NEW PORT RICHEY — Before he was sentenced to 30 years in prison, Jonathan Gelb stood at the front of the courtroom and proclaimed his innocence.
"I didn't abuse you," Gelb said Friday to his son, Lukuz, who was hurt so severely that he is in a permanent vegetative state. He was in the courtroom Friday. Lukuz, nearly 4, cannot see, walk, talk or feed himself. He wears a helmet to protect his head. He is so fragile, his family says, he could die any day.
A jury decided last month that Gelb, now 28, was the one who hurt his son and convicted Gelb of aggravated child abuse. Gelb had been watching Lukuz, then 2 months old, on Sept. 30, 2008, when he called the baby's mother and said she needed to come home because Lukuz was twitching. When Leann Rodriguez got to their Port Richey home, she found the infant gasping for air. Doctors said Lukuz's brain was bleeding and he had leg fractures — new and old ones. Experts testified Lukuz's injuries were consistent with shaken baby syndrome.
"I hope some day you can look at yourself and know what you did was wrong," Rodriguez said in court, looking at Gelb as she spoke.
Gelb said he was guilty only of not immediately calling 911 when he noticed his son was in distress.
"Lukuz, we are all people," he said. "We all make mistakes."
He was adamant that he didn't cause the boy's injuries. Gelb, who has been in the Pasco jail since his arrest in December 2009, said he has a photo of his son with him in his cell. He said he loves Lukuz.
"What is the answer to my son's condition?" Gelb said. "I still don't know. But I am going to do everything I can to find out why my son is the way he is today."
He plans to appeal the conviction.
Gelb could have gotten as little as seven years in prison. The maximum was 30 years. "If I had more to ask, I would," said Assistant State Attorney Eva Vergos.
She said Lukuz's family feels thankful the boy survived. But Gelb caused "irreparable harm."
Lukuz "certainly is not enjoying the quality of life that a 4-year-old child should be enjoying," Vergos said.
Circuit Judge Mary Handsel gave Gelb the maximum — 30 years. Handsel spoke of how Gelb said he is searching for answers.
"Those answers lie in him and him alone," Handsel said. "Only he knows what happened."
She spoke of how Gelb professed love for Lukuz.
"In this particular case, it's obvious your frustration overcame your love," she said.
Rodriguez, 31, said she didn't believe Gelb's statements.
"He can deny it all he wants, but it's not going to change anything," said Rodriguez, who now lives in Hudson.
Lukuz needs constant care, she said, and will for the rest of his life. She said he recognizes his name. He likes to cuddle. The other day she was kissing his cheek, and he smiled and giggled. She lives for those moments, that connection with her son. She is trying to tell her son's story, to increase awareness about shaken baby syndrome. She doesn't want other children to go through what her son has.
"People make mistakes," she said of what Gelb did to their boy. "But this is a mistake that will never be forgiven."