Father on trial in death of baby boy in 2003

TAMPA — Tanya Gruce sometimes had to nag her boyfriend to do things, she said. So when she noticed their 4-month-old son's fever had gotten worse, she told Donald Dankert to take the baby to the pediatrician and called him three or four times to make sure he did.

The last time, she said, he got angry and hung up on her.

The next time he called was to tell her to get to the hospital as fast as she could. He wouldn't say why. "Just get here."

She arrived to find Dankert with his head on a table, crying.

Seven years later after many delays, she sat on a witness stand in Hillsborough court to testify in his first-degree murder trial.

That day at the hospital, she said, Dankert, 27, told her he was holding the baby when a dog barked and startled him.

The baby slipped out of his hands, and he jerked up his knee as if to break the fall. He said the baby cried in the car on the way to the hospital, but then stopped.

Prosecutors think there is more to the story.

Doctors said Dankert brought them a baby with no pulse, bruises, broken ribs and a punctured intestine. They said the baby must have been dealt a forceful blow. Some injuries were older, they said, and would have happened before the incident Dankert had described.

Gruce, 35, is charged with aggravated manslaughter, because prosecutors say she didn't immediately seek medical attention for their child. Dankert is charged with first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse. They are being tried separately.

His public defenders interrogated hospital personnel for the first part of Wednesday, about the length of time it took for the baby to be airlifted to another hospital and life-saving procedures that could have caused injuries to the baby.

A doctor and a nurse said the baby arrived at the hospital looking as battered as he did in his autopsy photos.

Then, prosecutor Jalal Harb questioned Gruce. She told him the baby had a fever, but was otherwise fine the last time she saw him that morning. He flashed photos of the baby's nursery, and the bloodstains she said she didn't notice that December 2003 day.

On the changing table, along with a stain, was a tiny shoe.

Gruce began to cry.

She said Dankert has never given her any other explanation for the baby's injuries, and that when they were in the hospital that day, he apologized.

"Did he apologize to you for dropping the baby," the prosecutor asked, "but also for hurting the baby?"

Gruce responded, "I think he meant it all around."

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Father on trial in death of baby boy in 2003 09/23/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 23, 2010 12:40am]

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