Catholic coroner in Louisiana says murder of 6-year-old girl one of toughest cases he has faced

A woman wipes away tears at a prayer service April 28, 2023, for murdered 6-year-old Bella Fontenelle, a kindergarten student at St. Matthew the Apostle School in River Ridge, Louisiana. Jefferson Parish authorities said Bella was killed by her father’s girlfriend, and her body was wheeled to the front lawn of a nearby house where her mother lived. (OSV News photo/Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald)

by Peter Finney Jr.

HARAHAN, La. (OSV News) — Dr. Gerry Cvitanovich has spent his adult life tackling the responsibility of breaking bad news to grieving families.

For the last 12 years, the Catholic physician he has been the coroner for Jefferson Parish, a civil entity, like a county, that is next door to New Orleans.

He spent the early part of his medical career as an emergency room physician at East Jefferson General Hospital, a profession in which there is no escaping the death and inhumanity that, with flashing red lights, nightly roll through the sliding glass doors.

But when Cvitanovich was called to the front lawn of a one-story, red-brick home on Sedgefield Drive in Harahan the morning of April 26, the doctor who has managed over the years to compartmentalize trauma and steel himself to death could not comprehend what he was seeing.

The lid of a large, white plastic container that normally holds 50 pounds of powdered pool chlorine was pulled off, revealing the body of 6-year-old Bella Fontenelle, a kindergartner at St. Matthew the Apostle School in River Ridge.

“It’s a hard thing to see — and even harder to unsee,” Cvitanovich told the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Instinctively, Cvitanovich reached back to his elementary school days at St. Dominic in New Orleans’ Lakeview neighborhood.

“I’ll be honest with you,” Cvitanovich said. “The first thing I did when we lifted the lid off that chemical container was to make the sign of the cross. I did it discreetly. I don’t make a scene of it because I don’t want to go there. But the first thing I thought about was my little girls when they were that age.”

Jefferson Parish authorities have charged Hannah Landon, 43, the girlfriend of Bella’s father, with first-degree murder. They said she killed Bella, placed her in the bucket and then wheeled the container to the home of Bella’s mother, who lived around the corner, 14 houses — 350 yards — away.

Her intention seemed to be that Bella’s mom would walk out of her house and find her daughter on the front lawn.

“The case of this little girl does ring a little bit differently because of the vindictiveness of the woman to dump this lady’s beautiful child in her front yard in a bucket, expecting the mom to find the baby,” Cvitanovich said. “It’s unconscionable.”

There’s “no class in medical school” that teaches one how to be the bearer of bad news, like the death of this little girl, he said. “You learn how to break bad news to people pretty much by experience. In the coroner’s office, sometimes we are the ones breaking the news to the family. It’s something you learn.”

Cvitanovich recalled his toughest conversation: Telling the family of a 9-year-old Little League baseball player that their son had died after being hit by a baseball in just the wrong spot of his chest.

“You have to be empathetic, and there is nothing wrong with shedding tears with them,” Cvitanovich said. “You have to answer as many questions as you can.

“I learned this about myself in the emergency room. Some people are able to compartmentalize this stuff and leave it at work, and that’s what I’ve always tried to do. I don’t want to sound heartless, but you can’t carry this stuff around on your shoulders with you every day at work or else you won’t be able to do the work for long.”

At Mass that weekend — it was Good Shepherd Sunday — Cvitanovich found his mind drifting back to Sedgefield Drive.

“You sit back in some of these cases and wonder, ‘Why?'” Cvitanovich said. “When it was time for the special intentions, I prayed for this family and for their little girl.”

Death comes in many ways. Over the last eight years, Cvitanovich has witnessed the bitter harvest of the fentanyl tsunami, where one fake, black-market pill, believed to be a Percocet or Xanax, mixed with too much fentanyl can kill. It used to be that most overdoses the coroner’s office evaluated were “intentional” — someone swallowing a bottle of pills or injecting heroin.

Now, that’s not the case.

“We’re seeing more and more of what we would call ‘recreational’ overdose deaths,” Cvitanovich said. “Eight years ago — or even six years ago — the thought of a single pill killing somebody was unlikely. Now, it’s common. Fentanyl, when it’s pure, is unbelievably potent. It’s anywhere from 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Think of this like you were drinking a large, 16-ounce cup of coffee. Sixteen ounces of pure fentanyl could kill one-third of the East Bank of Jefferson Parish.”

What’s even worse, Cvitanovich said, is the horse sedative xylazine, which goes by the name “Tranq” and is showing up in pills that are being manufactured in Mexico with Chinese ingredients. Cvitanovich testified before a state Senate committee in early May about the dangers of that drug.

“Actually, in its pure form, xylazine is more potent than fentanyl,” he said. “The situation we have right now is discouraging.”

As someone who has seen and can’t unsee the worst of a fallen world, Cvitanovich has a message for parents: “Educate the heck out of them.”

“There are uncomfortable conversations that we as parents need to have with our kids, and this is definitely one of those conversations — sex, drugs and social media,” Cvitanovich said. “Actually, there is a lot of crossover between social media and drug use. A large amount of the sales of these counterfeit pills is done via social media. Unfortunately, the digital world makes the dealing of drugs a lot easier.”

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