SJ man sentenced in child's death

Lance Reeves

CASSOPOLIS — Decorated military veteran or child abuser. Two very different pictures emerged Friday at the sentencing of Lance Reeves on charges related to the 2016 death of 2-year-old Savannah Gardner in Silver Creek Township.

Reeves was initially charged with open murder and three counts of child abuse but pleaded no contest in late August to one count of second-degree child abuse and one count of manslaughter. He had been arrested in January after an investigation of over two years.

Reeves, 47, of Pearl Street in St. Joseph, was sentenced Friday in Cass County Circuit Court to concurrent terms of five to 10 years in prison for child abuse and six to 15 years in prison for manslaughter. He has credit for 274 days already served and must pay $1,826 in fines and costs.

The incident occurred Oct. 19, 2016, at a home in Silver Creek Township near Dowagiac. Reeves and the child’s mother rushed the girl to the hospital where she later died from a broken back and other injuries related to being shaken violently. Reeves reportedly told a friend that he was afraid he had killed her.

Defense attorney Paul Jancha pointed out that Reeves had no prior record. “He worked 21 years to save people, he is a decorated veteran,” Jancha said. “He’s a good person. There are no indications of any other actions like this. He paid for the funeral and burial. If he’s such a bad person, why would the girl’s mother choose to marry him after this?”

He said Reeves and the girl’s mother had been away from the house right before discovering the little girl was injured and they rushed her to the hospital. “He was a stay-at-home dad and there’s no indication he did anything to hurt the child,” he said. “The police talked to all the family members for two years and there was nothing to suggest he was abusive.”

“I’ve sat in jail trying to think exactly how this happened,” Reeves said. “I’ve done everything in my life to not be here. I was in foster care and my biological family was always in court. I did everything to not be that way.”

“I am a decorated veteran, I have stood up to protect the innocent,” he added. “A lot of people gave me a hand up and I have done that to others. I’m sorry this happened, I don’t know what happened but I take responsibility. I feel like I let a lot of people down. I am as lost as they are.”

“This was simply wrong and criminal,” Cass County Prosecutor Victor Fitz said. “Her family shouldn’t have had to face this, she was literally broken in half. This was not accidental. … The violence perpetuated was overwhelming. The doctor said the injury created paralysis and quick death.”

Fitz and both of the girls’ grandfathers noted that while Reeves is a decorated military veteran, that shouldn’t result in a more lenient sentence. “Having a military background is not a get out of jail free card, it’s the exact opposite,” Fitz said. “A military man would not do this.”

“She was a small, frail 2 year old. She loved Minnie Mouse and would bring me book after book to read to her,” grandfather James Stevens said. “She had a loving family which makes it even more tragic. … She met Lance in February 2016 and was killed in October 2016. She went from a loving family to a monster who abused her to death. She was unable to tell us the pain she was going through.”

Richard Baker said he had previously lost a child before losing his grandchild. “I lost a child, but losing my beautiful granddaughter was more painful,” he said. “No words can describe the pain and loss we’ve experienced. … While no one can take our beautiful memories, we have been robbed of creating new ones. We keep asking why this happened, it’s not fair.”

“There are no winners today, only losers,” Cass County Circuit Judge Mark Herman said. “… The only question is why and how this happened. You say you have no recollection of harming her but that you’re sorry if you did anything.”