2 Children Left in Hot Vehicle Die

The boys were forgotten for five hours in an SUV outside a Lancaster day-care center. They were the foster sons of the facility's owner.

By Wendy Thermos and Monte Morin

Times Staff Writers


July 9, 2003


Two children died of heat exposure Tuesday when they were left for five hours in a sport utility vehicle outside a day-care center in Lancaster as temperatures reached 100 degrees, authorities said.


The boys, 3 and 5, were the foster children of the day-care center's owner, Leslie Smoot, who at first told police that a miscommunication led to their being left in the Cadillac Escalade.


"She indicated she thought someone else would take them out of the vehicle," said Sheriff's Lt. Al Grotefend. Later, he said, "She indicated that she forgot to take them out of the car." He said that Smoot, 48, was "distraught, hysterical."


Emergency crews were called to A Child's Place at the corner of Fig and J avenues at 2 p.m. When they arrived, the children had been moved to a rear patio area of the center.


The older boy was dead. The younger one died half an hour later at Antelope Valley Medical Center, according to the Sheriff's Department.


Smoot told deputies that she and the boys had arrived at the center she runs with her husband about 9 a.m. She was unsure, she initially said, about whether she had thought her husband or an employee would bring the boys inside, Grotefend said. She returned to the car five hours later and discovered the bodies on the floor, he said. The older boy apparently had unstrapped the younger one from his car seat.


Smoot was taken to the sheriff's Lancaster station Tuesday night. Investigators were continuing to question her because of her conflicting explanations of the incident, Grotefend said. He said it was unclear whether she would face criminal charges, which could range from child endangerment to manslaughter.


Her biological child and another foster child were removed from her custody, Grotefend said.


Employees at the center would not talk about what had happened.


"We're dealing with a terrible tragedy here," said a woman who answered the telephone at the day-care center. "We're not giving stories to anybody."


Michelle Loar, a former neighbor who happened to be visiting a friend several doors away, said, "It's so preventable. It's just crazy to leave your kids in a car in the middle of summer."


Next-door neighbor Eldrin Waid, 67, described the owners of the day-care center as close friends and "real nice people" and said that they "take the kids out of the car every day the very first thing after they arrive."


The SUV was parked in a lot about 40 feet from the center, a converted single-family home of yellow stucco with a bright green door. Several trees rise more than 30 feet in the tidy frontyard, but the shade does not reach the parking lot, which can accommodate about 20 cars.


During the day, about 35 children attend the center, which operates around the clock and is co-owned by Smoot's husband, Larry. It was closed after the deaths.


Naeenah Edwards, 23, of Lancaster said her daughter has attended for three years but "is not going back."


The deaths were the first reported cases of hyperthermia in Southern California this year, according to 4 R Kids Sake, a nonprofit organization in Corona that tracks incidents of hyperthermia and promotes awareness of its risks.


"Summer brings the worst of these cases," said Laura Petersen, the group's co-founder. "The majority of them occur in July and August."


Last July, a 3-year-old Fontana girl was found dead in her father's van after he left her unattended for about four hours in 102-degree heat. The father had unloaded groceries and fallen asleep in the house.


The same week, a Hacienda Heights woman left her 4-month-old son in a car for more than seven hours. He died.


Last June, a 5-month-old San Francisco girl died in a car when her grandfather forgot her.


In 2001, a Simi Valley woman was sentenced to a year in county jail after her sons, a 3-year-old and a 13-month-old, died in a sweltering van in the family's driveway. Marlene Heath, 40, had fallen asleep in the house after drinking wine. Also that year, a 3-year-old died in Rialto after her foster mother left her in the car.


A study conducted by San Francisco State University's department of geosciences found that when cars are in direct sunlight, temperatures inside can increase more than 50 degrees within an hour and reach 140 degrees when the outside temperature is 96.


It is illegal in California to leave a child age 6 or under unattended in a vehicle.


According to the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety and 4 R Kids Sake, at least 30 children died last year from heat stroke when they became trapped or were left in parked cars.