Mystery babysitter; child abuse charges 4 years after FOX6 investigation

A Sheboygan mom raises thousands of dollars to pay her daughter's medical bills, but leaves out one crucial detail. The real story has a plot twist straight out of a mystery novel.

Fiction writers from all over the world sent money to help the little girl "fighting for her life" in a Wisconsin hospital, but they soon discovered the leader of their online book club had a troubling secret. Their first clue was a FOX6 investigation.

"What is your name?" asked FOX6 Investigator Bryan Polcyn, as he approached a woman standing outside a Waukesha duplex in the fall of 2020. 

"I'm not talking to anybody," the woman replied. "I haven't done anything."

When Polcyn repeated the question, she gave a partial answer.

Dawn Astudillo enters a Sheboygan County courtroom on May 22, 2024

"My name is Dawn," she said.

"Dawn what?" Polcyn asked.

It's the same question parents were asking of the woman watching their children at her illegal Waukesha daycare.

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Four years later, 53-year-old Dawn Astudillo is back in the spotlight.

"Charged with very serious and concerning offenses," said Sheboygan County District Attorney Joel Urmanski.

Just a single mother

Astudillo now lives in Sheboygan, where neighbors say the woman they knew only as Dawn frequently came asking for favors.

"She needed help breaking ice," said Felicia Pirwitz, who lived across the street. "And getting her car into the garage. And clearing her sidewalks."

Her husband, Johnathan Pirwitz, said Dawn kept asking, over and over again.

"We bought two rounds of ice melt for her," Johnathan Pirwitz said. 

"My 7-year-old and I went over and chipped away at ice for a couple of hours at least," Felicia Pirwitz said.

"Can you help us out again? I'm just a single mother," Johnathan Pirwitz recalled her saying.

Otherwise, they said, they saw little of her. 

Online, Dawn started a Facebook group devoted to authors and fans of "psychological thriller" fiction. That group now has more than 5,000 members worldwide.

"The authors and readers all love her to death," said one of those members who agreed to an interview on the condition that we not identify him. He did not want to upset group members who remain supportive of Dawn, including other authors who rely on the free exposure to sell books.

"I’m an author, I need exposure, too, so that’s why I joined it," he said.

Since April, six different fiction writers have communicated with the FOX6 Investigators. 

"Brave little girl"

Three reached out shortly after Astudillo posted a message in the group that said she was "going through something terrible at the moment." She soon added, "I'm in a situation that I desperately need help," adding a link to a fundraiser captioned, "Please help my daughter." 

In one post, Astudillo added her daughter was "a brave little girl battling a serious illness."

"You think, 'Oh man,' you know? I’m not want for money," the author said, recalling how the post tugged at his emotions.

A throng of published authors responded, some chipping in $50, $100, $200 or more. 

"Most of the authors that I encounter are very – in all genres – very generous," the author said.

What Astudillo did not mention in her posts was why her little girl was hospitalized. In fact, she kept that a secret from the group for six days.

"This is clearly, to me, deceptive behavior," the author said.

To understand why, it's important to turn the page back to summer 2023, when Astudillo adopted a puppy – her daughter's first. The little girl named the 6-week-old Labradoodle mix Scooby-Doo. For several weeks, Astudillo privately gushed about the family's new pet. But in November, Scooby-Doo ran away.

When Astudillo came to the Humane Society of Sheboygan County to claim him, staff members said she was "acting strangely." She became "combative" with staff, argued about paying for a rabies vaccine, and gave a name, phone number and street address that were all determined to be slightly incorrect. 

Dark bags under her eyes

What troubled staff members most, according to court records, was quiet little girl standing beside her. They later told police the girl looked "disheveled and unhealthy," with matted hair, dirty clothes and obvious dark bags under her eyes.

"The bags," Johnathon Pirwitz remembers. "Definitely the bags."

Pirwitz and his wife said it was the child's appearance that first made them uneasy when her mom brought her by to sell Girl Scout cookies.

"Skinny," Johnathon said. 

"Yeah, looked very, honestly malnourished," his wife added.

Johnathan and Felicia Pirwitz lived across the street from Dawn. They say they tried to ask about the little girl's malnourished appearance, but never heard from the mother again after that.

They say they tried to call attention to their concerns.

"Is your daughter OK?" Felicia remembers asking. "Is there something we can help with?"

"Oh no, no," Johnathon parroted the response Dawn gave. "We've got to go. We've got to go now."

"After we confronted her about her daughter, we didn’t hear from her ever again," Felicia said.

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Dog in a ditch

In January, a passerby found a Labradoodle mix abandoned in a rural ditch just north of Sheboygan. Records show the starving animal was in "horrendous" condition; every bone in its spine and pelvis visible. 

When Humane Society staff examined the animal, they realized it was the same dog Astudillo had claimed two months earlier. For a breed that should have been 35 to 40 pounds, they said it weighed just 16. It was caked with urine and feces, unable to walk on its own.

Humane society staff remembered Astudillo and the little girl they'd been concerned about. So they called police. Police called Child Protective Services. And CPS paid Astudillo a visit. During that visit in February 2024, CPS noted that Astudillo's daughter appeared to be malnourished with "extremely sunken eyes."

After that, Sheboygan County Sheriff's Deputies say Astudillo stopped showing up for CPS appointments. They believe she was "intentionally" avoiding authorities. 

On March 28, police used cellphone data to locate Astudillo and her daughter, staying at a Country Inn & Suites nearly 70 miles from her home in Brookfield. Police arrested Astudillo and took her daughter into protective custody.

During an interview, Astudillo first said she gave the dog away, but eventually admitted she abandoned it in a ditch. She explained the girl's sunken eyes as just a feature of her "Spanish" ethnicity.

Meanwhile, a doctor found the 9-year-old girl's weight was so low – 49 pounds – it was "off the bottom of the chart" for her age. Her teeth were "extremely rotten," the report said. And her speech "sounded like that of a 4 or 5-year-old child."

Investigators said the girl had been kept "completely isolated" from others. She was enrolled in virtual school, but kept changing schools. They say she did not know her own birthday and talked about playing with friends who may have been imaginary. 

"Makes me understand why they were never outside," Felicia Pirwitz said. "Why we never saw them around."

The plot twist

Four days after police arrested Astudillo and took her daughter away, she created the GoFundMe account and started asking for donations to cover her daughter's "medical expenses." She implored her book club supporters to "be the plot twist" in her little girl's story. But the real plot twist was right there in the GoFundMe caption.

"Books are written about these kinds of premises," the author said.

Group members knew her only by the pseudonym, "Dawn Angel." But when she set up the GoFundMe account, she did so using her real name, Dawn Astudillo.

When her loyal supporters saw the name, they plugged it into a search engine. And that led them to our FOX6 Investigation from 2020.

FOX6 Investigators attempt to speak with Astudillo in 2020. At the time, she was operating an illegal daycare under the name Gabriela Anderson.

"You've been telling people your name was Gabriela Anderson," said FOX6 Investigator Bryan Polcyn, approaching Astudillo at the time.

"That's not true," Astudillo said. "My name is Dawn."

"Dawn what?" Polcyn pressed, without an answer.

Our investigation found Astudillo was running an illegal daycare the State of Wisconsin had ordered her to close. She'd used five different names in states across the country. And she earned herself a criminal charge for lying to healthcare professionals and police about her daughter's age.

After seeing our story, at least one of the authors in the group confronted Dawn with this new information. Soon after, she updated the GoFundMe, admitting she did not need financial help to pay her daughter's medical bills. She needed money to pay for a lawyer to get her daughter back. 

GoFundMe updated April 8, 2024 (6 days after initial creation)

"Do you feel misled?" asked Polcyn.

"Hearing that addition, yes," the author said.

According to prosecutors, Astudillo raised at least $2,450 of her $10,000 goal. Her lawyer's retainer was $2,500. 

"Let me just be blunt here," the author said. "I did not donate $100 for that cause. I donated $100 to help pay medical bills for a kid that was in the hospital."

Charged with child abuse

In May, prosecutors charged Astudillo with four misdemeanor counts of animal neglect, two felony counts of child abuse and one count of fraud. The fraud charge was later dismissed.

"Taken altogether, she’s facing a great deal of incarceration," said Judge Rebecca Persick, Sheboygan County Circuit Court.

For now, Astudillo is in jail on $50,000 bail. Her daughter remains in protective custody. What happens next is yet to be determined.

Like any good mystery, the outcome is never certain until the final chapter is written.

This is not the first time Astudillo has been accused of mistreating a child. When she was 19 years old in 1991, police in Florida found her toddler bruised and malnourished. Dawn Craft (her married name at the time) was convicted of child abuse.

According to the criminal complaint in the current case, Astudillo has had as many as four other children removed by child welfare agencies in other states. She's due back in court on July 19.

As for the fundraiser, prosecutors did charge her initially with fraud against a financial institution. However, in May, Sheboygan County District Attorney Joel Urmanski withdrew the charge without explaining why.

At least two of the authors who spoke to FOX6 News said they felt misled by the fundraiser. One sent money all the way from Australia. He told FOX6 News he donated twice "even though my cash reserves were low." He now feels "dismayed" that his kindness "was abused."