Living in the basement, the 29-year-old mother with a child-like mind and another baby on the way had little more than a thin rug and a mattress to call her own on the chilly concrete floor. Dorothy Dixon ate what she could forage from the refrigerator upstairs, where housemates used her for target practice with BBs, burned her with a glue gun and doused her with scalding liquid that peeled away her skin. They torched what few clothes she had, so she walked around naked. They often pummeled her with an aluminum bat or metal handle.
Dixon — six months pregnant — died after weeks of abuse. Police have charged two adults, three teenagers and a 12-year-old boy with murder in the case that has repulsed many in this Mississippi River town. Investigators put much of the blame on Michelle Riley, 35, who they said befriended Dixon but pocketed monthly Social Security checks she got because of her developmental delays.
Dixon saw little, if any, of the money, Hayes said. For months she weathered the torment to keep a roof over her head and that of her year-old son, who weighed just 15 pounds when taken into state custody after his mom’s death. Riley, 43-year-old Judy Woods and three teenagers, including Riley’s 15-year-old daughter, LeShelle McBride, are charged with first-degree murder, aggravated and heinous battery, intentional homicide of an unborn child, and unlawful restraint. Riley’s 12-year-old son is charged as a juvenile.
Riley, her daughter, Woods and 16-year-old Benny Wilson have public defenders who did not immediately return messages for comment. An 18-year-old defendant, Michael Elliott, planned to get his own attorney, court records show. All remain in jail on $1 million bond. Messages left with a Chicago-area sister of Dixon went unreturned, but neighbors, Hayes and newspaper accounts offer a mosaic of the months leading to Dixon’s demise inside the small, white, blue-shuttered house.
Riley and Dixon, police said, had lived in Quincy, a Mississippi River town about 100 miles north of St. Louis, Mo. Quincy is where Riley worked as a coordinator for a regional center that helps the developmentally disabled with housing and other services. Dixon was a client.
For years, an impoverished Riley struggled raising her children. Her use of methamphetamine and cocaine brought drug convictions in 2002 and 2004. But with treatment and housing help from the Quincy YWCA, Riley put her life in order — so much that in February of last year, the Quincy Herald-Whig did a story on her comeback.
Last summer, Dixon and Riley moved into the $800-a-month, three-bedroom rental in Alton about 15 miles north of St. Louis. From the start, neighbors Chad Hudson and Terri Brandt considered Riley trouble. Riley considered Dixon her slave, making her rub Riley’s feet until Riley fell asleep and forcing her to run naked around the house when she got in trouble, the neighbors said.
While doing fix-ups on the home last fall, landlord Steve Atkins saw Riley “barking orders” at the children and everyone else. Atkins joked to her whether he needed to call the Army and see if they wanted their drill sergeant back. Atkins said Dixon generally kept to herself “but was always nice when she spoke to you.” He saw no hints she’d been suffering or tortured.
Police said Dixon was allowed out of the house but didn’t say under what conditions. Hayes didn’t know who the father of Dixon’s fetus is. Hayes said things apparently came to a head Jan. 30, when investigators believe that Woods, during a dispute, beat Dixon on the head with an object Hayes wouldn’t identify. The next day Woods found her dead.
Hayes watched the autopsy and found her injuries disturbing. X-rays revealed roughly 30 BBs lodged in her. Deep-tissue burns covered about one-third of her body — her face, her chest, her arms and feet — and left her severely dehydrated. Her face and body showed signs of prolonged abuse. Many of her wounds were infected.
None of the injuries, Hayes said, proved singly fatal to Dixon. Her system already was taxed by her unborn baby. The disguting things humans are capable of never cease to amaze me. I hope these assholes rot in hell.