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March 21, 2001

Disabled teen dies, mother is charged

Suffered Rett Syndrome

Graeme Hamilton
National Post

Chelsea Craig

MONTREAL - A woman was charged with first-degree murder yesterday after her severely disabled 14-year-old daughter was found dead in her home from what police called a "deadly cocktail" of medications.

Rachel Capra Craig, 46, could not appear in court to answer the charge as she was recovering in hospital after allegedly swallowing some of the drugs herself. A neighbour reported seeing Ms. Craig taking her daughter, Chelsea, and the family dog for a walk on Monday afternoon, about an hour before the girl died.

Chelsea's father found her body on her bed when he returned home from work that night.

Lieutenant-Detective Jean-François Martin of the Montreal Urban Community police said investigators found a range of drugs in the house that had been removed from their capsules and mixed with liquid to form a cocktail.

He said the girl suffered from Rett syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that strikes girls almost exclusively and leaves them unable to control their movements.

Lt.-Det. Martin stopped short of calling the killing a crime of compassion.

"When you talk about compassion, often you want someone's suffering to end, but you don't kill yourself, too," he said. "From what we understand, [the mother] was indeed depressed."

Neighbours in the Montreal suburb of Pointe Claire, where the family lived, said Chelsea required constant care, but they saw no evidence she was in pain.

She could walk and was able to attend the neighbourhood high school, where she participated in regular classes with the help of a personal aide. One neighbour, who declined to give her name, said she thinks the constant demands of Chelsea's condition took a toll on the parents.

"Their whole life was devoted to looking after that child. She couldn't speak. She couldn't feed herself. She had to wear diapers," the woman said.

"The whole thing is just absolutely tragic. A human being can only take so much and they snap."

Jim Chism, vice-president of the Quebec Rett Syndrome Association, said he knew the Craigs but had recently lost touch. "They were a very loving family, but I guess there was some fragility there that gave," he said.

Gene Valeriote, president of the Ontario Rett Syndrome Association, said the Craigs belonged to his organization. His own 24-year-old daughter, Elinor, suffers from the syndrome. "They are generally beautiful, delightful girls, but they do place heavy burdens on a family because they are so dependent," he said.

Experts place the incidence of Rett syndrome at less than one in 10,000 live female births. The syndrome first gained widespread recognition in 1983, and two years ago researchers identified a genetic mutation believed to be its cause.

Chelsea was in her first year at Lindsay Place High School. In the school's foyer yesterday, a poster with a black margin featured a photo of her smiling as she sat in a computer lab with a basketball on the desk in front of her. She looked much younger than her age, as is common among Rett syndrome sufferers. The poster said the school "extends its sympathies to Chelsea's family and friends."

Jim MacKinnon, the principal, said students observed a minute of silence in her memory yesterday and were offered grief counselling. "It's a tragedy. It's a major tragedy," he said.

Ms. Craig was in stable condition yesterday and is expected to be able to leave hospital to enter a plea in court today. If she cannot make it to court, officials will go to the hospital to register her plea.

Preliminary autopsy results revealed no evidence of trauma. Toxicology results are expected to take another couple of weeks.

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