Baby left in car 7 hours dies

Mother of 13-month-old girl charged with neglect.

May 14, 2003

 

     The last time Christopher Johnson held his daughter, her limp body felt hot in his arm. Her skin was blue. Foam had collected around the sides of her tiny mouth.

     His 13-month-old child would die about an hour later from extreme dehydration -- the result of having been left for more than seven hours Tuesday in a car while her mother lay asleep in the house.

     Police on Wednesday charged Amie R. Price, 27, Hanna Johnson's mother, with a Class B felony of neglect resulting in death. She could serve a maximum prison sentence of 20 years if convicted.

     On the day of her arrest, police recorded Price's blood-alcohol level at 0.21 -- more than twice the state's threshold for drunken driving. And they found antidepressants and what they suspect to be marijuana seeds, cocaine and methamphetamine around the house.

     Price has been released on a $25,000 bond, said Johnson County Sheriff Terry McLaughlin.

     This case is emblematic of a rising number of substance abuse-related child fatalities in Indiana, according to Andrea Marshall, executive director of the nonprofit group Prevent Child Abuse Indiana.

     "What happened to this little girl is tragic," she said. "And unfortunately, in Indiana, it's not isolated."

     From 1999 to 2001, 159 children statewide died from abuse or neglect, according to the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration. Last year, 70 children -- enough to fill three kindergarten classes -- perished as the result of abuse or neglect involving their caregivers.

     Though it does not keep specific data on the number of neglect cases as a result of alcohol abuse, the agency did report 13,590 substantiated abuse and neglect cases statewide in 2002.

     "It's very commonly accepted that you don't drink and drive," Marshall said. "It should be as commonly accepted that you don't drink and supervise your child."

     Before this, Price had prior arrests for check deception and drug possession. She lives with Johnson, 30, a dump truck driver, police said.

     Price started binge drinking Monday night, police said.

     At 5:30 the next morning, Patty Price, Amie's mother, picked up Hanna because Amie had been drinking heavily, police said. Around 11 a.m., Amie drove to her mother's home in rural Johnson County to get Hanna and returned home.

     Patty Price declined to comment.

     Amie Price's next-door neighbor Harold Burkhart told The Indianapolis Star he talked to her about 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, and she appeared sober then.

     "She talked fine to me," Burkhart said. "I didn't see a darn thing wrong with her."

     A few hours later, Hanna's brother, Christian, got off the school bus at the family's brick house.

     His mother was in the bathroom. Christian called out to her, asking where his baby sister was, police reports state. Price said she didn't know and retreated to the bedroom, where she laid down and fell asleep.

     At 6:30 p.m., the children's father, Christopher Johnson, walked up the driveway, passing the family car.

     First he noticed a prescription drug bottle on the driveway next to the car.

     Then he peered into the window. Amie had forgotten to lock the car. She'd forgotten her purse, which was still open on the front seat.

     And she had forgotten her daughter, leaving her belted into a baby carrier in the back seat.

     Johnson lifted Hanna from the car and ran into the house to call 911.

     In a recording of the emergency call obtained by The Star, Johnson begged the dispatch officer to help him save his daughter.

     "I just got home from work, and my baby girl was in the car," Johnson cried to the dispatch officer. "She's not breathing. Oh my God."

     Johnson handed the phone to Price so he could start cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

     "Ma'am, can you hear me?" the dispatch officer asked. "I need you to listen to me."

     "Yeah," Price responded.

     The dispatcher told her to slide her hand under the baby's neck and check for vomit in her mouth.

     "Ma'am, are you still there?"

     For more than a minute, silence.

     "I need to explain CPR," the dispatcher tried again.

     By the time Hanna reached the hospital, she was dead.

     Price later told police she didn't remember going anywhere that day and didn't remember putting Hanna in the car.

     Police took Price's blood and urine samples to check for drug use.

     Johnson, who could not be reached for comment and is not a suspect in the case, has custody of his son, police said.

     An autopsy revealed that Hanna suffered extreme dehydration.

     Being confined in a hot space without water, food and inadequate air circulation caused her to dehydrate, doctors at Community Hospital South found.

     Dehydration caused Hanna's pulse to change rapidly and her breathing to weaken.

     Eventually, her vital functions began shutting down.

     When she died, Hanna's body temperature had reached 106, the hospital said.

     "Children can get dehydrated more quickly than adults because their bodies are smaller," said Roberta Hibbard, a physician at Riley Hospital for Children.

     "When adults dehydrate, they can get out of a situation -- like a hot, locked car --themselves. Children are helpless."

Johnson County Child Protection Services officials would not divulge whether Price and Johnson ever have been investigated for neglect charges.