TAMPA — A late-night escape to play video games as his toddlers roamed a motel hallway alone landed a Tampa father in prison for two years Monday.
Lavon Rowells must also serve five years of probation after prison, during which he can see his children only if child protection officials say so, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Wayne Timmerman ordered.
Rowells, 24, and his wife, Christina, 26, both pleaded guilty to two counts of child neglect and were scheduled to be sentenced together. But for the second time, Christina Rowells didn't show up.
Timmerman issued a warrant for her arrest when she failed to appear for sentencing July 21. He said that if authorities don't arrest her within 30 days, he intends to sentence her in her absence.
"She'd better have something good to say," Timmerman warned, expecting an explanation of her whereabouts.
Assistant State Attorney Daniel Amparo said Christina Rowells has a history of not showing up for court. Timmerman wanted to know who decided to release her from jail pending sentence. "You did," Amparo replied.
Prosecutors said the couple left their sick 2- and 3-year-old children alone for at least four hours at the Roadway Inn on Fowler Avenue the night of May 3 and the morning of May 4, 2008.
Amparo said the husband dropped his wife off at a strip club to work, then got bored at the motel and went back to visit her while their children slept unattended.
After Christina Rowells got off work, they went to Kentucky Fried Chicken, then to a friend's house to play the video game Grand Theft Auto, Amparo said.
Rowells said Monday for the first time in court that that was a lie crafted by his wife. The couple have filed for divorce and haven't spoken in some time, his attorney said. A police officer testified that Lavon Rowells told him he had gone to play video games, and a prosecutor said the defendant told a child protection investigator the same story
Lavon Rowells' grandmother said she wished the two had never married.
She testified that the couple met while attending Brewster Technical Center, where the grandmother taught.
"My staff and I did everything we could to discourage this relationship," Barbara Kelly said. "This young lady was constant trouble, trouble, trouble."
She said the school staff once found Christina Rowells in the boys bathroom.
"I don't put all the blame on her," Kelly said. "I've stood with students in court, but I've never thought I would have to stand with my grandson."
Lavon Rowells testified that he and his wife had an unstable living situation, so relatives had taken in their children. The weekend of their arrest, they had just gotten their children back and planned to move into a new apartment within days.
Instead, another resident at the motel found the children roaming the halls alone.
The little boy had a stomach virus and the girl had been vomiting.
Vanessa Nye, Lavon Rowells' attorney, called his actions "horrible, irresponsible and ignorant" but said she believed what happened was an isolated incident.
Toni Collins, Lavon Rowells' aunt, has custody of his now 3-year-old son and an 8-month-old daughter born after the incident. Attorneys said Christina Rowells was pregnant at the time of her arrest on child neglect charges.
The eldest child, now 4, lives with her maternal grandmother.
"I don't think he's a criminal," Collins told the judge. "He just made a mistake."
Kevin Graham can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.