April 14, 2024
Riverside County D.A. is gathering more evidence against Michelle Morris-Kerin, controversial across two counties for nearly 20 years.

Diane Ramirez and Jeff Miller at the Spectacular Prom in 2018. (Courtesy Jeff Miller) 

The judge blinked hard, brow furrowed, for what seemed like a very long time. He rubbed his chin, looked at the prosecutor, and said she had dropped a “little hydrogen bomb.”

The prosecutor stunned the Riverside County courtroom on Friday, Sept. 1 by asking the judge to dismiss involuntary manslaughter and child cruelty charges against Michelle Morris-Kerin, the former foster mother to the severely disabled.

Morris-Kerin faces nearly a dozen felonies, including “willfully, unlawfully, and lewdly” committing lascivious acts upon adult dependents “with the intent of arousing, appealing to, and gratifying … lust, passions, and sexual desires,” according to the indictment.

Deputy District Attorney Maureen DuMouchel requested the dismissal of two counts because prosecutors are gathering more evidence against Morris-Kerin and expect to refile charges. The judge asked if they intended to refile charges that previously had been dismissed, and DuMouchel said yes.

Michelle Morris Kerin (Courtesy of Riverside County DA) 

Morris-Kerin originally faced second-degree murder for the death of foster child Diane Princess Ramirez, who spent an agonizing night in Morris-Kerin’s home, moaning and vomiting blood. Despite specific instructions to get the girl to the emergency room if that happened, Morris-Kerin refused to call 911 for some seven hours while Ramirez’s vital signs fluctuated and her skin grew cold to the touch. Morris-Kerin insisted the girl would be fine, according to a state report.

Ramirez had cerebral palsy, seizure disorder and other challenges, as well as an indomitable spirit and mischievous sense of humor. She’d place fake spiders in her locker to scare the teachers who helped her open it, was a junior assessed at grade level at Murrieta Mesa High School, saw her “prom-posal” to quarterback Jeff Miller make the TV news. She was 17 when she died on April 6, 2019, of “volvulus,” a twisted intestine that cut off blood supply to her bowels.

Riverside Superior Court Judge Timothy F. Freer threw out the murder charge in April 2022, saying the District Attorney’s office failed to present convincing evidence that Morris-Kerin’s inaction substantially contributed to Ramirez’s death.

“The evidence established by experts was, in general, volvulus can be treated by surgery, and the sooner the better,” the judge said then. “There was no evidence that the volvulus that afflicted Diane was one that could be treated, or one that would have been fatal no matter what.”

That missing piece is apparently what the D.A. is pursuing.

This 2002 file photo shows Larry Kerin with Vicky, one of the special needs children that he and his wife Michelle Morris adopted over the years. Andy Templeton / Photo For Orange County Register 

‘Case of such magnitude’

Morris-Kerin and her husband Larry Kerin were in the courtroom Friday when Freer dismissed the two charges and they all learned more may be coming. Both listened attentively, while Brian Cosgrove, the public defender representing Morris-Kerin, seemed to deflate a bit at the D.A.’s news.

Kerin was never charged with murder or manslaughter — those were for Morris-Kerin alone — but Kerin is charged with child neglect related to Ramirez’s death as well as lewd and lascivious conduct.

Prosecutors expect to have their investigation complete in January, DuMouchel said. Judge Freer asked everyone to return to court on Jan. 26 for more hearings, with trial tentatively set for late February. It could last six weeks, Freer said.

“This is a case of such magnitude we want to make sure that, legally, we get it right,” he said.

Controversy has dogged Morris-Kerin across two counties for decades.

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She began her foster career in Orange County in the mid-1990s, caring for profoundly disabled children. Each came with about $5,000 a month in state aid. She adopted many of these children — still receiving the $5,000 a month per adopted child — which allowed her to take in more foster children (one’s own children don’t count toward the foster census). She cared for up to a dozen medically fragile people at a time at her height, generating some $800,000 a year.

Morris-Kerin soon clashed with Orange County officials, who asserted that she suffered from Munchausen by proxy, a behavior disorder in which caretakers exaggerate children’s health problems and subject them to unnecessary or inappropriate medical treatment, according to records. She sued, won a settlement, then moved her business to Riverside County to escape what she called “persecution” in O.C.

Complaints continued there as well. Morris-Kerin “does not take good care of Diane or the children she takes and ‘is just doing it for the money,’” one of Ramirez’s teachers told county workers, according to social workers’ internal logs. Her adopted son Ryan Morris — who was enticed to marry a man of regular intelligence nearly twice his age with the promise of a cell phone — is one of the dependent people who allegedly was sexually abused in Morris-Kerin’s care. Ryan Morris’ bio family always maintained that Morris-Kerin took in the children for the money, a charge she always denied.

Diane Ramírez, courtesy Ángel Cadena Ramirez.

Diane Ramírez and Jeff Miller in class. (Courtesy Jeff Miller)

Diane Ramirez “Prom-posal” to Jeff Miller in 2018. (Courtesy Jeff Miller)

Screengrab from the “promposal” video. Murrieta Mesa High students Jeff Miller and Dian Ramirez in 2018.

Courtesy Murrieta Police Department

Diane Ramírez and Jeff Miller at the Spectacular Prom in 2018. Courtesy Murrieta Police Department.

Ryan Morris on his first day of classes at Saddleback College. (Courtesy Monica Mukai)

Monica Mukai, left, Ryan Morris’ aunt, has been appointed his legal guardian, taking him home 29 years after his birth (Courtesy Mukai)

Ryan Morris, center, with sisters Jamie and Krystal (Courtesy of Monica Mukai)

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“(T)he Criminal Grand Jury of the County of Riverside by this Indictment hereby accuses MICHELLE LOUISE MORRIS of a violation of Penal Code section 288, subdivision( c)( 2), a felony, in that on or about 1/ 10/ 2012 through and including 9/ 30/ 14, in the County of Riverside, State of California, the defendant, being a caretaker, did willfully, unlawfully, and lewdly commit a lewd and lascivious act upon and with the body and certain parts and members thereof of JOHN DOE ( R.M.), a dependent person, with the intent of arousing, appealing to, and gratifying the lust, passions, and sexual desires of the said defendant and the said dependent person,” the indictment says, referencing Ryan Morris.

After 29 years, Ryan Morris is in the care of his biological family, which never wanted to lose him to begin with. Ramirez’s parents are suing the county, with an eye to ensuring nothing like this happens again.

 

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