Robert Rice still doesn’t understand how he ended up inside Bibb Correctional Facility, a prison for men far from the panhandle beach town where he lived while serving in the U.S. Air Force Reserves.
In 2018, his 13-month-old daughter died from neglect in south Alabama during his deployment in Florida. Police arrested his wife. Less than a year later, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor while being held at the Baldwin County Jail – a baseball-sized mass that made it impossible for her to care for her children, her lawyer said.
Rice’s cascade of misfortune didn’t stop with his wife’s diagnosis. Months later and a year after the death of Violet Rice, Baldwin County authorities decided to prosecute Rice for the death of his child, arguing he ignored warning signs.
“He wasn’t living in this area at the time of this event,” said Robert Stankowski, his lawyer at the time. “The fact that he would be charged with manslaughter, meaning he did something to cause the death of his child, is outrageous.”
Now Rice wants to tell his story.
Rice had to separate from the military and stop seeing his two surviving children to fight criminal charges. He decided in 2020 to plead guilty to manslaughter and hope the judge might shorten his four-year prison sentence.
Matthew Metcalfe, is friend and pastor at Shoreline Church in Destin said Rice called the night before that final hearing.
“They came over to our house the night they drove up to Alabama for the hearing,” he said. “Just, as you can imagine, pretty upset, pretty distraught. He asked if he could pray with us. And so we did. We prayed with him. We sat there and talked and prayed with him from about 9:30 until about midnight.”
Rice said he remembers stumbling a bit when the judge accepted his plea deal.
“The judge essentially asked me if I felt my actions caused the death of my daughter,” he said. “And my response to the best of my recollection it was something along the lines of, ‘If by guilty, you mean that I was not there when my family needed me, then yes, I plead guilty.’”
Not in the same state
Rice was living in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., for a deployment with the Air Force Reserves, where he enlisted after a stint with the U.S. Marine Corps. The electrician was an airman in a training program that involved working alongside active-duty troops. He started in January 2018 for a deployment that was supposed to end in June.
“He had a civilian job lined up and he was really getting his life in order,” said his friend and former supervisor Shannon Young.
Young said Rice had a rare passion for military service. After an honorable discharge from the Marine Corps, he had hop-scotched his family across the country, from Arizona to Louisiana to Alabama, following opportunities in the military.
Violet’s death sent him into a skid, Young said. He started missing work and stopped responding to phone calls. Young worried about his friend.
“He was on a high-risk watch list,” Young said. “And I was acting as his personal wingman. I felt personally responsible, and I decided I’m going to make sure he’s doing all right.”
For a year after Violet died, Rice continued his work with the reserves and had supervised visits with his two surviving children. Until May 2019, when he was charged with aggravated child abuse and manslaughter and jailed in Baldwin County.
The case began a year earlier with the arrest of Jordan Rice on charges of child abuse and capital murder. Violet died weighing 10 pounds from the effects of malnourishment and medical neglect, authorities said. The Rice’s home – an RV in Robertsdale – was in disarray, with dirty plates in the sink, used diapers and maggots in a crockpot, an officer later testified.
Baldwin County Sheriff Hoss Mack described it as one of the worst cases of child abuse he’d ever encountered. But circumstances of the case shifted abruptly when doctors diagnosed Jordan Rice with a brain tumor. As the mass pressed on her brain, she started to go blind while sitting in jail.
Doctors removed the baseball-sized growth from her frontal lobe. Expert witnesses said the tumor explained much of the changes in her behavior and inability to care for her children. The state’s case for capital murder fell apart as evidence of her illness emerged.
It also pulled the focus to Robert Rice. Although he had been stationed in Fort Walton Beach, he often spent the weekends with his family in Alabama. If Violet had been starving for months, prosecutors said, he should have stepped in and stopped it. His failure to act in protection of his children made him culpable in Violet’s death, they said.
Both of Violet’s parents pleaded guilty of reckless manslaughter in her death. But Robert Rice received the longer sentence.
He took a deal a year before his wife in the hope that he could leave prison and eventually rebuild relationships with his family, Rice said. He faced charges of aggravated child abuse that could have led to a much longer sentence if he had been found guilty at trial.
After almost four years in jail, Jordan Rice was released on three years’ probation to a facility that will help her learn to live with vision loss caused by the tumor. Rice still has more than two-and-a-half years to serve in prison until his release on 16 additional years of probation.
“I believe I had something called survivor’s guilt,” Rice said. “And I did not see the signs. I did not pick up on what was truly going on and the people I loved most suffered because of it.”
When Rice thinks back to 2018, he wonders what he could have done differently. When he came home on the weekends, he often found his wife in bed and the house a mess. Before the move to Alabama and Violet’s birth, Jordan Rice had always been a dependable mother and homemaker who kept things tidy and doted on her children.
Now, suddenly, she seemed overwhelmed, Rice said.
“I never had to question her ability to be a homemaker,” he said. “It was never in question. So, I of course trusted her and everything she said. When things started getting bad, I would come home and the house was a mess. She would tell me that the kids had destroyed the house and basically paint a picture that she’s been up non-stop, and she just had to take a break and lay down. Otherwise, she is just going to collapse. Well, that sounds understandable.”
Instead of buying groceries in Baldwin County, she asked her husband to bring them from the base. He carted them back in coolers. At the time, Rice said he felt he was doing what he could to keep the family going. On his weekends home, he focused on keeping the RV in good repair.
“I got very consumed in just making sure that the house was kept up and it became an impossible task,” Rice said. “There’s only so much you can do in two days. But every weekend I would come home it was work.”
Rice didn’t make it home every weekend. He had study sessions that sometimes kept him in Florida.
According to Young, the Air Force Reserves will sometimes put families up in a hotel nearby during deployment, but budget constraints meant that Rice had to stay in the dorms and leave his family behind.
Assistant District Attorney Teresa Heinz said both parents had a responsibility to keep their children safe. Rice was home the week before Violet died.
“Mr. Rice did not suffer from a brain tumor like his wife,” Heinz said. “Mr. Rice was there on a regular basis. We had cell phone evidence that he was at the home within the week that his daughter died.”
Heinz said Rice accepted the plea deal and understood the terms of his incarceration. But Rice said he believed his attorney would petition the judge to release him on probation before four years had passed.
Jenny Carroll, a professor of criminal law at the University of Alabama School of Law, said the laws around child abuse and manslaughter can apply to people who failed to take actions to protect their children.
“You can be charged if you fail in your affirmative duty to take care of your child, which is colloquially called neglect,” Carroll said.
In another Baldwin County case in 2014, Jessica McCord was charged with the death of her child, even though she was out of town and had left him with his father, John McCord. The baby drowned in a bathtub after John McCord left the bathroom, according to news reports. Authorities charged both parents with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.
The assistant district attorney said Jessica McCord was responsible for her child’s death because she knew it was dangerous to leave him with his father. Law enforcement added charges for chemical endangerment when they found evidence of drug use in the home.
John McCord pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide, a misdemeanor. Jessica McCord took a deal that required her to admit to a felony – chemical endangerment of a child. Former Baldwin County District Attorney Hallie Dixon said John McCord’s history of psychiatric diagnoses, including substance use disorder, made him less responsible for the drowning.
“The difference in their conduct is she was aware and made a decision,” Dixon said. “The manslaughter charge was important … you can’t choose drugs and partying over your children’s safety.”
Carroll said it can be difficult to understand the circumstances of any individual family. Families in poverty and those disconnected from the community may struggle to provide safe environments for children, despite their best efforts. Some are scared to reach out for help because they could have their children taken away.
Carroll, who was not involved in this case, said some of that might have factored into Violet’s death.
“This is terrible,” Carroll said. “No one disputes that. That baby is dead. It’s awful. Those kids will never be the same. That family will never be the same. But sending dad away isn’t going to make them better. It isn’t going to make dad whole.”
His friends in Florida said they didn’t understand why Rice is still in prison.
“What I do understand is that he wasn’t at home when any of this took place,” said Metcalfe, his friend and pastor. “I don’t think he would have known the kids were being neglected. I would like to see him be in a better place.”
Finding peace in ‘Bloody Bibb’
As part of Rice’s plea, he agreed to have no contact with his surviving children. Still, the hope that they might one day reconnect keeps him going.
Metcalfe said he and Rice have kept in touch during his incarceration. Rice was already religious before he was imprisoned, and his faith has sustained him throughout the ordeal.
“They may say I was neglectful or whatever the case may be, but I truly didn’t know what was happening with my family,” Rice said. “And now I’m paying for not knowing. This story only really makes sense when you try to look at it from God’s perspective. My faith has grown exponentially in here and to see that through so much pain and heartache, God can bring love and fulfillment in an environment as desolate as a prison with the nickname Bloody Bibb.”
Metcalfe said his friend has lost a lot in prison because he lacks the street smarts to navigate life behind bars. He helped Rice secure a place at a halfway house when he is released.
Young, his former supervisor, said he would also like to see Rice released on terms that might make it possible for him to serve in the military again.
“I feel like he did everything in his power to take care of his family given his separation from them and military obligations,” Young said.
Rice had never had problems with the police or child protective services before Violet’s death.
“Did he make mistakes?” Young said. “Probably. But should he be locked up for the death of his child when he wasn’t there when it happened? I don’t think so.”
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