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Autopsy says 8½-foot python asphyxiated 2-year-old girl

OXFORD — An autopsy Thursday confirmed what happened early Wednesday in a crib in a child's bedroom in this rural Sumter County community: 2-year-old Shaiunna Hare was crushed to death by her family's pet python.

"Death by asphyxiation," sheriff's spokesman Lt. Bobby Caruthers said.

The questions now: Whose fault was it? And will criminal charges be filed?

Shaiunna lived in a tiny, tan, single-story house with her mother, Jaren Ashley Hare, 19, and her mother's boyfriend, Charles Jason Darnell, 32, and Darnell's two children, 12 and 7.

On Wednesday morning, Darnell woke up and noticed the 8½-foot albino Burmese python missing from its terrarium, discovered it coiled around the toddler's body and stabbed the snake with a knife and a meat cleaver before making a tearful, panicky 911 call. Shaiunna died at the scene.

The autopsy showed one snake bite on her upper right arm, another on her upper left arm and a third on her forehead. Darnell and Hare told investigators that the snake had last been fed about two to four weeks ago. A wildlife official said the snake "didn't appear malnourished."

The snake is still alive after being treated by a vet, Caruthers said, and is being kept as evidence at an "undisclosed, permitted facility."

It "looks like it's going to make it," said Gary Morse, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The focus now shifts to Darnell and Hare and whether one or both of them could face criminal charges in her daughter's death.

State law says a python has to be registered. This one wasn't. State law says a python needs to be kept in a container with a lock. This one wasn't.

Darnell and Hare haven't talked to reporters. A portrait of the pair, though, began to emerge Thursday through documents from the Sumter County Sheriff's Office and the state Department of Children and Families.

In May, in two incidents, Darnell was arrested and charged with driving with a suspended license, possession of cocaine and pain pills, and criminal mischief. He was accused of ripping a mirror off his ex-wife's car.

That same month someone called in a complaint to DCF, saying the couple were regular drug users and neglected the children in their home.

After Wednesday's attack, DCF removed the two other children from the home, DCF spokeswoman Carrie Hoeppner said.

• • •

For all the talk about pythons in Florida, their invasive presence in the Everglades, the ecological threat they pose, this attack was a first. Until this week, officials said, no python had killed a person in this state.

"Are these animals dangerous? To some people," said Eugene Bassette, who breeds and sells snakes at his farm near Gainesville.

"It's safe to keep a python as a pet," he said, "no more risky than having a Great Dane."

But pet pythons have killed people elsewhere around the country.

An 8-footer killed a 1-year-old boy in 1982 in Nevada. An 11-footer killed a 15-year-old boy in 1993 in Colorado. A 7-footer killed a 3-year-old girl in 1999 in Illinois.

A 2001 incident in Irwin, Pa., though, most resembles this case and seems instructive as to what could happen now. An 8-year-old girl was home alone with her family's pet python when it strangled her. Her parents were charged with involuntary manslaughter.

The mother pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of child endangerment. The father went to trial, where his defense attorney, Sidney Sokolsky, argued that the girl could have let the snake out of the cage. The prosecutor, Wayne Gongaware, said that shouldn't matter: Merely having a python as a pet, and leaving the girl unsupervised, was reckless and negligent, which made the death manslaughter.

The judge's decision: The man was guilty of misdemeanor child endangerment but not manslaughter.

"The snake was a pet, and the girl had played with the snake before," Sokolsky said Thursday.

Gongaware's counterargument: "A snake is so powerful, so dangerous, that if you don't contain that dangerous animal, and that animal kills your child, that's criminal negligence."

In the Florida case, Darnell has been charged with a second-degree misdemeanor for having an unregistered python. Additional charges in the death of the girl, for him or the girl's mother, could range from child neglect to manslaughter, said prosecutor Pete Magrino, who is the main homicide prosecutor for Hernando, Citrus and Sumter counties.

The investigation continues, and it's too early to say if charges will be filed, he said.

• • •

In May, a DCF investigator showed up at the home because of the complaint made against Darnell and Hare. The couple, the complaint alleged, use and sell meth, cocaine, marijuana and pills such as Xanax and ecstasy.

Darnell, the complaint said, has a foul mouth and a bad temper, Hare is "high all the time," the toddler isn't bathed regularly, and the other children are beaten.

The investigator wrote in his report that he saw no signs of abuse during his visit. Darnell admitted to using marijuana and said he hit the kids but only when they were bad. He said he had been dating Hare for five months and that she was five months pregnant.

The investigator said in his report that the house was clean and there was food in the refrigerator. The snake was there at the time of the visit two months ago, according to a DCF spokesman, but the investigator didn't mention it in the report.

"No immediate dangers inside the residence," he wrote.

This week, Darnell told investigators that he found the snake loose in the living room in the early hours of Wednesday, that it had gotten out of the terrarium, which was covered only with a quilt. He put the snake in a sack, he said, then put the sack back in the terrarium, then covered the terrarium with the quilt again, this time trying to tie it down with a string.

Then he went to sleep.

The 911 call came shortly before 10 a.m.

"Our stupid snake!" he wailed.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

Autopsy says 8½-foot python asphyxiated 2-year-old girl 07/02/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 3, 2009 7:16am]

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