Todd Green pulled himself out of bed around 6 a.m., shuffled from the bedroom of the house he shares with his family, in a modern, new-construction subdivision near Opry Mills, and walked toward one of the two rooms on either side of the staircase.
He was off work that Saturday morning, which meant it was his turn to feed baby William, who was awake and hungry. He picked the boy up, prepared a bottle and plopped down in front of the television.
It was NFL Playoff time, and Todd was exercising some male bonding with the boy he called his son. As a senior banquet manager at Gaylord Opryland Hotel and the household’s breadwinner, Todd didn’t have a wealth of quality time with the kids: During the days his wife, Cheri, stayed home, caring for William and Rebekah, the couple’s 2-year-old biological daughter.
In mid-October, the Greens had received the letter that certified them as foster parents in the state of Tennessee, having completed seven months of training. In the second week of November, they got the phone call that a 2-day-old boy named Cherokeewolf William Diedrich — born at 3 a.m. on Nov. 9 to a homeless woman who had settled for the night on Second Avenue — had arrived and needed a home.
Todd and Cheri were holding out hope they could eventually adopt the baby boy. A front room of their house was filled with toys, a double stroller, a changing table and other newborn ephemera, mostly items donated by fellow members of Long Hollow Baptist Church in Hendersonville. They had pictures made. William spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with extended families. Todd’s father joked about how much he and the boy — whose skin bore more resemblance to his African-American father’s than his white mother’s — looked alike. It would be difficult to argue the Greens were set up for anything temporary, although William’s birth mother had made it clear she wanted him back once she’d completed a state parenting program.
Nothing was particularly unusual about that Saturday morning, aside from the lingering cold spell. Fallen snow still covered the ground outside. William ate and fell back asleep while Todd watched sports, and Cheri and Rebekah slept upstairs. The baby stayed shut-eyed until 11 a.m., when Cheri fed him again.
Todd liked those moments of relative solitude. The house was rarely so quiet, and he could catch up on missed ball games and spend time alone with William. He liked feeding him and the way he’d fall asleep in his arms afterward.
That Saturday morning would be their last together.
Twice engaged, once married
Cheri Tidwell and Todd Green met in the early 1990s at an auto parts factory in Morristown, Tenn., near Knoxville. Cheri, a young and vivacious woman with an unabated desire to have children, worked at the factory full time, while Todd — then a schoolteacher — was filling in to meet some ends.
The couple clicked instantly. They saw Sabrina on their first date, and after spending more time talking than eating at the dinner that followed, they decided to see another movie, Toy Story, to prolong the evening.
They were engaged in 1995 but called it off. But they became best friends — when he moved to Nashville in 2001, Todd even played third wheel to Cheri’s three-year relationship with a man here. The pair took a trip to Hawaii together — again, just as friends.
But there was, of course, something present that the two eventually ceased denying. They were engaged again, and in short course they were married, trading rings on Dec. 31, 2006. Cheri was 33 and Todd 38.
They started in for a child almost immediately.
“I would’ve had kids in my early 20s if I could’ve, but I wasn’t married, and I come from a very religious background, and everything [goes] in order,” Cheri said.
“I would say from the time she was probably 10 or 11 years old, that’s all she ever wanted to do was to be a mother,” said Rebekah Tidwell, Cheri’s mother. The retired college professor and her husband, Gene, split time between here and Naples, Fla.
Naturally, Cheri was the first to find out when the day finally came. They’d gone on a woodlands retreat around the same time, and Cheri came home with some ticks. Todd was in the bathroom helping her pick them off. He walked away and went about his business, and then he heard a scream. Cheri had taken a pregnancy test. Positive.
They laughed and shouted and hugged and cried out to no one but themselves. It was a dream come true, they said, to have a biological child. Cheri had worried for years she wouldn’t be able to conceive — not so much for health reasons as vaguely ethereal ones — and they’d spent so much time talking about adoption and fostering kids. They’d signed up for training courses. They’d had the same conversations about money every adopting couple must inevitably have.
Cheri’s premonitions about pregnancy turned out to be valid. Rebekah was difficult in utero. She arrived a full six weeks early and spent her first nine days in the hospital. Cheri was there for eight of them.
Doctors told Cheri she shouldn’t try to have another child, that the mayhem pregnancy brought to her body — in particular, her mother said, to her blood pressure — was something she might not be able to withstand a second time. So the couple began to rethink adoption and, in the more immediate future, fostering.
On April 1, 2009, the Greens enrolled in the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services’ foster training program, a 12-week course that includes everything from introductory parenting classes to CPR education. They completed extensive questionnaires, composed autobiographies, submitted to intensive one-on-one interviews and a home study, and by mid-October of the same year, became certified foster parents.
“At our funeral, I want there to be 60 adults who say the Greens touched our lives in this way, changed our lives in this way,” Cheri said of their motives. “That’s what I envisioned.”
All they had to do was get a child.
An inauspicious beginning
Cherokeewolf William Diedrich was born on Second Avenue in downtown Nashville sometime around 3 a.m. on Nov. 9. He arrived without much warning, according to his mother, Kimberlee Diedrich, who can be overheard in a 911 call placed by a passerby she flagged down outside Big Shotz nightclub shortly after giving birth. She had walked a block or so with Cherokeewolf wrapped in a T-shirt. She also carried the afterbirth, and the umbilical cord remained attached.
As the 911 operator instructed the caller to tie off the cord — remove your shoelace, tie it tightly around the cord 6 inches or so from the baby, do not cut the cord — Kimberlee remained oddly calm in the background. She said she was 34 years old, this was not her first child, and that Cherokeewolf was breathing but not crying. He was opening his eyes. She said mother and baby were doing just fine.
An ambulance transported them to Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Because of concerns about Kimberlee’s ability to provide a safe home for the boy — a subsequent report by Jeannie Alexander in The Contributor, Nashville’s street newspaper, indicated Kimberlee and her partner, Fred, had been trying to obtain housing through the Section 8 program, though they had not been successful — the Department of Children’s Services took custody of Cherokeewolf, adding him to the state’s rolls of more than 5,000 foster children. (Through Alexander, Kimberlee Diedrich declined comment for this story.)
The next day, a DCS caseworker called Cheri Green. She could hardly believe it. They could pick him up Nov. 11, Veterans Day, the caseworker said. The Greens agreed to come to the hospital rather than have DCS bring him to their house.
They rushed to Vanderbilt in a gleeful near-panic. Cheri went into the infant’s room first.
“I can still see him,” she said, crying. “I see that nurse carrying him. She was walking this way with him and I knew it was him. And she brought him to me, and that was my boy. He was my boy. I saw him, just like when I saw [Rebekah] for the first time: I saw my son.”
Todd was with Rebekah, watching through the display window like a sentimental scene from so many films and TV shows.
“It was just so beautiful,” he said. “Cheri’s just beaming. She was really excited.”
For the first month of his life, William — as they called him — had a roommate. Cheri slept on a bed in his room, not satisfied with any comfort or proximity a baby monitor could offer. He would often fall asleep on her chest. He never liked to sleep on his back, the Greens said. It seemed to make him uncomfortable.
But Cheri and Todd worried about the way William breathed sometimes. He made a phlegmy, hacking noise, as if his breathing was burdened, as if he should clear his throat but didn’t know how.
Nashville foster children go to Centennial Pediatrics for medical care, so Cheri said she took William on Dec. 8 to see about his wheezy breathing. She said she was told that sort of thing is normal with infants, not to worry. But he was also producing thick, yellow mucus — especially during feeding, when it would run into his bottle, streaking the sides.
“It was the strangest thing,” Todd said.
Just after Christmas, William developed a fever of 100.3 degrees. Cheri took him back to the doctor, where she said he was diagnosed as anemic and given iron supplements. Almost as soon as they got home, though, William started vomiting. It became a regular thing. Rebekah had reflux as a baby, and Cheri thought she recognized it. But she was still concerned.
“There were so many signs that something was up,” she said.
She called her caseworker to ask for permission to take William to her pediatrician for more testing, but it didn’t fly. On the evening of Jan. 6, then, Cheri and Todd took William to the emergency room at Vanderbilt. There, a nurse suctioned a substantial amount of the yellow mucus from his lungs, according to the Greens. They were told to feed him and, for every two ounces he ate, burp him. The Greens said they were told this time that William had acid reflux and maybe a seasonal cold. His first round of vaccinations was scheduled for the next week; the Greens were instructed to tell the doctor about William’s symptoms then.
‘I had no idea what was fixing to happen’
William fell back asleep around 11 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 9. After some chatter, Cheri and Todd decided they would go out that night. They’d gone back and forth about it; Cheri had been selected as a semi-finalist in the Subway “Get Fit” challenge, and the couple wanted to celebrate. It would be a fitting kicker to a difficult week: Five days earlier, Kimberlee Diedrich told a judge she would not give up custody of William; instead, she would start a court-ordered program to prepare to care for her son. By that point, the Greens — devout Christians — were saying daily prayers that they would get to adopt the baby boy.
The Greens didn’t like being away from the kids. In fact, Cheri wouldn’t allow babysitters to come into their house, so on the rare occasions they needed help, they took the kids to a drop-in day care.
They went for pizza and caught a screening of The Blind Side, the popular movie about a family who fosters a neglected child who becomes an NFL player. The Greens said the whole family was home together by about 7 p.m. They watched TV for about an hour; then Cheri went upstairs to rest. She took Rebekah with her, leaving Todd and William downstairs.
Todd switched on the Dallas Cowboys-Philadelphia Eagles NFL Playoff game and fed William a bottle. Once he fell asleep, Todd laid him on a plush green ottoman — about 4 feet by 2 feet — and went to the garage, where he’d been assembling a motorized tricycle for Rebekah.
He returned a few minutes later and found that William had worked the blanket up over his head, which Todd said was common. When he pulled the blanket back, he saw that William had spit up. He picked him up, cleaned him off, and noticed he was breathing funny — a shallow, wheezy sort of thing. He put William over his arm and patted his back. William vomited again.
“I had no idea what was fixing to happen,” Todd said. “I didn’t know things were serious. So I laid him back down and I cleaned
up the spit-up, picked him back up, and he still was —”
“We were so used to him throwing up,” Cheri said. “It was a constant, almost every feeding, that was just a very normal situation. We would run out of blankets, we couldn’t keep the blankets clean enough. He had thrown up that day at the drop-in day care place. That was just the norm. So when [Todd] laid him back down, he didn’t think anything was wrong. That was just what happened.”
Todd picked him up again. William breathed weirdly a couple more times and then stopped. Todd was in shock. He went to the sink and splashed water on the baby’s face. No response. He returned to the living room, laid William on the couch and began trying to administer CPR. He gave two breaths and forgot the rest. Then he ran upstairs — where Cheri and Rebekah were resting — to get a cell phone and call 911. He did not wake Cheri.
The operator walked him through CPR.
“So I’m breathing, doing chest compressions, and there’s stuff just coming up out of him, his mouth, his nose,” Todd said.
He thought it was a seizure. Rebekah has a genetic condition that produced seizures when she was very young. During her first seizure, Todd was upstairs with Rebekah when she suddenly pushed hard against him, her eyes rolling back in her head. Foam accumulated at her mouth. Todd screamed downstairs to call 911. When Cheri realized what was happening, she became hysterical. Todd brought Rebekah downstairs and laid her out on the ottoman. She looked dead. Cheri couldn’t speak clearly to the 911 operator — she was hyperventilating, crying, screaming — so a friend who had been visiting took the phone from her. (The City Paper attempted to obtain a copy of both 911 calls from the Greens’ home, but they remain part of an open Metro police investigation.)
This time, Todd didn’t alert his wife to the medical drama unfolding downstairs.
“Cheri has no idea what’s going on with William, that was the reason why, because I didn’t — just in my mind, and I know I’ve questioned it because there’s been questions about it, and I’ve questioned it,” Todd said. “But I just, I wanted to save him. So I was just focused on what I needed to do to save him. I didn’t want to bring her down here, bring Cheri down, and trying to deal with her, trying to listen to a 911 operator, and trying to save him. And so Cheri didn’t know anything was going on until she heard sirens.”
“I heard the sirens and I thought it was the people in the back, because our bedroom’s [in the back of the house, on the second floor],” Cheri said. “I didn’t see anything, so I was like, ‘Oh, it must be one of our front neighbors,’ because by this time I was asleep. And so I start heading toward Rebekah’s room to be nosy and see what neighbors have got sirens coming. I get almost to the hallway, and they’re pouring into my own home.”
William didn’t take another breath for 52 minutes. The first several hours at the hospital were a frenzied blur. Cheri and Todd were on their knees in the waiting room, praying for a miracle. Vanderbilt doctors determined William was effectively brain dead. He was on life support machines. Kimberlee arrived and, in a moment Cheri said she did not expect, embraced her in a long hug while standing at William’s bedside. They all decorated his bed and room with toys, photos and mementos.
But doctors were concerned about what they believed to be head trauma, perhaps the result of Shaken Baby Syndrome, a condition wherein an infant or child receives severe head and neck damage from being physically rattled. DCS and Metro police launched an investigation into the Greens. Everything suddenly changed.
Their house was declared a crime scene. They were no longer allowed unsupervised visits with William. Cheri hired Nashville attorney Jennifer Thompson, who told her police could be pursuing homicide and first-degree murder charges against her and Todd.
Shocked, the Greens readied themselves to leave the hospital and go clean up. They hadn’t been home in 48 hours. Then a call from their caseworker: DCS was taking Rebekah as a precautionary measure while the child-abuse investigations were ongoing. They needed to find a family member with whom she could stay.
Cheri’s mother was watching Rebekah at the Greens’ house. She told The City Paper that DCS officials and police arrived not knowing exactly what to do with Rebekah, whether she would be allowed to stay with Cheri’s parents — who own a house in Naples, Fla. — or have to go to Cheri’s cousin’s house in Hendersonville for the night. Tidwell said DCS didn’t like that they could have a record in Florida that would be difficult to track down, so the toddler went with Cheri’s cousin. That is, after she submitted to a full physical at Vanderbilt — at the Greens’ expense. They were humiliated, calling the return to the hospital a “perp walk” and taking note that the nurses who were once so sympathetic seemed to have made a subtle turn against them.
The next day, after Tidwell strenuously objected to the arrangement, DCS allowed Rebekah stay with her grandparents. She would spend the next 47 days there.
Meanwhile, as media flocked to the Greens’ house and blew up their phone, the couple began to realize the implications.
“I was scared about what was happening,” Todd said. “Just the fact that they were going down the path that they had, and me and Cheri knew without a shadow of a doubt that nothing had ever happened to him.”
They visited William every day at 4 p.m. Three times they thought a judge would order him taken off life support. So three times they said their long, final goodbyes. When a judge ordered William to be freed of the machines on Feb. 2, the Greens couldn’t be there because, they said, of restrictions requested by Kimberlee Diedrich. No one called them. They learned William died on the 5 o’clock news.
Then the pressure was too heavy. Todd took a leave of absence from his job, Cheri began to have blood pressure problems, and the Greens moved into an abandoned house in Lebanon, on loan from a minister at their church. There was only an air mattress and a TV. They made stealthy visits home, usually late at night, to pick up clothes and other items. To their front door Cheri taped a piece of loose-leaf paper, onto which she’d scribbled John 8:32, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
They were avoiding the flare of attention that turned to them upon William’s death.
“All of that falling upon them when they had not done anything wrong and was trying to do good,” said Earl Green, Todd’s father, during a recent phone conversation. He paused there, composed himself, and then added that the stress brought upon him and his wife, Evelyn, was horrific enough, let alone his son and daughter-in-law’s.
“It was an absolute nightmare,” Tidwell said. “I can’t even describe it.”
While the Greens were running between Lebanon and Nashville, and trying to maintain their sanity, the Davidson County Medical Examiner’s Office was conducting its own investigation into how Cherokeewolf William Diedrich died.
Dr. Adele Lewis, assistant medical examiner, conducted the autopsy. While she is still some four weeks away from offering a final report, her preliminary analysis stands at odds with what the Vanderbilt doctors suspected.
“At this point, I am saying that there is not evidence of trauma,” Lewis told The City Paper, adding that she has reason to believe some of William’s problems may be attributable to the circumstances of his birth.
With that knowledge in hand, DCS two weeks ago contacted the Greens and told them they could have Rebekah back.
“When our people heard that it was likely going to be ruled a natural death, even though our investigation wasn’t closed, our folks convened to find a way as quickly as they could to get the child back to her mom and dad,” said Rob Johnson, a DCS spokesman.
Todd got the call in Nashville.
“I started jumping up and down,” he said, a smile breaking across his face.
Cheri was in an Athens, Tenn., Walmart with a friend when Todd caller her. She dropped to her knees in the middle of the aisle and said a prayer.
According to Metro police spokeswoman Kristin Mumford, the homicide investigation is ongoing. For a previous story, police told The City Paper that investigators were awaiting the medical examiner’s final report before closing the case. Mumford gave no time frame as to when the investigation might close.
It is clear the Greens remain upset with DCS and Metro police over the ordeal. Jennifer Thompson, Cheri’s attorney, said the agency reacted too quickly — and without considering the lack of evidence for an abuse charge, including Rebekah’s clean physical — by pulling her from the home.
“I think that there’s a failure in the system to look at an individual case and to evaluate the case in front of you,” she said. “The law allows for it and DCS policy allows for it, but DCS did not do that in this case.”
Johnson said his agency was trying first to ensure the safety of the children involved. He seemed genuinely sorry for what the Greens had gone through.
Back in their house, the Greens seemed weary but thankful. As Todd, employing his best toddler voice, played with Rebekah on the couch, Cheri was reflective.
“It wakes you up to appreciate everything so much sweeter,” she said. “You appreciate every moment. ... This was our new beginning. Oh my goodness. And every day since then, you wake up every morning excited about what that day is going to hold with [Rebekah]. We’re just so thankful that we do have her back and that we have these moments. Of course we always knew what a joy she was, but it just makes everything better.”