Lawyer claims fear caused mother's inaction in beating death of toddler in Tampa

TAMPA — How could a mother stand by and watch as a man beats her toddler to death?

Tampa attorney Brian Gonzalez says he knows people wonder that when they hear about his client.

Danielle Nicole McCleary, 23, surrendered to deputies Saturday on child neglect and aggravated manslaughter charges in connection with her daughter's death.

Deputies say McCleary watched and did nothing to halt her live-in boyfriend as he bundled the 2-year-old's body and face in a sheet during the early hours of March 8, then repeatedly struck the child to get her to stop crying.

McCleary called authorities at 5 a.m. after Gabrielle Randel became unconscious and stopped breathing. Gabrielle soon died at St. Joseph's Hospital, deputies say.

Gonzalez said McCleary was scared of Kenneth G. Lopez, who had lived with her for three months. They'd known each other for about a year and a half, but only recently started sharing a residence, Gonzalez said.

"Unless you're there and unless its happening in your life, you can't know," Gonzalez said, describing McCleary's relationship with her boyfriend as very volatile, but declining to go into detail.

The couple were staying in Room 108 of the Homestead Studio Suites when the incident happened. Gonzalez said they'd just moved to Florida from another state because McCleary was from here. They were trying to get their feet on the ground and had no car, no jobs, Gonzalez said.

Lopez, 21, remains in jail on charges of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse, charges to which he has pleaded not guilty. McCleary was booked into the Orient Road Jail, then released a few hours later on $15,000 bail.

"Kenneth Lopez is a dangerous guy," Gonzalez said. "He's trained in the martial arts, and it was a very volatile relationship."

Told of the characterization, Public Defender Chuck Traina, who has represented Lopez until now, pointed to Lopez's not guilty plea.

"There's a solid reason for that," Traina said, declining to comment further.

Last month, during a hearing to discuss custody arrangements for McCleary's surviving child, a 3-year-old boy, a judge described a message written on the boy's forehead when authorities arrived.

"DumbA--" the words said. The boy told authorities his mother had written it.

McCleary is now living with her parents, Gonzalez said, and has been advised not to talk about the incident. She is trying to regain her parental rights through dependency hearings, he said.

For now, a judge permitted the 3-year-old to be placed with his father in Texas.

Gonzalez said McCleary is in "a little better frame of mind" than she was immediately following the incident. "She's coping as best she can," he said.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com and (813) 226-3383.

Lawyer claims fear caused mother's inaction in beating death of toddler in Tampa 04/06/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 6, 2009 11:05pm]

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