‘Change was like night and day’: Mother testifies in retrial of ex-Waco day care owner charged in child’s overdose death

Chelsa Ressetar says daughter’s health improved dramatically after Marian Fraser’s day care was closed
Marian Fraser, 59, who owned and operated the Hilltop Drive facility for 24 years, is on trial...
Marian Fraser, 59, who owned and operated the Hilltop Drive facility for 24 years, is on trial in Waco’s 19th State District Court in the March 2013 death of Clara Felton.(KWTX GRAPHIC)
Published: Mar. 3, 2023 at 6:16 PM CST
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) - Two mothers whose children were cared for by Marian Fraser testified Friday that their child’s inexplicable health ailments vanished after Fraser’s Spoiled Rotten home day care closed following the death of a 4-month-girl who died from a toxic dose of diphenhydramine, a common antihistamine found in many over-the-counter medications.

Fraser, 59, who owned and operated the Hilltop Drive facility for 24 years, is on trial in Waco’s 19th State District Court in the March 2013 death of Clara Felton, the granddaughter of McLennan County Judge Scott Felton and the daughter of Loren and Perry Felton.

Fraser, who remains free on bond, was convicted of murder and sentenced to 50 years in prison in 2015. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the conviction and awarded her a new trial because of improper jury instructions.

Medical examiners determined the baby died from an overdose of diphenhydramine, which prosecutors Will Hix and Tara Avants allege was administered by Fraser to put the children to sleep and to help keep order at her popular day care.

The prosecutors have called 17 witness during the first three days of testimony, including Chelsa Ressetar and Sheridan Sibley, working mothers whose children Fraser cared for. The two, plus two other parents, testified Friday that Fraser’s day care came highly recommended and was not easy to get into.

Ressetar said Fraser’s rigid structure and policies were appreciated by the parents and good for the kids, especially while her husband, J.D., was in law school. She testified her daughter got a respiratory virus at 5 months and had trouble eating, gaining weight and threw up regularly.

She had her daughter tested to try to find out why she was vomiting so much, couldn’t gain weight and was so fussy and sickly, she said. Doctors referred them to Cook Children’s Hospital to try to determine the problem, Ressetar said, adding that they tested her for cystic fibrosis as a possible cause.

After Clara’s death and the day care was shut down by a state regulatory agency, her daughter’s health and behavior improved dramatically within days or weeks, a marked difference that doctors could not explain, Ressetar said. ”The change was like day and night,” she said.

Ressetar told jurors she felt betrayed by Fraser and said she considers herself lucky that her daughter is alive day. That comment brought a quick objection from Lettie Martinez, who is representing Fraser with Christy Jack and Alex Thornton.

In other testimony, Sibley, a pharmacist, also testified that she loved Fraser and considered her a “second mom” until Clara’s death. She testified Fraser called her after Clara’s death to report they found antihistamine in the baby’s system. She said Fraser told her she gave antihistamines to her dog and she wondered aloud if that is where the lethal dose came from, Sibley said.

Sibley’s husband, Adam, is the district attorney in Bosque County. His father is David Sibley, a former state senator and former Waco mayor. She said her son started having hand tremors when he was 1 and suffered multiple ear infections. He had tubes placed in his ears at 15 months, and continued to have drainage and other issues.

At one point, her son couldn’t move his arm, which also mystified doctors. It didn’t happen again, but the tremors continued, stopping only after her son left Fraser’s day care, she said. A neurologist was stumped to explain what caused the tremors or why they stopped, she said.

Before each parent testified, Judge David Hodges held a hearing outside the presence of the jury to determine the content of their testimonies and to ensure they did not violate pretrial orders not to mention that a dozen parents sought independent testing of their children’s hair follicles at a Houston lab, which confirmed Fraser was giving their children Benadryl to put them to sleep.

That lab has since been decertified and its owner sanctioned by the Texas Forensic Sciences Commission, rendering the test results inadmissible at Fraser’s retrial.

Sibley said her daughter also had health issues, which subsided after leaving Fraser’s care.

Under cross-examination from Martinez, Sibley acknowledged telling doctors that there is a history of tremors in the family and that the tremors started in December 2011 when he had a viral ailment.

In testimony outside the presence of the jury, Dr. Patricia Wilcox testified she thinks the fatal dose of diphenhydramine was administered to Clara at day care on the day she died.

The defense team challenged a portion of Wilcox’s testimony, telling the judge Wilcox was giving medical opinions about issues for which prosecutors did not give them notice before trial and issues about which she did not testify at Fraser’s first trial in 2015.

Wilcox will return Tuesday to give her testimony in front of the jury. Prosecution testimony will resume Monday. Court officials have estimated the trial will last at least 10 days.