While awaiting trial in child's death, Florida man accused of abusing another

TAMPA — A baby boy died in 2003. An investigator called it one of the worst cases he'd ever seen. Prosecutors charged the father.

But Donald Dankert has yet to face a jury.

The Hillsborough court case has been plagued by routine obstacles that often slow justice, though seldom so chronically.

Dankert, out on bail, continued to live his life — until freedom put him in the path of another child.

In 2008, he moved in with a Clearwater woman who left him alone with her 2-year-old girl. The toddler wound up in the hospital, injured. Authorities said Dankert choked her.

Two court cases now flank the bay, both nearing resolution. A Pinellas child abuse trial is scheduled for October.

And a Tampa murder trial will begin Monday.

Hillsborough lawyers have fought over every piece of evidence — which gruesome photos to use, what details to exclude.

Jurors will hear only a sliver of it all.

Court documents and interviews tell more.

• • •

When Dankert showed up at the hospital that day, his infant son had no pulse.

The 20-year-old stay-at-home father offered an explanation.

He said he was holding his 4-month-old son Dylan when a dog barked. Startled, Dankert dropped the baby, and then jerked up his leg as if to break the fall.

Afterward, there was something off about the baby's eyes.

Doctors revived Dylan and spent hours trying to stabilize him. But after 7 p.m. on Dec. 19, 2003, he took his last breath.

Eleven days later, Dankert and the baby's mother, Tanya Gruce, were charged with aggravated manslaughter.

Police rattled off a list of the child's injuries — lacerated intestine, bruised head, broken ribs. A medical examiner said the boy was dealt a forceful blow to the abdomen, which would have happened earlier than the incident Dankert described. Necrosis had set in by the time the boy arrived at the hospital. There had to be more to the story.

Prosecutors blamed the parents for not immediately seeking medical care. They did not initially bring a murder charge. But at a January 2004 bail hearing, a prosecutor told of the baby's "indescribably horrible death."

Defense attorneys talked about a difficult childbirth, in which nurses had to push on Gruce's abdomen to force the baby out. They said some injuries came later, from attempts to save the child after the fall.

Gruce had no criminal record. Dankert had no adult convictions. They'd never been investigated for child abuse. Not even prosecutors asked a judge to deny bail, which was set at $100,000 for each parent.

"We still live in America, where people are presumed innocent until proven guilty," said Dankert's then-attorney Anthony Arena.

"Everybody wants to think a judge can have a crystal ball and predict what someone can do in the future."

• • •

In April 2008, Dankert stood in a Clearwater apartment kitchen, throwing things and cursing at a child protective investigator and a cop, court records say. They were there about a new child, a new charge.

"Nothing happened!" Dankert said.

But much had happened.

His Hillsborough manslaughter case had spent years crawling through the system, obstacles getting in the way of progress:

The medical examiner moved out of town. Dankert couldn't afford his lawyer. The public defender inherited the case. Gruce's lawyer died. A new one took over. Gruce became a state witness. She got cancer.

The trial kept getting pushed back. Meanwhile, in January 2008, Dankert met a woman.

Selena Vesey had three kids when Dankert moved into her Clearwater apartment. By the end of March, she was pregnant with his son.

A couple of weeks later, her own 2-year-old daughter was in the hospital with strange injuries — a bruise on her neck, scratches, and spots on her face called petechia that may form when blood flow is restricted.

The girl had been choked, a doctor determined. Investigators said they got conflicting statements from her mother and Dankert.

At first, both said they were home when they heard the girl scream, rushed into her room and saw her bright red face.

Later, the mother remembered she had taken her son to school that morning. Dankert contradicted her, saying he had taken the boy to school. He conceded. But investigators made note.

"It was like he didn't put himself alone there with the child," Clearwater Detective Sharon Imray said in a sworn statement.

Dankert ended up in a Pinellas jail, charged with aggravated child abuse. Shortly thereafter, Hillsborough prosecutors upped his 2003 charge to first-degree murder, and after that, Dankert got no more bail.

He remains behind bars.

• • •

During this week's Hillsborough murder trial, jurors won't hear about the Clearwater girl with the marks on her face. Or what that girl's father says about the man he believes tried to hurt her.

"Makes me sick to my stomach that he even got out," Shawn Vesey said of Dankert.

Jurors also won't know Dankert has had an unexpected ally since his Pinellas accusation — the girl's mother.

"I've been with him the entire time he's been in jail," Selena Vesey told the St. Petersburg Times. "He's a great guy. … The only thing he's ever wanted is to have a family and to take care of it." She said she doesn't believe Dankert hurt her daughter. She saw him around her kids, she said. He never raised his voice. She said those marks were a rash, and that her daughter still gets them.

"Everybody who knows Donny knows he's sitting there on innocent charges," she said.

Prosecutors declined to comment on the cases. Attorneys for Dankert and Gruce did not make their clients available for interviews.

In a courtroom Tuesday, at the last hearing before his trial, Dankert watched as lawyers and a judge examined evidence photos to figure out which were too gruesome.

"The photographs show too much," the defense said.

"These injuries are relevant," the prosecution argued.

"If there's too much of this," the judge said, "it could become overwhelming to the jury."

The judge held up a large photo of a tiny, dead baby boy — Dankert's son.

Dankert's face tightened and turned red. His eyes grew wet.

A bailiff handed him a paper towel.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

While awaiting trial in child's death, Florida man accused of abusing another 09/18/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 18, 2010 10:51pm]

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