PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) — There was no evidence that a Tampa-area firefighter deliberately left his toddler son in a hot pickup truck for eight hours, but the circumstances amount to criminal neglect, a sheriff told a Florida newspaper.
Troy Whitaker, 41, of Palm Harbor, faces an aggravated manslaughter charge in the death of his 23-month-old son, Lawson. According to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, Whitaker left Lawson in his pickup truck for eight hours Friday instead of taking the boy to day care.
“This is one of the toughest of all circumstances because of what it involves,” Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told the Tampa Bay Times. “It involves a father who left his kid in the car for eight hours with no explanation.”
There was no evidence that impairment from drugs or alcohol was a factor in Lawson’s death, Gualtieri said.
The Pasco-Pinellas state attorney’s office will decide whether to prosecute after doing its own investigation, said spokesman Bruce Bartlett.
Whitaker declined to speak with reporters when he was released on $50,000 bail early Saturday, according to the newspaper.
Friends and neighbors questioned the decision to charge Whitaker, who the sheriff’s office said was a firefighter for Hillsborough County Fire Rescue. Legal experts said the case may depend on Whitaker’s behavior the day Lawson died.
“If you look at the statute, there’s the potential it could be prosecuted,” said former Hillsborough prosecutor Lyann Goudie. “The problem is, what were the circumstances?”
Whitaker strapped Lawson into his car seat in the truck Friday morning to take his 5-year-old sister to school, authorities said.
Lawson, likely asleep, was left in the driver’s side back seat, facing forward, while his father was inside their Palm Harbor home studying for a fire department promotional exam, the sheriff said. Whitaker walked his dog outside during the day and got into the truck to drive to the grocery store around 3:30 p.m. without noticing the boy.
“We’re trying to figure out if this something more than straight gross negligence,” Gualtieri said. “We’re looking at video cameras along his routes, all that.”
The boy was discovered when Whitaker returned home and began unloading groceries around 4:30 p.m., according to the sheriff’s office. A neighbor said Whitaker was screaming and inconsolable when he pulled the boy from the truck.
Some law enforcement agencies have not charged parents in similar deaths.
In July, prosecutors decided against charging a Deltona middle school teacher in the death of her cousin, whom she left in the back of a sports utility vehicle. According to the newspaper, prosecutors wrote in a memorandum that the child’s death was “both tragic and avoidable” but the woman had not acted recklessly.
“Things happen in the care of young children that are unexpected even by experienced parents,” the memorandum said.
A campaign raising money for Whitaker’s legal fees was removed from the GoFundMe website Sunday because it violated the company’s terms of service, spokesman Bobby Whithorne said in an email to The Associated Press.
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