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Citrus Park couple indicted in death of 3-year-old boy

TAMPA — Half a year ago, a father and his girlfriend were charged with aggravated child abuse and neglect on 3-year-old John Taylor Baxley.

He suffered injuries the last six weeks of his life inflicted for no other purpose, deputies said, than to cause him pain.

The toddler died in August, but prosecutors waited for medical reports before charging Justin Garwacki, 26, and Kara O'Connell, 21, with the death.

On Thursday, prosecutors stepped up the charge after a grand jury indicted them for first-degree murder.

The two have remained in a Hillsborough County jail since their August arrest.

The boy, brought from Missouri where his mother lives, had been living with his father and O'Connell in Citrus Park the month before he died.

In that time, according to an affidavit, little John suffered ongoing abuse.

Garwacki said he hit his son with a "cupped" hand on the head, face, stomach, legs and genital area, a detective wrote in an affidavit. He also poured water over the boy's head in the bathtub to teach him how to hold his breath, and when John didn't do it properly, Garwacki told investigators he struck the boy on the head. The boy fell and hit his head on the tub.

The couple filled a sock with uncooked rice and heated it in the microwave, the affidavit says. They put it on the bruise, but that burned the boy's forehead. The gaping wound went untreated.

O'Connell admitted to detectives she hit the boy hard enough to cause bruising and picked him up off the floor by his throat, the affidavit says. She said she did it because he didn't listen to her, and that she knew hitting the boy was "excessive and wrong."

On the day the boy died, his father hit him on the face, stomach and genital area because he was not eating properly, the affidavit says. Garwacki told a detective he was frustrated when he pulled his son's chair from under him and the boy fell to the floor with a "thud."

Later in the day, after the boy had eaten a Nutri-Grain bar and had some juice, he began to vomit, the affidavit says. O'Connell told investigators she put the boy into the bathtub and he stopped breathing.

Garwacki called 911.

Authorities arrived to find bruises across his body, a bite mark on his calf, an arm that appeared to be broken and a child that would not survive.

The boy was pronounced dead at St. Joseph's Hospital.

The couple's arraignment on the new charges is scheduled for Tuesday.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at or (813) 226-3354.

Citrus Park couple indicted in death of 3-year-old boy 02/03/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 3, 2011 11:08pm]
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