TAMPA — At age 2, Makaila Thompson could count to 10.
She adored Dora the Explorer and once made a game of dropping toys in the toilet and trying to flush.
When Makaila was born Jan. 10, 2006, the first thing her mother noticed were her eyes.
"You see her?" Monique Thompson remembers musing, the baby in her arms.
When Makaila started to talk, she talked a lot. She could sing Alicia Keys' No One from start to finish. She once ate a double cheeseburger, small fries and a juice in one sitting.
Makaila died Sept. 5, at the hands of her mother's boyfriend, according to Hillsborough sheriff's deputies. Investigators say she suffered blows to her chest so powerful, her heart tore.
Detectives believe it happened while Thompson worked the late shift at Wal-Mart.
The 24-year-old single mother of three was running the cash register at the front of the store about 1 a.m., when a call came from University Community Hospital.
"I have Makaila Thompson," a woman on the other end told her. "She is not responding."
The last words Thompson remembers hearing were the words "medical history." After that, the world got blurry and stopped making sense.
Thompson met Robert Bradwell about a year ago while taking out the trash. They talked. He got her number.
Soon they were living together. Bradwell, 36, seemed to love her kids, ages 6, 4 and 2, Thompson said. He played with them, brought dinner home for them, walked to the store in the rain for them. He helped the oldest with homework.
He encouraged Thompson to discipline with timeouts, not by paddling with her flip-flop, as she sometimes did.
"Everything was perfect," she said.
But frustrations started to simmer. In October, Thompson lost custody of her kids for five days after doctors found chemical burns on Makaila, she said.
Thompson says she was cleaning carpet in her new apartment when the toddler got into the chemicals. Thompson gave her a bubble bath and sprinkled her with powder.
Two days later, she saw boils on her daughter's skin, she said. Thompson brought Makaila to the hospital.
The court returned the kids, but the episode fueled tension between Thompson and Bradwell, who periodically would break up and reunite.
"We got into arguments," she said. "I was the only one working. I was frustrated."
In March, Bradwell called deputies after he said Thompson punched and scratched him in the forehead and bit his chest. He dropped charges.
In July, Thompson called deputies after she said Bradwell punched her in the face, causing her jaw to swell up and her lip to bleed. That case is pending.
But Thompson couldn't see Bradwell as a killer — not even after Makaila died.
"I never seen him hurt my children," Thompson said. "I never seen no rage in him to hurt them."
Bradwell told investigators that Makaila fell in the bathtub while bathing with her 4-year-old brother. Afterward, he said, she had trouble breathing.
A medical report from the hospital indicated the same: "Acute cardiorespiratory arrest," a doctor wrote after Bradwell carried in the toddler near midnight.
Bradwell stood by Thompson as she collected donations to help bury her child, she said.
He handed her barrettes as she fixed Makaila's hair in preparation for her funeral.
But her view of him changed on Monday. Deputies pointed to the bolded text from a medical examiner's report: "Blunt impacts to the torso."
Makaila had been beaten, they told her, with a force so strong it killed her.
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Last week, Thompson's other two children were placed in foster care, she said. She can visit them for one hour every other week in a room where she is recorded.
Bradwell remains in jail without bail. His family defends him, saying he would never hurt a child. His criminal record shows he has been charged six times since 1997 with domestic violence battery against women.
Joanne Olvera Lighter, president of the Spring domestic violence shelter in Tampa, cautions against believing that someone who abuses an adult could be incapable of doing the same to a child.
"When violence escalates in the home, anything can happen," Lighter said.
An estimated 1,530 child-abuse fatalities were reported in nationally 2006, according to the most recent data available to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System.
About 15 percent of those deaths were at the hands of non-parent caretakers.
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Thompson remembers staring at Bradwell as deputies walked him to the Sheriff's Office substation, right near their duplex, for questioning.
"First-degree murder," she said Wednesday, repeating the charge against him.
"I don't understand why. Even if you told me why, it won't help.
"There's no explanation that will bring my child back."
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3383.