NEW PORT RICHEY — Leann Rodriguez found the strength Wednesday to calmly tell jurors about finding her baby nearly four years ago with limp limbs, gasping for air in the lap of his father.
But her 911 call on Sept. 30, 2008, revealed the horror of giving her then-2-month-old son, Lukuz, CPR in a desperate attempt to get him breathing. Prosecutors played Rodriguez's call as part of an effort to prove Jonathan Gelb had earlier shaken his son, causing his brain to bleed and breaking bones in his leg.
Left with serious brain damage, Lukuz, now 3, cannot see, eat without a tube, walk or talk. Gelb, 28, is on trial this week on a charge of aggravated child abuse. If convicted, he faces up to 30 years in prison. The trial is expected to last two more days.
"He's (Lukuz) not running around, he's not playing with kids, he's not building sand castles," Assistant State Attorney Eva Vergos told jurors in her opening statement. "That man (Gelb) hurt him so badly that his head started to bleed internally, that part of his skull had to be removed."
The trial got off to a dramatic start, with Rodriguez taking the stand and describing leaving their apparently healthy baby with Gelb, then her boyfriend, and going to work. About 8:30 p.m., she rushed to their Port Richey home after Gelb called saying she needed to come home because Lukuz was "twitching."
Rodriguez wiped tears from her eyes as jurors then heard the frantic 911 call she made. A dispatcher talked her through giving CPR to her baby, alternating two breaths with 30 chest pumps.
"Is he breathing?" the dispatcher asked.
"No, he's basically lying here lifeless," Rodriguez responded, crying.
"Let me know if his breathing gets better," the dispatcher said as the mother conducted CPR.
"Nothing," Rodriguez wept.
Gelb, who sat in the courtroom at a desk next to his attorneys, at one point put the palm of his hand to his forehead as he listened to the tape.
Rodriguez said after that terrible day she stopped using her son's nickname: "Lucky."
"Listening to that call was the hardest thing I have ever had to do," Rodriguez said outside the courtroom after testifying Wednesday. "I can mostly get that day to stay out of my head. But that just brought it all back."
Assistant public defender William Pura told jurors that authorities set their sights on blaming Gelb because he had been the only adult with the baby that day.
But with no witnesses or outward signs of trauma, Pura argued, other factors may have been involved in Lukuz's health problems — including a heart condition Lukuz was born with that may have caused a stroke, the attorney suggested.
Pura also told jurors a breathing tube was incorrectly placed by paramedics in Lukuz's esophagus, instead of his trachea, during initial rescue efforts.
"It's terrible. It's horrible," Pura said of the baby's injuries. "But you won't hear any evidence that Mr. Gelb did this."
Doctors later in the day testified Lukuz showed signs of shaken-baby syndrome and his injuries appeared to be "highly suspicious."
Outside the courtroom, Rodriguez reflected on the only time she smiled during her testimony. Vergos had asked her about the rare times Lukuz smiles or even giggles.
"The giggles don't come out very often, but when they do, they make you melt," Rodriguez said. "I'm just glad for every day I have with him."
Taking care of her son is difficult. Lukuz goes to Northwest Elementary School in Hudson, where Rodriguez now lives. Not only can he not move, but he must wear a helmet at all times to protect his head where doctors had to remove part of his skull.
Lukuz's fourth birthday will be this summer, a blessing because Rodriguez said doctors have told her they are surprised he has survived as long as he has. She said she will never know exactly what happened to her son.
"I don't know. I wasn't there," Rodriguez said. "All I know is, I just want justice for my son."