Ryan Stallings was never a healthy baby – he vomited regularly and had trouble keeping down his formula. But his parents, Patricia and David, got used to it. However, on July 7, 1989, something changed. As the three-month-old infant stared at the ceiling from his crib, listless and struggling to breathe, his mother realized that he might be dangerously ill.
Patty bundled Ryan into her car and set out for the Children’s Hospital in St. Louis, intending to consult with their doctor. But Patty was flustered and anxious. She took a wrong turn and instead ended up at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital. As it happened, this simple twist of fate would have considerable consequences.
The hospital physicians immediately put Ryan on a respirator and began running tests. For days, Patty and David watched on. And then came a disturbing revelation. Ryan’s blood contained significent quantities of ethylene glycol, an active ingredient in antifreeze. And since the body does not produce ethylene glycol naturally, there could only be one logical conclusion: someone had poisoned Ryan.
On the surface, Patty and David Stallings appeared to be a regular working-class couple. They had met in 1986. At that time, Patty worked at a 7-Eleven in St. Louis. David, a plate engraver, was a regular customer at the store. They started dating and got married two years later. And in April 1989, Patty gave birth to their son, Ryan.
The police, however, came to believe that the couple were anything but normal, loving parents. They interrogated them for days, demanding to know if Patty was jealous of the baby. And then, taking David aside, they implied that his wife was a liar. In fact, they strongly suspected that Patty had deliberately poisoned her baby with antifreeze.
Indeed, they believed that Patty’s behavior was consistent with a rare psychiatric disorder known as Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Sufferers of the condition typically induce or make up symptoms of illness in someone they care for, usually a child or an elderly person. Their motive is generally to gain the attention and sympathy of others, especially medical professionals.
Fortunately, after 12 days in hospital, Ryan recovered from his apparent poisoning and was able to leave. However, the police would not allow him to return home with his parents. He was placed in the protective custody of the Missouri Division of Family Services, who assigned him to foster parents. Meanwhile, David and Patty were permitted to spend just one hour per week with him and even then only under strict supervision.
On August 31 Patty visited her baby. She was briefly left alone with him, against the instructions of Family Services. Later, Patty gave Ryan a bottle of formula that had been made by his foster mom. However, Ryan soon became sick. Patty was immediately arrested and held on assault charges.
Within four days, Ryan was in hospital and in critical condition. “He was lying there with tubes in his arms and his throat, blowing up like a balloon,” David told People Magazine in 1991. “I couldn’t stand it.” And then on September 7, 1989, Ryan died. Patty was charged with first-degree murder.
Patty spent months in jail in Potosi, Missouri. And while awaiting trial, she found out that she was four months pregnant with David’s child. On February 17, 1990, a month before she was due, she gave birth to a second son, David Jr., who was dispatched to foster parents at once. David and Patty nicknamed him “D.J.”
But in just a fortnight, D.J. had become seriously ill and required medical attention. Moreover, his symptoms were disturbingly familiar. “The social worker told me he was listless, vomiting and breathing funny,” Patty told People Magazine. “I went into shock. Those were the same things wrong with Ryan.”
D.J. was taken to Children’s Hospital – the hospital where Patty had intended to take Ryan before she took a wrong turn on the freeway. There, he was diagnosed with methylmalonic acidemia (MMA), a rare inherited illness which prevents the proper breakdown of proteins. He was treated with vitamin B12 and made a recovery.
The diagnosis was important because MMA causes the body to release propionic acid – a chemical almost identical to ethylene glycol. In court, Patty’s attorney attempted to make the case that Ryan might have died from MMA. However, without concrete evidence to back it up, the judge refused to allow it.
The prosecution, on the other hand, had a seemingly compelling case. According to the testimony of social workers, Patty had reacted to Ryan’s death with flat emotions. Furthermore, police had found a container of antifreeze in her home. The trial lasted for three days before the jury went on to deliberate for ten hours. Patty was found guilty of first-degree murder. She was sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole.
But the story was far from over. After reading about Patty’s trial, a biochemist called William Sly – whose brother had had MMA – obtained a sample of Ryan’s blood and had it tested by a colleague at St. Louis University. The results obtained by Dr. James Shoemaker, director of the university’s Metabolic Screening Lab, confirmed that Ryan had indeed had MMA.
Moreover, Dr. Shoemaker claimed that the analysis used to convict Patty was inherently flawed. In short, the hospital had incorrectly identified propionic acid as ethylene glycol. And after studying the case for six weeks, Dr. Piero Rinaldo of Yale University separately confirmed the finding. “Technically speaking, I’ve never seen such lousy work,” he told People Magazine. “It was a classic case of misdiagnosis.”
In July 1991, Patty was released, remaining under house arrest until a forthcoming retrial. But then, two months later, prosecutors dropped the case entirely. “We can’t undo the suffering the Stallingses have endured during this ordeal, and I apologize,” People Magazine quoted George McElroy, who had represented the prosecution, as saying. “I hope their lives will be happier and fuller in the future.”
During her 14 months in prison, Patty suffered extreme stress and lost considerable amounts of weight. However, her experience did not leave her angry or sour, thanks partly to her Buddhist beliefs. “I have never really been angry,” she told People Magazine. “I am more damaged.”
Patty subsequently sued Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital and won a settlement. She speculated that opinions about her son’s death might have been influenced by the case of Paula Sims, who had been convicted of murdering her two daughters a year before Patty’s trial. In 1994, McElroy failed to win reelection as Jefferson County prosecutor – perhaps influenced by the fact that the Stallings had donated $10,000 to his opponent’s campaign.
Meanwhile, D.J. was released from foster care and allowed to return home to his biological parents. “We’re moving cautiously forward,” Patty told People Magazine in 1991. “We don’t want to make plans. Life is too short.” Indeed, life is not only too short but it is painfully fragile. On September 17, 2013, at the age of 23, D.J. died.