PBSO: Baby daughter dies after dad, 23, forgets her inside his car

By Nancy L. Othón
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Posted May 2 2006

By the time Dale Michael Lopez remembered he had left his 14-month-old daughter in his car as he cared for her older siblings Saturday afternoon, she had been in the car about an hour and it was too late, officials said.

Lopez, 23, rushed Seanna Lopez to JFK Medical Center in Atlantis about three miles from his home west of Lake Worth, but she was pronounced dead at 2:50 p.m., Palm Beach County sheriff's spokesman Paul Miller said.

"About an hour later, he suddenly remembered the youngest child was out in the car," Miller said.

Seanna was found on the floorboard of the car, Miller said. There were no car seats in Lopez's Mitsubishi Galant, Miller said.

Lopez's neighbors on Canal Road were sympathetic toward him, though they did not know him well. Daylenis Suarez, who lives next door, said she saw the children playing in the garden area in front of the duplex on weekends. Lopez was always sitting on the front stoop, keeping a close watch on the kids, she said.

Lopez could not be reached for comment Monday despite a visit to his home, where a child's three-wheeler sat near the entryway and a Care Bears kite lay nearby.

Ana Rodriguez, another neighbor, said she saw Lopez outside Sunday talking to sheriff's deputies with his head buried in his hands. At one point, he let out an anguished cry and looked upward at the sky, she said.

Rodriguez has never said more than a polite hello to Lopez, but she was compelled to pick up a pamphlet about grieving for loved ones at her church Sunday and hopes to give it to Lopez when the time is right.

"What words are there?" Rodriguez said. "No words exist." Lopez looked inconsolable, she said.

"We're human," Rodriguez said. "These are things that happen. They're very sad, and they're very hard."

An investigation into Seanna's death is ongoing. An autopsy done Sunday concluded there was no trauma to the child's body, but a cause of death has not yet been determined pending toxicology tests. Investigators will forward their findings to the State Attorney's Office.

"These are tough cases," Miller said. "The parents are devastated. You're dealing with a grief situation. There are no witnesses, and we're dependent on the cooperation of the father."

Seanna's temperature was 108 degrees, Miller said. Heat stroke occurs when the body temperature reaches 104 degrees. A study published by the journal Pediatrics showed an internal vehicle temperature can reach 117 degrees within 60 minutes on a day when the temperature is 72 degrees. The high on Saturday was 80 degrees at noon in West Palm Beach, according to the National Weather Service.

Lopez typically cares for his children every weekend, Miller said. The children's mother, Oralia Brewster, 23, declined to comment Monday from her West Palm Beach apartment.

Similar cases in Palm Beach County in recent years have resulted in criminal charges and sentences ranging from 10 years' probation for two men who forgot about their loved ones in their cars to five years in prison for a woman who passed out in her car after taking drugs while her 4-month-old was in the backseat.

The Florida Department of Children & Families also is investigating Seanna's death, though DCF officials said they have had no prior case history with the child, said spokeswoman Marilyn Muñoz.

Nationally, there were 42 child hyperthermia deaths reported last year, said Janette Fennell, founder and president of the safety group Kids and Cars. The organization is lobbying for a bill pending in the U.S. Congress that would require automobile manufacturers to install driver reminder systems in cars, similar to alerts in cars that tell a driver when a key is left in the ignition.