Sheriff's Office investigating death of Palm Harbor
PALM HARBOR — Deputies are investigating the death of a toddler they say was left in a hot pickup truck for hours Friday afternoon, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office said.
The boy, who was almost 2 years old, was found just after 4:30 p.m. in the backseat of the truck, parked outside his family's home at 1635 Castlewood Lane. The investigation was ongoing Friday night and no charges have been filed, the sheriff said.
Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the boy, named Lawson, was supposed to have been dropped off at daycare by his father, Hillsborough County firefighter Troy Whitaker, eight hours earlier and died at some point in the vehicle's "very, very high" temperatures.
Gualtieri said Whitaker dropped off his 5-year-old daughter, Addison, at Ozona Elementary School at 8:30 a.m. and was supposed to make the second stop at the day care, "but for some reason he didn't."
Whitaker then drove back home, and Lawson was left inside the car until about 4:30 p.m, the sheriff said. The father went to Publix in the afternoon, and it wasn't until he came back home with the groceries that he realized his son was still in the car.
It is not clear if Whitaker was home for the entire day or was out and about before going to the store, the sheriff said.
Gualtieri said it is not clear how Lawson died, but said he was already dead when officers arrived to find Whitaker performing CPR on his son.
"He was hysterical," the sheriff said.
Firefighter arrested for son dying in hot pickup
trucks makes bail
PALM HARBOR — The Pinellas County Sheriff's office continued to investigate on Saturday how a Hillsborough firefighter left his 23-month-old son in a sweltering truck.
Troy Whitaker, 41, of Palm Harbor, posted a $50,000 bail and left the Pinellas county jail early Saturday following Friday's arrest. He is charged with aggravated manslaughter after the sheriff's office said he left his son, Lawson, in the Chevrolet Silverado for about eight hours after dropping of his 5-year-old daughter at school.
The boy's body temperature reached 108 degrees.
Investigators are retracing Whitaker's steps Friday leading up to 4:30 p.m. when the father pulled his son's limp body from a car seat and began performing CPR.
There's no evidence he intentionally left Lawson in the car seat, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Saturday. But that doesn't make the incident any less puzzling, he added.
"This is one of the toughest of all circumstances because of what it involves," Gualtieri said. "It involves a father who left his kid in the car for eight hours with no explanation."
When TV reporters asked if he had anything to say as he left jail, Whitaker said, "Are you kidding me?"
Whitaker passed a Breathalyzer, the sheriff said. He wasn't sleep deprived; he doesn't have a history of mental illness.
So how does a father not immediately realize he left a boy in the car even after returning to it?
Whitaker helped his son and 5-year-old daughter, Addison, into the car and left by 7:50 a.m. Friday. He dropped Addison off at Ozona Elementary School at 8:30 a.m. and was supposed to stop at New Horizons Country Day School — but he didn't.
Lawson, likely asleep, was left in the driver's side back seat, facing forward, while his father was inside the home at 1635 Castlewood Lane studying for a fire department promotional exam, the sheriff said.
Whitaker went outside to walk the dog and didn't see his son. Then he got in the car around 3:30 p.m. to head to Publix. He told deputies he didn't see his son then, either. Gualtieri said that means, by Whitaker's account, he didn't notice Lawson in his rearview mirror or see him through the gap between the risen headrest that deputies found.
"I assume he didn't see the child, or he would have done something," Gualtieri said.
Gualtieri says it's puzzling when after finishing his Publix trip, Whitaker didn't notice the toddler's feet dangling as he loaded groceries into the passenger's seat. It wasn't until he pulled back into his driveway to unload the groceries he found the boy, investigators said.
The sheriff said the child's death appears to be an accident, but the statute of the law is clear: The child died because of neglect, resulting in the arrest.
Nobody answered the door to the Whitaker home early Saturday afternoon, and the truck in which the child died was not parked in the driveway.
Gualtieri said Whitaker refused to take a blood test when deputies were checking if he was impaired. Later, he admitted he declined the test because he smokes marijuana.
He told investigators he was not under the influence on Friday. Gualtieri said at this point there's no evidence that points to impairment being a factor in the death but stressed the investigation is ongoing.
"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."
Investigators will continue to collect evidence, and then the state attorney's office will decide whether to prosecute after doing its own investigation, said Bruce Bartlett of the Pinellas-Pasco County State Attorney's Office.
Bartlett said he has more often seen cases of a parent purposefully leaving a child in a car than ones in which the parent appears to have done so unknowingly.
"The statute is pretty clear," he said. "But this guy's situation is a little bit off the normal path."
Because Whitaker apparently did not intend to leave the child in the car, Bartlett said, there will be a lot of variables for the office to consider in making its decision.
When Whitaker discovered his son, he was inconsolable, a neighbor told the Tampa Bay Times.
Whitaker yelled, "I can't believe I did this," several times with grocery bags strewn across the pavement, said the neighbor, Aaron Begay.
Lawson Whitaker is the 29th child to have died of heat-related causes from being left inside vehicles in 2016, according to the website noheatstroke.org.
In the last 15 years, an average of two children per month have died of heatstroke after being left in a vehicle in the United States, according to San Jose State University, which tracks incidents for noheatstroke.org.
Florida ranks second in the nation, behind Texas, in overall deaths.
Begay said he did not think it appropriate to criminally charge Whitaker. He said the father clearly loves his children, and noted he often saw Whitaker playing with the children in their yard.
"I can't judge him," Begay said. "But it's in the hands of the law now. My wife and I will pray for him."
This is a developing story. Stay with tampabay.com for updates. Times Staff Writer William R. Levesque contributed to this story.