NEW PORT RICHEY
John Maccarelli awoke to a Pasco County sheriff's detective knocking on his door. What happened to the baby? Maccarelli, a 33-year-old construction worker renting a house in Holiday with his longtime girlfriend and her 9-year-old daughter, knew right away what Detective Janet Raybuck was talking about. Or so he thought. The night before, he had watched a 3-month-old named Joshua for an acquaintance. Sometime during the night, Lola, his 25-pound beagle, had jumped on the bed and scratched the baby across the nose, he said. It was upsetting, but he didn't think it would bring a detective to his door. Raybuck questioned him about the dog. A technician videotaped Lola jumping on the bed. The next day — Jan. 12, 2009 — the detective charged Maccarelli with aggravated child abuse. Joshua had been beaten. He was in serious condition at Helen Ellis Hospital in Tarpon Springs. A headline in the Tampa Tribune read, "Holiday Man Accused of Child Abuse Blamed Dog.'' Bloggers had their way with Maccarelli. It would get worse.
Maccarelli had been in trouble with the law before, but nothing like this. As a boy on Long Island, N.Y., he broke into a house and ended up with a juvenile record. As a man, he got busted a few times with marijuana.
"He liked to smoke marijuana,'' said his sister, Colleena Maccarelli of Salt Lake City.
Those run-ins with the law kept him from his dream of serving in the military, but he made a decent living in construction. About nine years ago, he drove to Fort Lauderdale from New York with his brother Dominick, met a young woman who worked at her dad's car dealership and decided to stay.
Kristina Velloso had a year-old daughter, Juliette. They grew close over the years. Juliette often called John "dad.''
In 2008, they moved to Holiday and took over a large house with a pool that a friend could no longer afford. John worked on construction projects at McDonald's restaurants around the area. Kristina took a job as a bartender at Diamonds Gentleman's Club in New Port Richey. Juliette went to Gulf Trace Elementary.
Just before Halloween, Kristina got a new boss — Joseph C. Wente. He was 27 and had an infant son. The mother didn't seem to be in the picture. "He said the woman had dropped the baby off,'' Velloso recalled. "But then he'd spin another story. We weren't really sure. We knew he was a bulls------, but we felt bad for the baby.''
Velloso said Wente would give her better shifts if she would watch Joshua. She bought a bassinet and other baby items. "The baby practically lived at our house,'' she said. "He was a great baby. We fell in love with him.''
On Jan. 10, Wente asked Velloso to watch Joshua. She had to work, but volunteered Maccarelli. Juliette also stayed home that night.
"John sent me a text message that the dog had jumped in the bed and scratched the baby,'' Velloso said. "He said he put the dog in the cage. It was just a little scratch, but John was really freaked out. I got away from the bar at about 2:15. Joey had already picked up the baby and left. John was relieved Joey wasn't mad at him. When Joey left, he just said, 'Don't worry about it; things happen.' ''
Detective Raybuck said Wente told her he picked up Joshua at 3:30 a.m. The baby was strapped in a car seat and covered with a blanket. Wente said he didn't move the blanket to check his son. He stopped at McDonald's and drove to his home in Tarpon Springs. At 4:30 a.m., Wente told the detective, he was watching TV and eating when he decided to check on Joshua. He saw blood on the baby's face and drove him to the hospital, arriving at 5:09 a.m.
• • •
Velloso posted the $10,000 bail. She called Wente.
"He said the doctor called the police, not him,'' she recalled. "He said, 'I told them you were good people.' ''
Velloso thought that was weird. "I have a kid,'' she said, "and if she was hurt, I'd want to kill that person.''
But over the next several weeks, she said, Wente kept in contact, wanting to be friends. She stored several text messages from him and offered to show them to the detective. "She wasn't interested,'' Velloso said. "It seemed like we were a bother to her.'
"They didn't even go to his house to see how he lived,'' Velloso said. "It didn't seem to cross anyone's mind that there was a 21/2-hour time frame'' between the time Wente picked up Joshua and the time he took him to the hospital.
Word spread quickly about Maccarelli's arrest. He couldn't get work. Juliette's friends from school no longer were allowed to visit her house. "I couldn't believe we were living this nightmare,'' said Velloso, 27.
Then, in November, they were shocked by a news report from across the state. Authorities in Brevard County said Wente had murdered Joshua's 3-year-old sister, Kataryn Johnson.
At 3 a.m. Nov. 6, Shannon Elizabeth Johnson returned home from her job as an exotic dancer at a Cocoa Beach nightclub and found Kataryn unconscious on a couch. As she raced to a hospital, Melbourne police pulled her over and arranged for the girl to be airlifted to Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and Women in Orlando. Wente beat Kataryn's head, authorities said.
Brevard investigators said Wente might have been disciplining the child over a broken plate. Wente had been an ex-boyfriend, but recently had moved back in with Johnson, 32, also known as "Ocien.'' They had Joshua together and she has two other sons, ages 13 and 9. Johnson did not comment for this story, but on her MySpace page, she said her three surviving children are living with her mother while she has counseling and "a case plan in order to regain custody.''
It was not clear late last week how Joshua has progressed from his injuries. When Maccarelli was arrested, a doctor said the baby would suffer permanent disfigurement.
Records show this is not the first time Wente has been in trouble with the law. He spent time in the Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio for numerous convictions of burglary, theft and possession of drugs, most recently in 2003.
When the state attorney's office in Pasco County learned of the murder charge, it dropped the case against Maccarelli — three days after Christmas.
"There was no way we could proceed after that,'' said Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis, supervisor in the New Port Richey office. But he defended the decision to charge Maccarelli.
"We were bothered by the statement about the dog,'' he said. And a doctor's opinion that the baby had been beaten before 3:30 a.m. was an important consideration, he said. (Late Friday, Velloso said that Wente picked up Joshua no later than 2:15 a.m.)
A month before the state dropped the case, Assistant Public Defender Asma Ali questioned Raybuck for a deposition for trial.
"That night, why had you not suspected the father of doing anything to this child?'' Ali asked.
Raybuck, a 19-year veteran deputy, replied that Wente had sole custody of Joshua for at least the past two months and that there were no healed fractures or evidence of previous injuries.
"He was a fine, healthy baby boy,'' the detective said.
Velloso said that was because she and Maccarelli took care of him.
"I will never understand why that detective didn't focus more on Joey,'' she said. "I mean, we were living in a nice house and doing well. He was in a house with no furniture and two pit bulldogs running around. The baby was always in a car seat.''
• • •
A man accused of child abuse was now free because of another brutal attack on a child.
Maccarelli, Velloso and Juliette moved back to the Fort Lauderdale area. "He was very relieved when they dropped the case,'' said his sister, Colleena, "but still depressed. We thought he was just really mellow, but now we realize it was a very deep depression.''
He did seem to be planning a future. Velloso said he had qualified for the French Foreign Legion and planned to sell his van and about $1,000 worth of tools to pay for passage. But on Jan. 27, somebody stole the tag off his van and it was towed.
"It was like the last straw,'' Velloso said.
That evening, she and Juliette visited Velloso's grandmother, who was dying at a hospice. When they got home, Velloso opened the front door.
"I could see John right away,'' she said. "Juliette started screaming. I ran to get a knife and cut him down while Juliette called 911. I tried CPR but it was too late.''
John Maccarelli had hanged himself with Lola's leash.
"I try to block it from my mind,'' Velloso said Friday. "It's the only way I can function. I feel like I'm about to have a nervous breakdown.
"John deserved better.''
Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Bill Stevens is the North Suncoast editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (727) 869-6250.