Friday, April 20, 2018
Public safety

Hillsborough deputies: Baby drowns as mom talks with salesman

TAMPA — The salesman heard a baby's cries and the sound of running water. The cries stopped after 15 or 20 seconds, he told authorities. But the mother didn't seem concerned, according to court records, so the salesman kept talking.

The mother was Sierra McMillan, 22, who the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office arrested Monday evening on a charge of aggravated manslaughter of a child in the drowning of her 7-month-old son.

In laying out a criminal case against a mom who left her little boy in the tub with the water running while she talked in another room with a salesman, sheriff's investigators gave this account in a search warrant application and a probable cause arrest affidavit:

It was about 4:15 p.m. Sunday when Justin Freeman, 20, a salesman for Verizon FiOS, knocked on the door to Apt. 104 of Building 14512 in Bay Pointe Colony apartments, near E Bearss Avenue and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

McMillan had just put her son, Jerwond Marquies Elder Jr., in the bath. She was interested in Verizon products, though, so she invited Freeman in. Freeman said he could hear water running.

I hope that baby is not in the bathroom unattended, Freeman thought as he waited for his laptop computer to come online, he later told the Sheriff's Office.

He asked for the home's phone number. McMillan didn't know it, so Freeman had her dial his cell phone to find out. Her number popped up at 4:25 p.m.

A few minutes later, McMillan excused herself. The sound of running water stopped, then she returned. Freeman asked for her Social Security number. As McMillan typed it in his computer, he noticed water on her arms and tank top. While the system checked McMillan's credit, she excused herself again.

McMillan was rejected by Verizon based on her credit. Freeman suggested trying her boyfriend's credit instead.

McMillan said Freeman should come back later, and he left.

A few minutes later, at 4:44 p.m., Freeman saw emergency responders go to the apartment. McMillan had called 911 at 4:38 p.m. to say her son was in the tub and not breathing.

Freeman, who is listed in court records as a witness, called law enforcement with his account.

Jerwond Elder Jr. was taken to Florida Hospital Tampa, where he was pronounced dead at 5:16 p.m. Sheriff's detectives noticed a bruise on his nose and a cut under his upper lip.

McMillan gave two accounts of the drowning, according to documents. She told 911 dispatchers she had unplugged the drain, then passed out because she had not eaten. When she awoke, her son was unresponsive. A rag had clogged the drain.

In an interview with the Sheriff's Office, McMillan said she had passed out as she reached under the sink for soap.

In neither explanation did she mention answering the door to a salesman.

McMillan was booked at the Hillsborough County Jail, where she remained Tuesday without bail. She has no criminal record in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Her boyfriend — Jerwond Elder Sr., 22 — was not home when the boy drowned, according to documents. Elder Sr. was arrested in March on a charge of carrying a concealed weapon, according to court records, but has not been convicted of a crime in Florida, records show.

Sheriff's Office child protective investigators have not dealt with the family before, a spokeswoman said Tuesday. Two daughters were taken from the home and placed with a relative.

No one answered the door at the apartment Tuesday afternoon.

The neglectful mother portrayed in documents does not match the woman neighbor Raphael Gomez has gotten to know in the year or so since the young family moved in. Both parents are attentive and dedicated, Gomez said Tuesday. The two daughters, young but school-age, are always well-dressed and groomed, he said. The father seemed excited to have a son after the baby's birth in September.

Gomez, 53, wondered why the salesman didn't do more. "If I had been him, I would've said, 'Hey, is your baby okay?' " he said.

Freeman, a student at the University of South Florida according to his Facebook page, did not return a call Tuesday evening.

In an email, Verizon spokesman Bob Elek said Freeman is not a Verizon employee but "a representative of a firm we contract with for door-to-door sales."

"Both Verizon and the contractor will continue to cooperate with law enforcement in this tragic incident," Elek wrote.

At 6:20 p.m. Monday, McMillan again had visitors — sheriff's detectives, with a search warrant. When they left, they took some things with them. Among them: a few containers of baby formula, a blue washcloth, and a blue-and-orange sippy cup.

News researcher John Martin and staff writer Laura C. Morel contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or [email protected]

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