day has finally come."

Nash said that homicide from child abuse is different from a charge of murder, and that sentences can range from a mandatory 20 years to life in prison.

T&D Correspondent Stephanie Pietrowski can be reached by e-mail at SPietro122@aol.com or by phone at 843-636-9005.

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