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Montgomery County man is ordered to stand trial in the rape and murder of his infant daughter

Austin Stevens, 29, has been ordered to stand trial for the rape and murder of his 10-month-old daughter, Zara, who died Oct. 3. His lawyer says the child died after hitting her head.

Austin Stevens, of Lower Providence, Montgomery County, was ordered to stand trial Dec. 1, 2020 for the rape and murder of his 18-month-old daughter, Zara, who died Oct. 3, 2020.
Austin Stevens, of Lower Providence, Montgomery County, was ordered to stand trial Dec. 1, 2020 for the rape and murder of his 18-month-old daughter, Zara, who died Oct. 3, 2020.Read more

After his 10-month-old daughter suffered blunt-force trauma to her head, Austin Stevens spent over an hour Googling what to do, and chatting with two different women via text message and social media, a Montgomery County homicide detective testified Tuesday during a preliminary hearing.

“I should be holding you,” Stevens, 29, told one woman, while he asked another, “Where you at, baby?” Detective Michael Crescitelli, of the Montgomery County Detective Bureau, told District Judge Cathleen Rebar during a virtual hearing.

The next day, police charged Stevens with raping and assaulting his daughter. Weeks later, he was charged with murder after the Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the death a homicide.

By the time Stevens called 911, Zara Scruggs had stopped breathing. Lower Providence Township patrol officer Eric Horick testified that when he arrived at Stevens’ Germantown Pike apartment shortly after 10:40 p.m. on Oct. 3, the child was lying on a bed wearing a diaper. She had no heartbeat, her skin was gray, and she was cold to the touch, he said. Horick said he performed CPR before medics arrived.

Austin was “abnormally calm. There was no panic, no emotion,” Horick said.

Zara, who had recently started to walk, died from blunt-force trauma, the medical examiner determined. She also had suffered injuries consistent with sexual assault, Crescitelli testified.

Judge Rebar held Austin for trial on all charges, including first-, second-, and third-degree murder, involuntary deviant sexual intercourse, rape of a child, aggravated assault, and related offenses.

Stevens, who worked as an assistant coach for the Lower Providence Warriors youth football team, had a custody agreement with the baby’s mother, authorities have said. He told police he picked the child up from her grandparents’ Norristown home earlier that day and took her to his apartment after making several stops.

He said he had just moved to the apartment and the heat and hot water had not yet been turned on, but the water was not too cold to bathe in, so he gave Zara a bath that night, he told police. While she was in the tub, he went to the kitchen to get a beer and heard a thump, assumed Zara had hit her head, and returned to the bathroom to see her crying, he later told police.

During his Google searches Stevens looked up “If baby stops breathing,” “How to give CPR to a baby,” “What if you don’t hear baby heartbeat,” “my baby isn’t breathing,” and “How do you know if baby is dead,” Crescitelli testified.

Defense attorney Christian Hoey argued that the blunt-force trauma to Zara’s head was the result of her hitting her head by accident. “This was a purely accidental event,” he told the judge. He made no argument regarding the alleged sexual crimes.

Assistant District Attorney Brianna Ringwood, who presented the case with First Assistant District Attorney Edward McCann, contended that Stevens’ Google searches indicated that he knew the baby was in critical condition but he didn’t call 911 until after he had flirted with women and after his daughter was dead.

“I suggest this child was a complete inconvenience to him,” she told the judge.