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Refrigerator Owner Faces Trial In Suffocation Deaths Of Three Children

August 24, 1987

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) _ A businessman accused of leaving an old ice chest ″ticking like a time bomb″ on his property was ordered Monday to face trial on manslaughter charges in the deaths of three children who suffocated inside it.

John W. Weidenfeller, who repairs commercial refrigeration equipment as part of his business, should have known the dangers of leaving such appliances unlocked and accessible to children, said District Judge Michael Smolenski.

″Frankly, I’m surprised it didn’t happen earlier,″ Smolenski said of the deaths. ″It’s criminal, gross negligence of the highest order.″

Weidenfeller, 52, was bound over to Kent County Circuit Court on three counts of involuntary manslaughter. The charge carries a maximum penalty of up to 15 years in prison.

He is charged in the July 18 deaths of 6-year-old Dorothy Stiles and her two brothers, Joseph, 5, and Christopher, 4.

Police and neighbors launched a search after Elizabeth Stiles reported the children missing.

Their bodies were found huddled inside the commercial ice chest on the property of Weidenfeller Engineering Co., where Weidenfeller renovates and sells restaurant equipment. The ice chest was about 100 yards away from the youngsters’ home.

Kent County Assistant Prosecutor Steven Dunker said Weidenfeller had been cited for zoning violations twice because of the condition of his property and had been the target of numerous citizen complaints.

Earlier testimony indicated that Weidenfeller also failed to comply with a March order from the city to remove equipment on his property that was stored outdoors.

″He was specifically warned four months before this tragedy that the very problem could occur,″ Dunker said. ″We know that this ice chest had been left at this location ticking like a time bomb for at least a year.″

Defense lawyer James Brady argued that people who helped search for the children had difficulty opening the refrigerator, indicating that it was secured in some way, and said the facts of the case weren’t sufficient to charge Weidenfeller with involuntary manslaughter.

Weidenfeller remains free after posting 10 percent of a $10,000 bond.

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