A Prince George County mother who waded into the frigid waters of the Appomattox River in Hopewell with her 7-month-old son while suffering from “hyper-religious delusions” and psychosis has been found not guilty by reason of insanity of attempting to kill her baby, who would have died had not police and paramedics rescued the child.
After taking into account a clinical psychologist’s report that Leslei Kuykendall, 38, was not mentally able to recognize the peril of death she posed to her baby and herself, Hopewell Circuit Judge William Tomko III ruled that Kuykendall was legally insane at the time of the Jan. 11 incident near Riverside Drive.
Prosecutors did not contest Kuykendall’s insanity defense or Dr. Evan Nelson’s diagnosis that she was severely mentally ill when she waded deep into the river with her baby while babbling hyper-religious ideas and suffering from auditory hallucinations.
“The facts weren’t really in dispute,” said Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Fierro.
“She [later] recalled having a religious delusion that God was leading her to certain places and actions, that she was special and on a mission for God,” Nelson said in a report of his evaluation of the defendant. “In her account for the evaluation, she denied she went into the river to kill her son (or herself) but rather flee some danger she perceived on shore.”
“Whether she really went into the water to flee a persecutory hallucination and thought it was a safe haven, or whether she had some bizarre religious idea such as Baptism or thinking they needed to die to be reborn, was not clear — and she may never have a reliable recollection,” Nelson added.
Kuykendall had experienced a series of traumatic events in the two-year period leading up to the incident at the river, events that triggered bouts of major depression, mild paranoia and post-traumatic stress disorder. Those problems were exacerbated by her taking excessive amounts of amphetamines for which she had a prescription, “which could well have helped push her from mere religious preoccupation into psychosis with paranoia,” Nelson wrote.
She reported being so fatigued by depression that “the only way she could get the energy to get up each day and care for her two young children was to take the Adderall, so she was taking extra pills,” Nelson said. “Those ‘extra pills’ may not have been with the intent of being voluntarily intoxicated, but rather the wrongful logic that if one pill helped her symptoms, then the extra pills would help more.”
Among other things, Kuykendall suffered PTSD after sexual harassment by a co-worker resulted in her losing her longtime job. She was further pushed into depression when her mother died in February 2020, and several months later she lost the support of her long-term stepfather who had initially been very supportive, according to Nelson’s report.
When she learned she was pregnant with her second child, the future alleged victim, she expressed reservations about the pregnancy because of problems in her marriage. She also was despondent that President Donald Trump lost re-election and she “started to believe in conspiracy theories about why he lost. She became religiously focused, thinking these events are the End of Days,” Nelson reported.
Hopewell police responded at 10:27 a.m. on Jan. 11 to the Appomattox River in the 500 block of Riverside Drive after receiving reports that a woman was wading into the water with a baby. When officers arrived, they could see the woman but not the child, according to a summary of evidence.
Officers attempted to yell at the woman to come to them, but when that failed, they waded into the water to reach her. When they got waist-deep, they noticed something floating in the river motionless. It was the baby, who was face down and starting to turn blue.
After scooping up the child, officers immediately began administering chest compressions in an attempt to revive the child while walking back to the riverbank. Once paramedics took over, the officers continued to yell at the woman, but by then she was neck-deep and wasn’t listening.
“The woman in the water never changed her demeanor,” one officer wrote in a report referenced by the prosecution. “She never responded and showed no concern for her child or the situation. She continued swimming casually.”
Hopewell firefighters launched a boat and made their way to the woman, who by then was 100 to 200 yards from the shoreline. She stopped moving when they got close to her, allowing firefighters to pull her inside. “She recited the Lord’s Prayer and slurred some other words,” an officer wrote.
Meanwhile, fire department paramedics were successful in resuscitating the baby. The child “let out a small cry as they loaded him into the ambulance,” the officer wrote.
Kuykendall was taken to John Randolph Medical Center in Hopewell and held there on a temporary detention order. She was charged eight days later with attempted second-degree murder and child abuse. She was released on bond several weeks later under strict conditions, which included treatment at John Randolph.
Now that Kuykendall has been found not guilty by reason of insanity, she will be evaluated by the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to determine whether she can be released, with or without conditions, or should be committed to a state hospital. That decision will be made by the court on Aug. 25.
“The judge did authorize her to be evaluated on an out-patient basis, because she has been stabilized and appeared well at her most recent court proceeding,” Fierro said.
Kuykendall has two children, including the infant who survived the drowning, and she has been permitted to have supervised visits, Fierro said.