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Man gets prison time for leaving gun in reach of toddler

Ralph Ronzino, seated, speaks with his attorney, Christopher Frey, after being sentenced. Frey had requested house arrest.

STEPHEN J. CODDINGTON | Times

Ralph Ronzino, seated, speaks with his attorney, Christopher Frey, after being sentenced. Frey had requested house arrest.

NEW PORT RICHEY —The horror young MacKenzie Smith endured a little more than a year-and-a-half ago doesn't show on her face, or in her joy watching cartoons on her mother's cell phone.

Sitting outside a courtroom Friday in the West Pasco Judicial Center, the bubbly 3-year-old smiled and quickly professed her love for Mickey Mouse and SpongeBob SquarePants.

At that moment, she seemed to have no memory of the bullet that tore through her abdomen, and no understanding that inside the courtroom, the man who admitted to leaving a loaded gun on a nightstand learned he would be going to prison.

Circuit Judge Mary Handsel sentenced Ralph Ronzino, 23, to 2½ years in prison Friday; he had pleaded no contest in August to charges of culpable negligence and possession of marijuana. He faced up to 10 years in prison.

At the time of the March 26, 2010 shooting, Ronzino lived with MacKenzie and her mother, Jessica Smith, in a home on Freestone Lane in Port Richey.

Smith, 24, testified at Ronzino's sentencing that she heard a loud noise that morning and ran into the bedroom she shared with her boyfriend to check on her daughter. At first she didn't see the wound. Then she wrapped her arms around MacKenzie.

"That's when I saw the blood," she said.

Smith called 911. Ronzino returned home from the store to find law enforcement officers all over his front yard.

From the beginning, Ronzino cooperated with Pasco County Sheriff's Office investigators, admitting drugs and guns found in the home were his, Detective Anthony Bossone testified.

In addition to finding the .380-caliber pistol with which MacKenzie shot herself, detectives found an AK-47 and several loaded magazines for it, as well as two more handguns. Investigators also found 202 grams of marijuana, a digital scale with marijuana buds on it, and a ledger that indicated drug dealing, Assistant State Attorney Eric Rosario told the judge.

Ronzino told detectives he had taken the .380 out the night before the shooting after hearing what he thought was a gunshot outside. He put the gun on his nightstand and went to sleep.

Bossone testified that Ronzino told him he woke up, smoked marijuana, and went shopping at Walmart, leaving Jessica and MacKenzie at home.

While at the store he got a call from his girlfriend, who was hysterical with panic.

"She said MacKenzie had gotten a hold of a gun and shot herself," Ronzino said.

He had planned to marry Jessica, he told the judge. He loved MacKenzie even more than he loved his girlfriend, he said, and treated her as his own daughter.

"Now everything is washed away," Ronzino said.

Ronzino's attorney, Christopher Frey, asked Handsel to sentence his client to house arrest, saying he had expressed remorse. Frey also put blame on Jessica Smith for not keeping an eye on her child.

He said Smith told detectives "it's all my fault" and made other similar comments to them just after the shooting. Handsel, however, viewed that as a natural reaction.

"Any mother worth her salt would immediately say it's her fault," the judge said.

After the hearing, Smith sat with MacKenzie. She said she believes justice was served. Her focus, she said, is now on moving forward with her daughter.

Nightmares MacKenzie suffered after coming home from eight hours of surgery and six weeks in the hospital have eased, Smith said. But the little girl often talks of having been shot and shows off the scars on her belly.

She still endures severe stomach pain when she eats or drinktoo fast. And she will need more surgery to minimize the scars, Smith said.

"She's very happy,'' Smith said. "It's been tough, but she's getting better."

Man gets prison time for leaving gun in reach of toddler 10/14/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 14, 2011 9:15pm]
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