On Aug. 31, 2011, paramedics rushed an unresponsive 3-year-old girl to Children’s Hospital Oakland. She had a black eye and bruised ear, and abrasions on her face, chest, and neck. She would never regain consciousness. Three days later, Eden Lynch died from her injuries.
Eden’s death was ruled a homicide by the coroner, but nearly six years later, Eden’s mother and maternal grandparents reached out to the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit, concerned and frustrated because the Alameda County district attorney never filed charges. Following a series of questions about Eden’s case, NBC Bay Area has learned the DA has charged Eden’s last known caregiver with felony child abuse, with a special allegation for willful harm resulting in death.
She is the second person to face charges in connection to Eden’s death.
Last year, Eden’s father, a member of the United States Coast Guard, was charged with four counts of felony child endangerment.
“I was amazed,” Eden’s maternal grandmother Rhonda Lynch said. “I had waited for something to happen for almost six years and all but given up hope that anyone would be held accountable for their actions in Eden's death.”
“My Baby is Perfect”
Eden Lynch was born June 8, 2008.
“She was my world; she was a blessing.” mother Erica Lynch said. “But I did feel guilty for bringing her into a broken family.”
At 20-years-old, Erica never imagined she’d be a single mom. She left her boyfriend, Eden’s father, Jimmy Barlow, a month after learning she was pregnant. The two started dating at 17, and Erica said over the years, Jimmy’s use of alcohol and his temper left her feeling afraid and isolated.
“He just broke me,” Erica said. “He broke me emotionally to where I didn't know how to leave.”
But Erica said the pregnancy was the catalyst for her to move on, and to be strong.
“I couldn’t do it for myself but I could do it for my child,” she said.
But Erica says she never went to police to document the abuse. And when questioned about it by CPS investigators after Eden’s death, Jimmy denied any domestic violence or issues with alcohol.
With the support of her parents, Eric and Rhonda Lynch, Erica brought Eden into a loving home in Southern California.
“She was a beautiful infant,” Rhonda said. “She came out with her eyes wide open as if she’d already been here and looking around and perfect in every way.”
“I remember my dad saying, ‘don’t think all babies are this easy,’” Erica said. “And I’m like, ‘oh, my baby is perfect.’ And she was.”
But in October of 2010, when Eden was two and a half years old, Erica says she was the victim of a violent crime. Police records show an acquaintance was arrested for kidnap and rape. Erica told NBC Bay Area she was too scared to testify and prosecutors were forced to drop the charges.
She said she turned to drugs to cope with the trauma, and eventually, she was arrested for burglary. Child Protective Services removed Eden from her care.
With Erica incarcerated, Eden’s grandparents fought to keep the grandchild they helped raise since birth. In family court paperwork, Erica wrote Jimmy had visited Eden just five times since she was born and that he had “never been left alone with her overnight or for longer than 8 hours.” But a judge awarded custody to Barlow.
“It was heartbreaking,” Eric Lynch said. “Sitting in a courthouse parking lot watching him drive off with her.”
Eden Moves to the Bay Area
When Eden was born, Jimmy was in Florida, where he enlisted in the Coast Guard. He was not listed on her birth certificate and the Lynch family said he didn’t meet Eden for months. He was just getting reacquainted with Eden in April 2011 when he moved her from Southern California to Alameda where he was now stationed.
He and Eden would now share an apartment with Jimmy’s new girlfriend Holli De Alba and her daughter, coincidentally born the exact same day as Eden. Both girls were about to turn three in June.
Just four months later, Eden was dead.
According to medical records and CPS reports obtained by NBC Bay Area, Eden was home with Holli on August 31, 2011.
De Alba told CPS investigators Eden woke up later than usual that morning and had a breakfast of Cheerios. Holli said she noticed Eden was in a “zoned out zombie like state where she continued to stack and stack blocks…for 2 hours.”
She said she brought Eden to a toddler “princess table” where she encouraged her to play with Play-Doh. While De Alba was in another room on the computer, she said heard a thud and found Eden “in a seizure like state with her eyes rolled back and her hands and feet rigid.” She told investigators she called 911 after trying to get Eden to “wake up with cold water.”
Paramedics rushed Eden to the hospital, but it was too late. She was unresponsive and would never regain consciousness. She died three days later on September 3, 2011.
CPS records show De Alba and Barlow told medical staff at Children’s Hospital Oakland that Eden had fallen down “7-8 concrete steps” in front of their home nine days prior.
But doctors were not convinced. They immediately alerted Alameda police and Child Protective Services (CPS) to investigate.
Eden, according to medical records, suffered a traumatic brain injury. Doctors noted scrapes on her chest and neck, as well as bruising on her right eye and ear.
The Lynch family was also suspicious. Erica said she was in disbelief when she heard the story about Eden’s fall.
“Why didn’t they take her to the hospital that day?” Erica asked. “Why didn’t you go help an innocent child?”
Barlow and De Alba Explain
CPS records state De Alba was home with Eden the day the couple said she fell down the concrete stairs while Jimmy was at work. De Alba told investigators Eden appeared “fine” and “wanted to eat a banana” after the fall.
But in the days leading up to Eden’s collapse, things were seemingly rocky in their Alameda apartment.
De Alba told CPS investigators she and Barlow argued over him helping female co-worker move a piece of furniture. The social worker noted “Holli becomes jealous and upset because it is a female or because the father lied about it.”
Wednesday, the day after Eden reportedly fell, De Alba told CPS investigators she was “fed up” and “feeling that she could not only be used to care” for Eden and she took her own daughter to be in Vallejo for the rest of the week.
By Saturday, Barlow heads over to “patch things up with Holli” and they leave Eden in the care of De Alba’s mother while they stay in a motel.
De Alba told CPS investigators that she noticed on Monday, again when Barlow is at work, “Eden is not acting normal. She is not energetic, not chatty and not very engaging as she normally is” and she does not want to eat.
The next day, De Alba recalled Eden “pooped her pants” and “smeared it all over herself.” She said they drove to see Jimmy and that he “’popped’ Eden on her butt a couple of times,” before leaving Holli to clean her up. She later urinated on herself and Holli said her behavior was “still odd and that she was not herself.” She also noticed “Eden was scratching her face and pounding her head on the wall” that day.
Jimmy told CPS investigators “Eden’s black eye, bruises (sic) ear, and scraped nose were from when she fell down the stairs,” and said Eden urinating and defecating on herself was because she had been in and out of potty training in the past” and “he did not find the behavior out of the ordinary for Eden.” He told investigators in the report that he had seen Eden in a “dazed state” before and that it “coincided with her scratching her face.”
On Wednesday, Eden collapsed.
The suspicions of doctors were soon confirmed. The coroner ruled Eden’s death a homicide and listed the cause as blunt force trauma to the head.
While CPS investigators noted Barlow and De Alba “severely neglected and failed to obtain necessary medical attention for Eden Lynch that could have possibly saved her life,” they said there was “not enough evidence” to determine Jimmy and Holli “did anything directly to cause [Eden’s] head injury.”
CPS turned the investigation over to Alameda police detectives.
US Coast Guard Takes Action
About a month after Eden’s death, police “were close to making an arrest,” according to the CPS report.
But weeks turned into months, then years, and the arrest never came. The case, which never made headlines, went cold.
In the meantime, Barlow and De Alba moved to Alaska a few months after Eden’s death. He continued to serve at the Coast Guard station in Kodiak. They married and had two children.
Five years passed, then a surprise.
Last summer, prosecutors with the Coast Guard filed four counts of child endangerment against Barlow for failing to protect and care for Eden after her injuries. Although it wasn’t a homicide charge, the Lynch family was relieved.
“That made me feel like somebody cared about Eden besides us,” Rhonda Lynch said.
“I thank God every day for the Coast guard,” Eric Lynch said. “They’ve done an awesome job.”
The Coast Guard declined to comment on the case because it is active.
Barlow pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Colby Vokey, told NBC Bay Area that Eden died as a result of an accident and there’s no evidence of any kind of abuse.
“Neither Holli nor Jimmy did anything harmful to Eden to cause her death,” Vokey said.
“Jimmy absolutely loved his daughter. This tore him up when it happened and it tore him up for five years and with his trial, he has to re-live it over and over again.”
Questioning the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office
The Lynch family now wondered how the Coast Guard was able to come up with enough evidence to file charges against Barlow, but Alameda County prosecutors could not do the same with De Alba?
After years of being told that prosecutors “were working on it” and not to contact the media about the case, Rhonda Lynch said, she reached out to the Investigative Unit in late June 2017, nearly six years after Eden’s death.
“I don’t have any faith in Alameda,” Eric Lynch said. “If they were going to do something, they would have done it by now.”
Alameda County prosecutors told NBC Bay Area they could not discuss the case because it was still considered an “open investigation.”
Questions for De Alba
While Barlow faced charges from the Coast Guard, De Alba returned to the Bay Area with her children. After multiple attempts to reach De Alba by phone, email and via her social media accounts, the Investigative Unit reached her in person outside of her mother’s Vallejo home.
De Alba declined to answer questions about what happened to Eden or whether she had anything to do with Eden’s death.
On August 18th, following 6 weeks of questions from the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office filed felony child abuse charges against De Alba, with a special allegation of willful harm or injury resulting in death. Prosecutors allege Eden was in the sole care of Holli and she failed to seek medical help as Eden’s condition got worse.
“We owe it as child abuse investigators and police officers and prosecutors to bring justice for this victim,” said Dan Scott, a retired Los Angeles Sheriff’s detective and one of California’s foremost experts on investigating crimes against children. Most recently he served on a blue ribbon commission investigating child abuse.
After reviewing Eden’s case, Scott said there was likely enough evidence for Alameda County prosecutors to charge both Jimmy and Holli with child endangerment.
“You look at the injury, and then you look at the explanation, and it’s pretty easy to see when they don’t fit,” Scott said.
The 30 year law enforcement veteran said child abuse cases can be difficult to prosecute. There are often no witnesses and it can be challenging to separate an intentional act with what caregivers say was an accident.
“Even though there are two people and we don't know who caused the injury that resulted in death, they both had a reasonable expectation to protect that child and seek medical care.” Scott said.
Meanwhile, Erica Lynch said she’s been substance abuse free since 2013, and now works as a counselor to help those struggling with addiction.
The Lynch family has new hope for justice as they await Barlow’s court-martial, scheduled to begin in December. The Coast Guard said Barlow is presumed innocent until proven guilty and remains on active duty.
“I feel a sense of relief. There will finally be justice, but it doesn’t bring her back,” Erica said.
"I would like to see both Jimmy Barlow and Holli pay for what they did to my granddaughter," Eric Lynch said.
NBC Bay Area will continue to follow both cases as they unfold.