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News / Clark County News

Trial opens for Vancouver parents accused of starving son to death; defense blames 15-year-old’s medical problems

Karreon Franks was 61 pounds when he died in November 2020

By Jessica Prokop, Columbian Local News Editor
Published: October 18, 2023, 1:42pm
4 Photos
A school photo of Karreon Franks is displayed on a television Wednesday at the Clark County Courthouse during a murder trial. Karreon's adoptive parents Felicia Adams, right, and Jesse Franks, center, are being tried on second-degree murder and homicide by abuse in the 2020 death of the 15-year-old.
A school photo of Karreon Franks is displayed on a television Wednesday at the Clark County Courthouse during a murder trial. Karreon's adoptive parents Felicia Adams, right, and Jesse Franks, center, are being tried on second-degree murder and homicide by abuse in the 2020 death of the 15-year-old. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

“How much hunger can a child endure? How small can a child become before their body stops working?” Senior Deputy Prosecutor Erik Podhora asked a jury Wednesday. “For Karreon Franks, it was 61 pounds.”

Prosecutors say that’s how much a 15-year-old Vancouver boy weighed when he died from starvation and neglect in November 2020 at the hands of his adoptive mother and her husband. Their joint trial began Monday in Clark County Superior Court.

Felicia L. Adams, 54, and Jesse C. Franks, 58, are facing domestic violence charges of homicide by abuse and second-degree murder in Karreon’s death and two counts of second-degree criminal mistreatment of Karreon’s brothers, then 14 and 13 years old.

Adams legally adopted Karreon and his brothers in June 2012 in California; she is their maternal aunt, court records show. The family moved to Vancouver shortly after, the prosecution said.

Attorneys in the case told the Superior Court jury Wednesday that Karreon was severely developmentally delayed and autistic, to the point he was nearly nonverbal. He was also legally blind and used a cane to get around.

Adams and Franks’ defense attorneys told the jury, in separate opening statements, Karreon’s medical conditions were to blame for his death. Both noted he suffered from digestive issues and had a difficult time keeping food down.

Franks’ defense attorney, Alyosha McClain, noted that aspiration pneumonia was initially listed as Karreon’s cause of death.

“Bottom line, it is always tragic when a child dies. In this case, it’s about trying to blame Felicia (Adams) and Jesse Franks for that death,” McClain said during his opening statement.

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“But Karreon was a special kid with special medication, and required special treatment and special care, who died with food in his belly and food in his lungs, and sadly passed away during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Incredibly thin

On Nov. 27, 2020, Adams took Karreon to a hospital emergency room, where he was pronounced dead about 15 minutes later. The treating physician noted he was incredibly thin and requested Child Protective Services be notified, the prosecution said.

After the boy’s body was transferred to a Vancouver funeral home, staff called the Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office because something didn’t seem right, Podhora told the jury during his opening statement.

The medical examiner’s office later determined Karreon died of starvation and neglect.

When Podhora flashed Karreon’s autopsy photo across a screen, a woman in the gallery began crying and doubled over. She was escorted from the courtroom by a victim advocate.

McClain told jurors that although the autopsy photo looks terrible, it doesn’t depict what Karreon looked like when he died. He said the photo is designed to pull at their heartstrings.

Podhora told the jury the evidence will show Karreon had previously been growing and maintaining a healthy weight. He was last seen by a medical provider in July 2019, and at that time, he weighed 115 pounds.

Karreon’s teachers at Evergreen Public Schools described him as active, with a vibrant spirit. He liked riding a tricycle, tossing a ball and playing during physical education, Podhora told the jury.

But things took a sharp turn, the prosecutor said. The big change in Karreon’s circumstances coincided with the pandemic, when schools switched to virtual learning.

“He was confined to the walls of his house and no longer had communication with the outside world and the people who could have saved him,” Podhora said.

According to Podhora, Karreon’s teachers said he was food motivated and that his first words when arriving at school were “eat, eat, eat.” He was given a full breakfast. But Podhora said there was tension over Karreon being fed at school; Adams wished to restrict his access to snacks. Teachers also expressed concerns over Karreon arriving soiled.

When he moved to virtual learning, Karreon no longer had guaranteed access to nutritious meals at school. And his educators’ observations were mostly limited to pixels on a screen, Podhora said.

Karreon and his brothers were accustomed to food restriction and corporal punishment in the home, Podhora said, and Adams and Franks became progressively strict over time.

Adams’ defense attorney, Jeff Sowder, told the jury Karreon had always been thin. Both defense attorneys said Karreon was food obsessed, even when he was at a normal weight and that his diet was changed and restricted because of his digestive issues.

Both the prosecution and defense noted a CPS worker came to the home earlier in November, following a relative’s report. No action was taken at that time.

Podhora said although there was food in the home, the boys didn’t have access to it. Adams and Franks locked the door to the bedroom the trio shared. Karreon’s brothers were punished for stealing food and subjected to periods of confinement in their room.

CPS workers and law enforcement responded to the family’s residence the day after Karreon died and took his brothers into protective custody. Podhora said their weights rebounded rapidly after being placed in foster care.

Trial continues Thursday with state’s witnesses.