Judge Kaiti Greenwade, an associate circuit judge in Greene County, presides over the sentencing of Cheri Beason, 58, of Rogersville. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

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A Greene County judge accepted a plea agreement that will put an unlicensed child care provider in jail to serve a 120-day shock incarceration.

Cheri Beason, 58, pleaded guilty to three counts of the class E felony of endangering the welfare of a child and one infraction of operating a day care without a license.

Investigators say Beason put one person in charge of caring for more than 20 children in August of 2017.

One of those children, four-month-old Brynlee Jones, died from “unsafe sleeping.”

At a hearing on Jan. 24, the prosecution and defense reached a plea agreement to put Beason in jail for 120 days. Brynlee’s family spoke at that hearing, according to KY3, expressing concerns over the leniency of the deal and asked Judge Kaiti Greenwade to reject it.

Attorney Joseph S. Passanise speaks with his client Cheri Beason in court on March 29, 2024. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

Greenwade gave the attorneys until March 8 to submit any other filings for her to consider. At a hearing on March 29, Greenwade said she relied on the prosecutor’s and defense attorney’s suggestions in support of the plea agreement, which are available online for anyone to read at courts.mo.gov.

“(The prosecutors and defense attorneys) have been working on this case for years,” Greenwade said, adding the court doesn’t have access to evidence until a case is presented at trial.

Greenwade said she also considered the nature and circumstances of the offense, the history and character of the defendant and if any victims’ rights had been violated.

“It’s my job to make sure the interests of justice are protected,” the judge said.

Greenwade sentenced Beason to two years in the Department of Corrections for each of the child endangerment charges to run consecutively. However, the prison sentence is suspended given Beason successfully completes the 120-day shock sentence in the Greene County Jail, followed by five years of probation. Beason must also pay a $200 fine for the infraction of operating a child care facility without a license.

Greenwade said she hopes the sentence “puts other unlicensed day care providers on notice and deters any future” incidents.

Beason was handcuffed and taken to jail following the March 29 hearing.

As Greenwade announced she would be accepting the plea agreement, the child’s mother sitting in the front row of the gallery began to cry.

‘Too many children and not enough adults’

The prosecution’s theory of the case is that Beason’s day care had “too many children and not enough adults,” which created a “substantial risk to each and every child in the defendant’s care,” First Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Elizabeth Fax wrote in a suggestion in support of the plea agreement.

Cheri Beason, 58, of Rogersville, pleaded guilty to charges in connection to the death of Brynlee Jones, a four-month-old girl, who was one of more than 20 children in her care in August of 2017. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

“The medical evidence does not support the proposition that the defendant did anything directly to (the baby) and, therefore, caused her death,” Fax wrote. “Rather, the environment the defendant created most certainly made the injury and death a substantial and unjustified risk.”

During plea negotiations, Fax took into account Beason’s lack of criminal history and the “overall strength of the evidence in light of the specific charges.”

“There is always a risk of going to trial, just as there is always a risk at leaving the sentencing decision out of the hands of either party,” Fax wrote.

“The plea agreement would guarantee that the defendant have multiple felony convictions that accounted for every victim and serve shock incarceration, which were two of the State’ primary goals.

“No result is perfect, but under this plea agreement there will be accountability for the defendant’s actions that day and how she operated her day care,” Fax wrote.

Attorney: ‘This was an unfortunate and tragic event’

Though the responding deputy in 2017 submitted the case as misdemeanor charges, Beason was indicted by a grand jury in 2018 on 33 felony counts related to abuse or neglect of a child and endangering the welfare of a child. Under that indictment, she faced life in prison if the counts were to run consecutively.

Beason’s trial was slated to begin on January 25. Following extensive plea negotiations, the prosecutor dismissed the abuse and neglect counts.

“This was an unfortunate and tragic event, and Beason accepts full responsibility and asks for forgiveness,” her attorney Joseph S. Passanise said in a statement. “She has dedicated years of her life to children, is extremely remorseful, and realizes the gravity of her criminal negligence and the loss caused to the grieving family. We are extremely appreciative of the Prosecuting Attorney, Dan Patterson, for his grace and diligence with this plea agreement and the Judge's acceptance of the agreement.”

In Passanise's suggestions in support of the plea agreement, the attorney noted the autopsy report ruled the manner of death was accidental, not related to abuse or neglect.

Baby found unresponsive 25 minutes after being laid down for nap

According to prosecutors, Beason was operating an unlicensed day care in her home near Rogersville, and her daughter, Daniele Gerdes, was an employee of the day care.

On Aug. 10, 2017, Beason had 16 day care children plus an additional eight children (four of whom were related to her) in her home.

In Missouri, it is illegal to operate an unlicensed child care if there are more than four unrelated children.

Beason would later tell law enforcement that she knew she needed a license to operate the day care, but did not want to “jump through the hoops” of obtaining a license, according to prosecutors.

Cheri Beason, 58, of Rogersville, pleaded guilty to three counts of endangering the welfare of a child and one count of operating a day care without a license. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

On Aug. 10, 2017, Beason left Gerdes alone to care for all 24 children. While Beason was gone, Gerdes placed Brynlee Jones in a portable crib for a nap. Investigators believe the baby rolled onto her stomach at some point during the nap and was developmentally unable to roll onto her back.

Gerdes found the baby unresponsive on her stomach around 25 minutes after laying her down for a nap.

The medical examiner ruled the baby’s cause of death was cerebral anoxia due to hypoxemia related to sleeping prone. The manner of death was accidental.

Gerdes is also facing 17 counts of abuse or neglect of a child and 17 charges of endangering the welfare of a child creating substantial risk. Gerdes’ next court hearing is in April.

Brynlee’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Beason and Gerdes. It was settled in 2018, according to court records.

Baby’s mom spoke to reporter in 2018

The Hauxeda messaged Brynlee’s mom, Kaleigh Cole, in February but did not get a response.

Kaleigh Cole spoke to a Springfield News-Leader reporter in 2018.

“It was the worst day of my life,” Cole said then of the day Brynlee died.

Brynlee was Cole's first daughter and the first grandchild for Cole's parents.

“It was life-changing,” Cole said of becoming a mother. “It definitely shows you a love that you could never imagine.”

Looking back, Cole told the reporter there were red flags she should have noticed.

For example, Cole said Beason kept parents in a certain part of the home when they came to pick up their children so they could not see the other children at the facility.

What Cole figured then was a safety precaution now seems like an attempt by Beason to conceal how many children were present.

Cole said her advice for other parents is to be more inquisitive.

“Ask questions,” she said. “Ask how many children they have? How many they would take in? Ask them if they would ever leave?”

Jackie Rehwald

Jackie Rehwald is a reporter at the Hauxeda. She covers public safety, the courts, homelessness, domestic violence and other social issues. Her office line is 417-837-3659. More by Jackie Rehwald