Infants' death in SUV looks to be accidental

While awaiting test results, investigators suspect man simply forgot about 2 kids

Sunday, August 17, 2003

BY GUY STERLING AND RUDY LARINI

Star-Ledger Staff

An East Orange postal worker was released on bail yesterday while investigators awaited test results on the deaths of his two infant sons, who were left in the back seat of the family SUV during Friday's midday heat, authorities said.

Derrick Strothers, 38, was charged by the Essex County Prosecutor's Office with two counts of aggravated manslaughter and child endangerment in the deaths of his and his wife's only children, 2-year-old Derrick Jr. and 1-year-old Dylan, county authorities said.

He was released from Essex County Jail on $100,000 bail.

Investigators said Strothers may have accidentally left the boys strapped in their car seats in his 1993 Pathfinder for two hours or more while he was working at his post office job Friday afternoon.

"We're still investigating exactly what happened, but maybe he literally forgot he had them with him," said Howard Zuckerman, the assistant Essex County prosecutor assigned to the case. "That's what we're trying to figure out."

East Orange 4th Ward Councilman Zachary Turner, who has known Strothers for three years, said, "He made a horrible mistake. I don't know why he would do anything like that."

Zuckerman put the time the boys were in the Pathfinder from about 12:30 p.m. until 3 p.m. Authorities said the windows of the sport utility vehicle were shut during those hours. The National Weather Service reported temperatures in the area at close to 90 degrees between 3 and 4 p.m.

"It does appear from our initial investigation this was a tragic accident, but we need to be very careful that there are no other reasons to be concerned," added assistant prosecutor Carolyn Wright, acting chief of the Essex County office's homicide squad.

Medical examiners were still running tests yesterday and would not have a cause of death until Tuesday, Wright said. She said an examination of the boys' bodies turned up no sign of previous trauma.

The family has no history of problems with the state Division of Youth and Family Services, Wright said. DYFS representatives showed up at East Orange police headquarters Friday to discuss the deaths with investigators.

"We know what killed them: being in a hot car for two to three hours, from the looks of things," said Zuckerman.

Authorities said Strothers had dropped off his wife, Leah, at her job in Union before driving to the East Orange post office, where he is a customer service supervisor. He has been with the postal service for 15 years, with most of that time in Montclair.

Sometime before 4 p.m., Strothers drove to the front of a medical building affiliated with the East Orange Hospital and banged on the door for help. Emergency service workers found the boys dead in their car seats.

A half-hour later, the bodies were removed from the car by the Essex County Medical Examiner's Office.

Police interviewed Strothers' wife Friday evening, said Wright.

Turner said he has known Strothers from the customer service window at the main post office at Main Street/City Hall Plaza, next door to City Hall and adjacent to the East Orange police headquarters on North Munn Avenue.

'He's a pretty nice guy," Turner said. "He's friendly. I just feel bad that something like this happened to him and his family."

Turner said of the loss of the two babies, "It has touched so many people, and you have mothers and grown men who have broken down in tears because of this.

"To think how these infants must have suffered, it brings tears to my eyes. I just hope God will forgive him. Those kids didn't even get a chance to experience life at all."

Kids and Cars, a national group that raises awareness about dangers facing children, said the deaths brought to 32 the number of children who have died in suffocating car conditions this year.

In 2001, there were 34 such deaths, and last year there were 30, said Jannette Fennell, the organization's founder and president. A change in a parent's or a caregiver's routine is the cause cited most often in the fatalities, she added.

"What we don't do is call these situations 'freak accidents,' because they happen all the time," said Fennell, interviewed by telephone from her home in Kansas City, Mo.

To avoid such tragedies, Kids and Care suggested that drivers put a teddy bear or some other object in the front passenger seat as a reminder they have children in the car with them.