LAKE CITY -- The bruising began when Jessica Lauren Miller was just a toddler.
Thick knots covered her face and head; on her arms, legs and pelvis, purple bruises. At least three times, the 36-pound youngster was hospitalized. Someone had ripped so much hair from Jessica's scalp that an aunt worried the little girl looked like a cancer survivor.
Cousin Carisa Clark called the Florida child abuse hot line Feb. 19: "The fear is that one day [the stepfather] will hit her hard enough to kill her."
Thirty-eight days later, Jessica Lauren Miller was dead, killed by blunt force trauma to the head.
As Jessica was disconnected from life support, in the arms of her father, Clark's report to the Florida Department of Children & Families remained unresolved.
Jessica is one of dozens of Florida children who died of abuse or neglect in the last five years despite warnings to the DCF that the child was in danger, a Herald investigation has found. Among more than 37 similar death cases, Jessica's is one of the most disturbing.
"They absolutely failed us," said Rachel Parrish, a Clewiston woman who pleaded with DCF investigators to save her 6-year-old niece.
"In Jessica's case, it was so obvious," she said. "When there's that much smoke, there's got to be a flame somewhere. They just ignored it, disregarded it."
Time and again, in Jessica's case and others, child welfare workers and investigators accepted family members' explanations that their children were just clumsy or sick, although the children repeatedly were seen with everything from bite marks and black eyes to burns and bruises.
Jessica's father, Bernard Miller, who is in the Air Force based in Valdosta, Ga., and whose family also pleaded with the state to act, said: "She slipped through the cracks."
Her stepfather, Richard Nixon, and her mother, Sarah Nixon, both have been charged with first-degree murder. Assistant State Attorney Tina Johnson of Columbia County said neither she nor her boss, State Attorney Jerry Blair, would discuss Jessica's death before the Nixons' trial, for which a date has not been set.
Richard Nixon's attorney, Herb Ellis, did not return calls for comment. Clyde Taylor, Sarah Nixon's attorney, told The Herald, "if the child died because of abuse, it was not abuse inflicted by her."
DCF officials defend their handling of Jessica's case, saying they had no reason to remove Jessica because doctors from the state Child Protection Team, who examine children suspected of being abused, said they did not believe Jessica's bruises were the result of abuse.
In particular, medical records showed Jessica had a "bleeding disorder" - exacerbated by the frequent use of ibuprofen - that caused her to bleed freely, said DCF spokesman Tom Barnes.
"The family history truly was troublesome, and did call for close scrutiny," he said. "Had there been any evidence the parents were inflicting harm on the child, there ought to have been an aggressive intervention, but that evidence did not exist."
Yet, hundreds of pages of records obtained by The Herald, including abuse reports from two states, criminal and civil court records, medical reports, and police reports, suggest otherwise.
TROUBLE FROM START
Richard Nixon entered Jessica's life when she was 2-and-a-half, when he moved into the Georgia home of Jessica's mother.
Almost immediately the Georgia Department of Human Services began getting calls. Four times between November 1998 and January 1999, investigators documented black eyes, knots on the girl's forehead and bruises on her head, ear, arms and bottom.
The investigations all were closed as unfounded because workers were persuaded by the Nixons that Jessica suffered from an unexplained "blood disorder" that caused extensive bruising.
"Jessica is clumsy and falls a lot," the parents told Georgia investigators.
Despite that, a child welfare doctor, Janice Loeffler, ordered the Nixons to have Jessica tested to confirm the "bleeding disorder." When the Nixons did not have the testing done, authorities reopened the investigation.
"Dr. Loeffler felt strongly that if child did not have a blood disorder, the marks were abuse," a May 14, 1999, report states.
When blood tests showed nothing was medically wrong with Jessica, Georgia authorities formally accused the Nixons of physically abusing Jessica. On June 25, 1999, Sarah and Richard Nixon signed a "safety" plan, agreeing to "use non-harmful forms of discipline."
A second plan signed two months later read: "Mr. and Mrs. Nixon will not leave any marks (or) bruises on Jessica."
In fact, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement report, issued during the criminal investigation into Jessica's death, notes: "By signing the form, both Sarah and Richard agreed with its findings."
But the bruising never stopped:
* On Aug. 17, 1999: Georgia officials were told Jessica had a bruise on her face and nose, "which supposedly happened while she was playing with a McDonald's toy." Jessica also had bruises on her stomach, ribs and both sides.
* On Sept. 7, 1999: Carisa Clark told investigators that Jessica "has black eyes all the time, busted lips, her forehead swells up, and she has a knot on the back of her head that has been there for almost a year."
A month later, Georgia officials closed their case on Jessica Miller, noting: "Mr. and Mrs. Nixon have moved to Live Oak (Fla.)."
It is not clear from the records whether contact was made with Florida welfare workers at the time.
FLORIDA HOT LINE
On Oct. 11, 2001, a Florida DCF case manager phoned the child abuse hot line to report that Jessica was at Shand's Hospital in Gainesville. She had extensive bruising that covered the entire right side of her head. A Lake City nurse called three days later to say the bruises were suspicious, because Jessica had been hospitalized before, the previous month, for a bruise that began on her vagina and over several days, expanded to cover her entire pelvis.
Two more calls were made by Jessica's paternal grandmother on Oct. 17 and 18, 2001:
"When Jessica is with her father, she is a happy, outgoing child. When with the mother and stepfather, she has sadness and fear in her voice," Sally Miller said.
But in an Oct. 17, 2001, report entry, a Child Protection Team official wrote there was "no indication" Jessica's injuries were inflicted by another person. The notation also said, however, that a "fairly extensive" blood workup showed Jessica suffered from no blood "abnormalities" - other than anemia, which would not explain the bruising.
The investigation was closed Feb. 21, 2002 - more than 100 days after it first was opened - because doctors with the Child Protection Team were still weighing the Nixons' claim that Jessica suffered from an unexplained blood disorder, one that could not be found after "several tests" were administered.
Two days earlier, on Feb. 19, authorities received the frantic call from Carisa Clark. "At this time, she has two black eyes and bruises all over her face and body. Her hair is falling out in clumps."
"The child is not being sent to school because of questions about the severe, constant bruises," according to the report detailing Clark's call. "The bruises disappear as soon as she is removed from the home."
Indeed, three different Florida doctors who tested Jessica at Shands Hospital all were interviewed by police after Jessica's death. They all said they were convinced her bruises stemmed from abuse.
One doctor, Suhag Parikh, stated "it was his conclusion that Jessica had no blood disorder and therefore, the bruising she was experiencing was being inflicted on her."
Another doctor, Richard Lottenberg, told police Jessica's bruises could not have occurred without "sustaining an injury." Lottenberg said he also "was never made aware of any past problems with Jessica including the fact that doctors in Georgia had tested her for having a bleeding disorder with negative results."
One doctor compared the bruises to the effects of "a car accident," records show.
Yet, Barnes, the DCF spokesman, said all the doctors who examined Jessica told Florida welfare investigators that "if the bruises that big were the result of a blow, there would be some sort of additional injury . . . None of the hematomas were consistent with tell-tale signs of instruments that often are used in abuse - hairbrushes, paddles, electric cords and other weapons."
Besides, Jessica herself repeatedly denied that she was being hurt, he said.
Other critical details should have raised red flags:
* In 1992, the then-Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services in Florida had removed two other stepchildren of Richard Nixon's, claiming in court documents that one of them was being physically abused, displaying bruises on her thigh, calf and bottom. She, too, was seen with huge clumps of her hair missing, records show.
Only after Jessica's death did Nixon's ex-wife confirm to police that he beat the other child "on a daily basis due to the fact that she was not potty trained."
The ex-wife said Richard Nixon beat the girl "with a wooden paddle on her buttocks and would also spank her with his hand on her buttocks," according to a police report.
The ex-wife told police that she lied about the beatings "because she didn't want the children taken away from her, and she was afraid of Richard."
* Another former wife told police that Richard hit her daughter from a previous marriage for bed-wetting. The woman said she allowed the little girl to spend as much time as possible with her natural father, "to keep her away from Richard."
* All of Richard Nixon's four ex-wives told police that Richard was "controlling and or violent," records show. One woman said she had been abducted from her job by Richard, then rescued by co-workers.
* And even Sarah Nixon, Jessica's mother, called police Dec. 7, 2001, after, she said, he got drunk in a south Georgia bar and physically battered her.
Court records show Richard Nixon had been diagnosed with a serious mental illness for which he regularly took the psychotropic drug lithium. As police investigated Jessica's death, they learned from witnesses who frequented bars with Richard Nixon that he was often violent and confrontational.
A Lowndes County, Ga., sheriff's deputy who worked off-duty at the bar told police Richard had been warned repeatedly to avoid using "undue force" on bar patrons.
"Our whole family is struggling with how this could happen," said Parrish, Jessica's aunt.
"We keep asking ourselves, 'why didn't we go jump on (the investigator's) desk, why didn't we storm the DCF office?' Apparently, a call is not enough."
In a 15-page letter to police, a Shands Hospital social worker recounted in detail the last two days of Jessica's life. Jessica was in a deep coma, and doctors waited for permission to harvest her organs before disconnecting life-support.
In the final hours, Parrish, Clark and other relatives changed Jessica from a hospital gown to a floral sun dress so her father's parents could say goodbye. "The family members present made several angry comments about Mr. Nixon while we were dressing her as they found each bruise and abrasion on her body," social worker Patricia Goodrich wrote.
Later, Bernard Miller, the girl's father, asked that Richard Nixon leave the room when Jessica was removed from the tubes that - barely - sustained her, "out of respect," Goodrich wrote.
"I watched two people who appeared to have difficulty showing sustained interest in the dying of their child during two intensely emotional and eventful days," Goodrich wrote. "Mr. and Mrs. Nixon were disturbing people to work with."
During the next few weeks, Richard and Sarah Nixon each applied for - and received - $3,985 of taxpayer money as victims of crime. An official with the Florida Attorney General's Office said she will ask prosecutors to have a Columbia County judge to order the money returned.