Fayette County grand jurors issued indictments on Thursday against an Oak Hill father and two women who are accused of killing 8-year-old Raylee Browning in December 2018.
Marty Browning Jr., Marty Jr.'s wife Julie Browning and Julie's sister, Sherie Titchenell, were all indicted on charges of a death of a child by a parent, guardian, or custodian and child neglect resulting in death.
Julie Browning was the reigning 2019 Mrs. Oak Leaf Festival at the time of her arrest.
Following a lengthy investigation led by Oak Hill Police Department Cpl. James Pack, the three adults were charged in December 2020 with withholding food, water and medical care from Raylee, who was the biological daughter of Marty Jr. and under the supervision of Child Protective Services (CPS) when she died.
Pack and the Fayette Prosecutor's Office fought the State Department of Health and Human Resources for nearly a year to gain access to CPS records kept on Raylee, OHPD Chief Mike Whisman and another Fayette official said in December.
Raylee's biological mother, Janice Wriston, sometimes called Raylee "Sunshine."
She said Raylee was a loving girl who liked to watch the sunrise and wanted to go to the beach. She loved the Disney princess Rapunzel and her teacher at Mount Lookout Elementary. She dreamed of being a teacher.
Court documents allege that Marty Jr., Julie and Sherie had pulled Raylee out of Mount Lookout Elementary School in Nicholas County by 2017 and began home schooling her and Julie's three children in an alleged effort to hide the abuse.
Police allege that Sherie, who taught Raylee, denied her an education and abused her while the other children studied. Another home-school mother who was at the house with Sherie, Lynaia Castle, said in January she was under a gag order.
“I can say, 90 percent of what is out there is lies,” she added.
In the police report, Pack focused on Sherie's statements that Raylee, who was on seven doses of strong medications for psychiatric disorders, had been having nosebleeds prior to her death.
Julie and Marty told police they were unaware of the reported nosebleeds.
Pack noted bloody tissues were found at the house when Raylee became ill. A hammer and a sex toy were found in the padlocked bedroom that Sherie shared with Raylee.
Julie said one of her own children had recently insisted on leaving the same room in order to sleep with a sibling.
Julie told police that her oldest child had asked for a hammer.
A child abuse expert has questioned the necessity of the seven medications and has suggested in court documents that Raylee was possibly a victim of medical abuse. Raylee's teachers did not report behavioral problems to police or CPS.
In 2012, Browning Jr. had been arrested in Raleigh County on charges related to a scrap metal theft scam. He was set to be sentenced in 2013 when Raleigh Prosecuting Attorney Kristen Keller noted that a witness, a West Virginia State Police trooper, had remarked that Browning "could have" been an innocent bystander.
He was not sentenced, and further information was unavailable on Thursday.
Wriston, Raylee's mom, had been the victim of a highly publicized crime on Dec. 9, 2008. Her ex-husband, William Oxley, and his then-girlfriend, Jennifer Hewitt, had allegedly gone to Wriston's Collinwood Acres home around 11 p.m., due to a custody issue with Wriston and Oxley's toddler.
Hewitt, who was an assistant Fayette prosecutor, allegedly waved a gun at Wriston and threatened to shoot her. Hewitt was fired and pleaded guilty in February 2009 to misdemeanor trespassing.
In January 2019, Wriston and her current husband, Jeremy Wriston, were indicted in Fayette on charges of financial exploitation of an incapacitated adult and embezzlement, after allegedly moving in with a disabled Scarbro relative in 2016 and stealing his disability and Social Security checks, incurring debt in his name and selling his property. Police noted there was no sign of physical abuse.
Marty Jr.'s name did not appear on Raylee's July 2010 hospital birth record.
The Register-Herald did not have access to custody records, but court documents show CPS referrals had been made on both Wriston and Marty Jr., at least between 2015 and Raylee's Dec. 26, 2018, death.
Marty Jr. worked with Julie in 2011.The two began dating in 2013 or 2014 and moved in together quickly, Julie told police.
In 2014, Raylee, 4, was living full-time with Marty Jr. and Julie, the mother of an 8-year-old daughter and two toddlers, who all lived with her.
Sherie, Julie's younger sister, had lived with Julie since at least 2009. Marty Jr. said she helped with bills and cared for Raylee.
Both sisters had attended Nicholas County High School, according to Classmates.com, but records show they moved to Lakeland, Fla., before Sherie's senior year. Sherie enrolled at Kathleen High School in Lakeland, where she was a "candidate for graduation" in 2003.
In 2018, Sherie told police she had no boyfriend and no regular employer. She listed herself on social media as a "homemaker" and said she cleaned houses in the evenings. Clients' names did not appear in police records.
A child in the house told authorities that Sherie fed all four children, administered medicine and was permitted to discipline them. Starting in 2016, she home-schooled Raylee. She educated all the children in 2018.
Wriston said she had weekend visitation with Raylee.
"Raylee would tell me that Sherie would hit her with belts and told me that if she didn't call Julie 'Mom,' then her dad or Julie would hit her in the mouth," Wriston alleged.
A child in the Browning household believed Sherie wanted Julie to reunite with the father of her two younger children, court records show.
"(Sherie) hated ... Raylee's mom," the child added.
Sherie told The Register-Herald in January that she is not permitted to talk about the case.
After Raylee's death, Cpl. Pack asked the defendants about Raylee's relationship with Marty Browning Sr. of Glen Jean, the father of Marty Jr.
Marty Sr. had been convicted in Ohio in the 1980s for sex crimes against two nieces, ages 8 and 5, and was convicted in Fayette Circuit Court in 2005 of three counts of first degree sexual abuse and three counts of sexual abuse by a parent for molesting his daughter from 1998, when she was 11, until 2004.
Marty Sr. has not been accused of wrongdoing against Raylee.
He reportedly drove over to the Browning house to check on Sherie after Raylee's death, according to the police report. Sherie said he was a regular visitor to the house but did not get around the children.
All three defendants told police that Raylee seemed comfortable with Marty Sr., although Pack noted that Marty Jr. had vomited during a police interview when asked about his dad's relationship with Raylee.
Wriston said she sought help from CPS, Raylee's court-appointed attorney, West Virginia State Police and a Fayette County Family Court judge.
"No one would hear me," said Wriston. "She was terrified to go back to her father's. It killed me every time, to have to send her back."
Wriston alleged that in April 2015, she took Raylee to New River Health in Scarbro after the girl complained that her bottom hurt.
"I was told she had two tears on her bottom," Wriston alleged in December. "I filed a police report while still at the clinic."
At a court hearing 10 days later, Wriston alleged that a Fayette family court judge chided her for making a false allegation of sexual abuse and threatened to place Raylee in foster care.
Family court transcripts are not available to the public, and Wriston's claim cannot be validated.
On her last visit with Raylee, who had just turned 8, Wriston said Raylee asked if she could live with her.
Mrs. Oak Leaf Festival
Born in Ohio in 1983, Julie was arrested by Lakeland (Fla.) Police Department in 2002 on larceny and forgery charges. Some charges were dropped, while Julie was ordered to a pre-trial diversion program for others.
In October 2017, while working as the coordinator for The Summersville Lake Retreat and Lighthouse, Julie reported that she had been a past victim of domestic abuse.
Prior to her arrest for Raylee's death, it had appeared Julie was on an upward climb. She and Marty Jr. had worked as managers at Chetty's Pub in Lansing from 2011 to 2013, and some former co-workers remembered her fondly.
Sponsored by the Summersville Lake Lighthouse and Retreat, Julie was the World Ms. Tourism Earth in May 2017. Her affiliation with the Lighthouse continued throughout 2018, Facebook posts show.
She directed and won pageants in 2018 and 2019, including Ms. Auto Fair in Raleigh County in 2018.
In August 2018, she entered the City of Oak Hill's annual Oak Leaf Festival pageant, generally regarded among Oak Hill residents as a strict pageant. She walked away with the title of 2018 Ms. Oak Leaf Festival Queen.
"I am so excited to represent Oak Hill, which happens to be where I moved to February of this year!" Julie posted.
While police were investigating her in August 2019 for Raylee's death, Julie was named 2019 Mrs. Oak Leaf Festival.
"We had no prior knowledge of her arrest in 2002 in Florida," Oak Leaf Festival Pageant Director Jessica Poticher said on Dec. 31. "Nor did we know she was being investigated (in 2019)."
Julie was a leader of Girl Scout Troop #1885 at Mount Lookout in 2016.
Despite Julie's positive public image, a Mount Lookout teacher had concerns about Raylee in the 2015-2016 academic year and had made CPS reports.
A grandmother of a Girl Scout in Julie's troop had notified CPS and a teacher that her granddaughter had visited Julie's house and reported that Julie kept a "little girl locked in a closet."
Julie explained both away to a CPS worker who visited the house, court records show.
Julie reported on Facebook that Browning and the sisters moved their family to Oak Hill in February 2018.
Wriston told The Register-Herald that Marty Jr. had moved to Park Street in Oak Hill in July 2018 without informing her of his new address.
A Park Street neighbor who declined to identify herself told The Register-Herald on Dec. 12 that Julie and the rest of the family were quiet. She doubted she would have been able to identify Raylee, she added.
Bullying and Starvation
Julie's Twitter feed shows she set up a GoFundMe account in March 2018, asking followers to make a donation to "Help Them Stop Bullying and Starvation." The account had been disabled by January. The amount raised and the charity benefited were not published.
Wriston alleged on social media that Julie and Marty Jr. had started a GoFundMe account in December 2018 to ask for help to cover Raylee's funeral. None of the money was used on Raylee's burial, she alleged.
Shortly after Raylee's death, Julie and Marty Jr. were married. Wriston alleged they traveled to Florida, the Sunshine State.
Wriston has retained Fayetteville attorney Anthony Ciliberti for a civil lawsuit against an unnamed agency related to Raylee's death, Ciliberti verified in early 2020.
"The pain in my heart only grows stronger, and hurt in my soul only cuts deeper, with each passing day," Wriston posted on Facebook, one year after Raylee's death. "Ray had plans and a future."
Fayette prosecutors have stated that there is a gag order on the criminal case, which prevents the defendants, witnesses and prosecutors from publicly discussing it.
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