Baby girl locked in hot car dies; mom could face murder charges

 

By Shannon O' Boye and Jaime Hernandez

Staff Writers

 

April 26, 2003

 

A 10-month-old girl who had been fighting to stay alive since her mother left her locked in a hot car while Easter shopping died Thursday at a local hospital.

 

At least 12 children have died in sweltering cars in Florida since 1998. They include a 9-month-old Coral Springs boy whose mother thought he was with his father and 7-month-old Phillip Gutmann, a south Miami-Dade County boy whose neighbor offered to drive him to daycare and then forgot he was in the car. The neighbor, Yunia Perez, pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter and got 10 years probation.

 

The Broward Sheriff's Office had already charged the 10-month-old's mother, Christine Gonzalez-Ambrosio, 33, with child neglect without great harm, but now she is facing possible murder charges.

 

The Fort Lauderdale woman told deputies she put her daughter, Chelcie, in her car seat Saturday afternoon but forgot to take her out when she got to a Pompano Beach Wal-Mart. She didn't realize her deadly mistake until she finished shopping and returned to the car about an hour later. The high temperature was 84 degrees that day.

 

Someone in the Wal-Mart parking lot started CPR on the unconscious child and then paramedics rushed her to Holy Cross Hospital, sheriff's spokeswoman Veda Coleman-Wright said. Doctors transferred the baby to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Broward General Medical Center, where she died about 7 p.m. Thursday.

 

The mother has no criminal history or involvement with the child welfare system, according to a source familiar with the case. The Department of Children & Families got involved after the incident. A judge granted custody of the two remaining daughters --ages 9 and 3--to their father, Manny Ambrosio. The judge ordered the mother out of the house, but allowed supervised visits between her and the children.

 

Prosecutor Dennis Siegel, head of the Broward County State Attorney's child abuse unit, said the homicide division took over the investigation once the baby died.

 

Filing murder charges against a mother who has already paid arguably the highest price is an emotional issue, but Siegel said prosecutors often have to move forward with cases that do not feature "hardened criminals."

 

"That applies to a lot of crimes, like DUI manslaughter, that don't involve criminals, yet the harm they caused is tremendous," he said.

 

Tammy Russell, a Southern California woman who started a group called "4 R Kids Sake" after a baby sitter left her 6-month-old daughter in a car for three hours on a 100-degree day, said her research shows that when parents are at fault, they are rarely charged. When they are, conviction is rare unless the parent was drunk, high, or had a history of abuse or neglect.

 

"You need to be accountable, but does a parent need to go sit in jail for a month or two months?" Russell asked. "They're going to suffer for the rest of their life for their actions."

 

Kids `N Cars, a group similar to Russell's, has found more than 200 cases since 1985 where children died after being left in sweltering cars. And those numbers are low, according to co-founder Terrill Struttmann, because there are no state or national agencies tracking such deaths.

 

These cases occur most frequently in California and Florida, where temperatures inside cars can soar in minutes.

 

"A car works like a greenhouse," Russell said. "Even in 70-degree weather, a car can get to 100 degrees in 30 minutes."

 

Child safety advocates recommend putting a purse or briefcase in the back seat next to the baby, or placing a diaper bag, a teddy bear, or any baby item in the front seat as a reminder that there is a child in the car.

 

"People need to understand it can happen to them," Russell said. "Too many people say I would never do that. But it's happened to a NASA scientist. It's happened to a single mom trying her best to provide for her family. There's no socio-economic barriers."

 

The Ambrosios had a yellow ribbon tied around the mailbox outside their small Fort Lauderdale house Friday afternoon. They could not be reached for comment.

 

Neighbors said Gonzalez-Ambrosio was a good mother and expressed shock over the incident.

 

"She took good care of the baby," said Julian Stutz, 62, who lives across the street. "She would sit all day on her front porch with the baby. There is no doubt this was a mistake. She just messed up."

 

Gonzalez-Ambrosio's next-door neighbor reacted with disbelief. "I'm shocked. I got goose bumps. How do you have a 10-month-old and leave them in the car?" said Chris Vezina, 34, whose daughter played with Gonzalez-Ambrosio's older daughters.

 

"How do you walk away and go into a store and come back in an hour with your child in your car? It's pretty scary."