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UPDATE: Woman charged in child’s hypothermia death

BEMIDJI -- A Bemidji woman was arraigned Monday in the death of a 6-year-old girl last month at a south Bemidji apartment complex.

Rachel Downer, 22, was arrested Friday and appeared in court Monday to face a second degree manslaughter charge in the hypothermia death of her cousin, 6-year-old Mercedes Mayfield.

Mercedes was found lying outside on the front step by her mother, Malika Peoples, at their apartment building at 924 Carter Circle early Feb. 27. Peoples called 911 at approximately 6:30 a.m., and when emergency personnel arrived they found Peoples with her daughter in the entryway. Mercedes appeared stiff and frozen and was unresponsive, the complaint said. Mercedes was wearing a winter coat and a hat and a boot on her left foot, according to documents. Her right boot and mittens were found on the outside step.

Officers attempted to revive her but were unsuccessful and she was pronounced dead at the scene. Mercedes' body was transported to Sanford Bemidji Medical Center in Bemidji and later to the Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s office in St. Paul. A preliminary autopsy report from Ramsey County said Mercedes died of hypothermia.

According to the complaint, Downer, who is Peoples' niece, often babysat for the family, which included Mercedes and her two siblings, ages 2 and 3. At the time of the incident, the 2-year-old was with his father in Milwaukee, documents said. On Feb. 26, Downer had been watching the 3-year-old while Peoples was at work and Mercedes was at school, Peoples told police. Downer also had her own child, a 2-year-old boy, with her at Peoples' home.

After Peoples came home from work, and Mercedes arrived home from after-school activities at about 5 p.m., Peoples said everyone ate dinner and she then went to bed. Peoples had been injured at work that day, she told police, and had been given pain medication. She said Downer knew she had been injured and was taking medication and that Downer was going to stay at the apartment that night. Peoples told police she didn't wake until her alarm went off at 6 a.m. the next morning and that Downer and Mercedes were not there. Peoples said she called Downer and "asked her why she had taken Mercedes home with her when she knew Mercedes had school," according to the complaint. Downer told her she hadn’t taken Mercedes home with her. Peoples then said she "looked out the window and saw her daughter lying on the front step." She said she went outside, pulled Mercedes into the entryway and called 911, the complaint said.

Downer told police that after everyone ate, the children were watching television. She said she saw Peoples' arm in a sling "but did not know how she was injured," according to the complaint. Downer said she told Peoples she planned to take Mercedes to stay with her at her own apartment. She said she later decided against that but didn't tell Peoples about the change of plans. Downer told police that Mercedes helped her carry her belongings out to her car. Downer said "Mercedes closed the outside door to the building lightly, so that it would not latch," the complaint reads. Downer said after the car was loaded up, she watched Mercedes enter the building. Downer then got in her car and left, she said.

The outside door at the apartment building is controlled by a security system, the complaint said. The four apartments have call buttons by the outside door, and if a person doesn’t have a key, they must push the button and someone inside the apartment can then buzz them in.

The temperature the night of Feb. 26 and into Feb. 27 was about 19 below zero, with wind chills as low as 32 below, the complaint reads.

Court documents released Monday said Downer is accused of causing the death of another through committing or attempting to commit child neglect or endangerment. Second degree manslaughter is a non-intentional crime that carries a possible penalty of 10 years in prison, a $20,000 fine, or both.

Downer's next court date is March 24. The court released her on her promise to appear at all future court proceedings and to not have contact with the victim's family and not to leave the state.