David's bed is made. His toy train and baseball trophies sit nearby, his TV silent above shelves of movies.
“They are good reminders for right now,” said Beth Schmitt of Durham, who along with Lori Stuart of Raleigh adopted David in 1999. “I know things will change in the future, but I still want to feel him here in the house.”
On the kitchen tableare sympathy cards marking David Stuart's death along with photos of the little boy who never grew up after he was born to parents who neglected him, at best, and tortured him, at worst.
When David — then David Cody Rhinehart — was just 15 months old, he was taken to the hospital with head injuries, broken limbs and burns on his bottom.
Instead of taking his first steps or speaking his first words — typical milestones for 1-year-olds — David was confined to a life of infancy, one that required 24-hour care, feeding tubes and life in a special wheelchair.
He grew up to be just 4 feet tall. He couldn’t walk, and his vision was like looking through a cheese grater. He never spoke words, only sounds. But he had a spirit that reminded people how precious life is.
“Every day he had a smile, and that is what I think really would change people [who met him],” said Schmitt, 44.
In a state where even healthy children can languish in foster care, David ended up being adopted by two psychologists who called him “the center of the universe.”
The women are now figuring out how to move forward after David died March 6 at age 22.
'He saved me'
The Brunswick County couple that abused David, Robyn Lynn Noffsinger and David Raefore Tripp Jr., served about 12 years in prison after being convicted of felony child abuse after David was brought to the hospital in April 1997. Noffsinger was David’s biological mother; it isn’t clear if Tripp was his father.
Noffsinger, 41, and Tripp, 45, were released from prison in 2006 and 2005, respectively.
This week the couple was back in jail after being charged with first-degree murder after David succumbed to injuries they inflicted, a prosecutor said. They remain in jail on $1 million bail.
“He was literally at the time of his death a man to be sure, but in many respects still an infant from the standpoint that he needed round-the-clock care by some very loving caregivers,” said Brunswick County District Attorney Jon David. “These women are true heroes.”
That’s not how the women see it.
“Really, he saved me, more than I did anything for him,” Schmitt said.
When David smiled, he would cock the right side of his mouth up.
“We would always say it was an Elvis smile,” said Stuart, 52, who did an interview via FaceTime from Haiti, where she is working on a special-needs program.
Stuart met David when he was about 2. She was living in Greenville getting her graduate degree from East Carolina University and living with Schmitt. David was at a child care center for medically fragile children.
“I just thought he was so cute,” she said. Someone walked by and said if she loved him, she should adopt him. So she did.
“He is the perfect son,” Stuart said.
Stuart and Schmitt eventually split up and moved to the Triangle. They shared custody, with David spending a week in Raleigh with Stuart and then a week in Durham with Schmitt.
David was initially expected to only make it to 6 years old.
Each year after that was a gift, Schmitt said.
Go-karts, baseball and beer
A lot of David’s growing up was in hospitals and doctor’s offices. Stuart and Schmitt took him on roller coasters, road trips and hot balloon rides. David also played baseball for 12 years with the Miracle League of the Triangle, for adults and children with special needs.
"I think he really liked being able to a participate like he was a normal kid," Schmitt said. He liked the crowd yelling his name, and a buddy pushing him around the bases.
"He liked to go really fast," Schmitt said.
One time Schmitt and Stuart took David to ride go-karts in Raleigh. When the business wouldn’t let him ride, they went across the street to Pep Boys and bought him one of his own to ride in the neighborhood.
"He smiled and laughed and thought it was the funniest thing to ride around in that thing," Schmitt said.
When David turned 21, they even put a little bit of India pale ale in his feeding tube.
David lived with his adoptive parents until he died.
To deal with the loss, Stuart says she pretends that he is visiting Schmitt. Schmitt said she does the same.
Stuart remembers sitting through Noffsinger's and Tripp's first trial. She learned of the abuse that included David’s arms and legs being broken. They possibly poured bleach, or something like it, in his eyes and put him in boiling water, she said.
Stuart said she feels those who loved David are being punished now, having to live without him.
She wants those responsible to be punished as well.
“I felt like, David has had his sentence his whole life,” she said. “I am having my sentence without my son, so I think they should do their sentence.”
Hannah Strong, staff reporter for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach contributed to this article.