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Daycare worker gets 31 years in prison for killing toddler

Paul Calusinski hugs his daughter, Crystal, in the lobby at the Lake County Courthouse in Waukegan. Melissa Calusinski was sentenced to 31 years for the death of a toddler in her care at a preschool. | Thomas Delany Jr.~ Sun-Times Media

It took only seconds for daycare worker Melissa Calusinski to hurl 16-month-old Benjamin Kingan to the ground so violently he suffered fatal head injuries.

But her brief action caused lasting, irrevocable harm, a Lake County judge said Thursday as he sentenced Calusinski to 31 years in prison for the 2009 killing at a Lincolnshire day care center.

“In two to three seconds, people can lose everything. In two to three seconds, a person can lose his life,” Judge Daniel Shanes said before imposing a prison term that will keep the 25-year-old Calusinski behind bars until she is in her 50s.

The Carpentersville woman faced a possible life sentence after being convicted in November of first-degree murder and aggravated battery in the Deerfield boy’s death on Jan. 14, 2009.

Shanes instead opted for the shorter prison term, saying since he couldn’t undo what happened to Benjamin, it was time to “move forward.”

“Whatever the court does, it cannot undo the tragic events of that day,” said Shanes, who called the case “a civilized society’s nightmare.”

Calusinski, wearing a blue jail uniform, her hands shackled, sat calmly as she was ordered to prison.

Earlier, she vehemently denied hurting the child she called “a wonderful boy.”

“I want everyone to know I am innocent of this crime. I did not abuse or hurt him in any way,” she said. “I will never stop fighting this. And I will always maintain my innocence.”

Her attorneys, who already have appealed her conviction, echoed her claim that she never harmed the boy left in her care at the Minee Subee day care center.

“We believe in her innocence,” defense attorney Paul DeLuca said after the sentencing, adding Calusinski was prepared for the lengthy prison term.

“She was ready for it. She’s a strong person,” he said.

Benjamin’s parents also showed little reaction as Calusinski was sentenced, but both had fought back tears earlier as they recounted the pain of losing their son at the hands of someone they trusted to care for him.

“He had so much life ahead of him and she took it away from him and us,” Amy Kingan said, her voice breaking as her husband, Andy, sat beside her, holding her hand. “He will never experience his first day of school, learn to ride a bike, play sports, graduate high school, fall in love, get married or give us grandchildren.”

Three years after their son’s death, she and her husband still have trouble accepting that he is gone.

“We wish so badly we could hold him in our arms just one last time,” Amy Kingan said.

Calusinski told police in two videotaped statements she became frustrated and threw Benjamin down when he fussed as she tried to wash his hands after he’d eaten an afternoon snack of animal crackers and fruit juice. She told investigators she saw him crawl to a bouncy seat, then found him unconscious a few minutes later.

Defense attorneys argued during her trial that police coerced those statements from Calusinski after hours of intense questioning. She repeated that claim Thursday at her sentencing.

“My statements were false, but I had no choice but to admit those things,” she said. “I was so scared – I did not understand what the detectives were telling me to say.”

Her attorneys contended Calusinski never harmed the boy, but said Benjamin had prior, undiagnosed brain bleeding that could have been abruptly aggravated by even a minor head injury – a view backed by two pathologists who testified on her behalf.

Prosecutor Christen Bishop sought a 65-year prison term for Calusinski, saying Benjamin was a “happy, healthy baby boy” before she threw him down.

“She forever altered the lives of so many people by ending the life of one,” Bishop said. “This defendant is accountable for her actions that day in harming and killing Ben.”