Shaken baby who captured hearts on MySpace dies in Tampa

TAMPA — Baby Kaleb suffered brain damage in May 2007, and his sitter went to jail, accused of violently shaking him.

His mother, Kristy Schwade, chronicled Kaleb's struggles on MySpace, where her blog captivated thousands. Strangers sent poems and paintings. They bought magnets with a message: Pray for baby Kaleb.

Kaleb needed prayers, the way he would always need oxygen, nighttime nurses and a wheelchair. Some days, he couldn't see. He had to be fed through a tube.

Doctors predicted he would die young.

Still, Monday came suddenly.

Kaleb, 4, died at Tampa General Hospital after recurring bouts of pneumonia, his mother said.

"If he hadn't had been shaken," she said, "he would've still been alive."

• • •

On May 9, 2007, Schwade left 5-month-old Kaleb with Rebecca Lois Saunders, a woman licensed to provide child care from her home.

When the parents picked him up, they noticed his breathing was unusual. They took him to the emergency room.

At Tampa General Hospital, doctors diagnosed Kaleb with bilateral hemorrhaging and told the Schwades their son's hypothalamus had been injured. That's the part of the brain that helps regulate things like temperature, breathing and hunger.

While doctors tended to Kaleb, detectives turned to Saunders.

At first she maintained her innocence. Her attorney said Saunders never abused the baby, noting that the precise time of injury could not be established.

In time, Saunders accepted a plea deal on an aggravated child abuse charge. She served 16 months behind bars.

• • •

Even after Kaleb came home from the hospital in September 2007, return trips were common. He regularly came down with pneumonia.

So it wasn't unusual for him to become sick, as happened last weekend. Saturday night, he was vomiting. On Sunday, the family went to the emergency room, but then he seemed better.

Monday, Kristy took Kaleb to her parents' home while she ran errands. She called her mother to check on him, and her mom said his cheeks had purple splotches.

"Purple or blue?" Schwade asked.

Kaleb's cheeks were often red and sometimes swelled into bluish spots. But when Schwade arrived 10 minutes later, Kaleb's face was turning gray, she said.

He was running a fever, but his arms and legs were cold.

His father, 29-year-old firefighter Joshua Schwade, believes Kaleb was going into shock as blood flowed away from his arms and legs to protect vital organs.

The family called 911.

At the hospital, doctors gave Kaleb oxygen, and transferred him to the intensive care unit.

The moment took Kristy Schwade back to that first night after Kaleb was severely shaken.

Same doctor. Same waiting room.

By 1 p.m., the news was grim. Kaleb had only hours to live. They could try to prolong his life, but it would be painful for him.

No one wanted that.

"So we all got up and said our goodbyes and let him go," Kristy Schwade said.

• • •

The Schwades did not report Kaleb's death to authorities.

They say they are not interested in pursuing more criminal charges against Saunders, the babysitter.

There would be precedent for a new charge. Christopher Michael Wells, a Pasco father who went to prison for shaking his infant daughter, drew a second sentence when she died at age 19.

The St. Petersburg Times was unable to reach Saunders, now 39, for comment. She was not at her home Thursday afternoon and did not return a message left there. Her former attorney said he has not been in contact with her for years.

On Wednesday, the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office began an autopsy on Kaleb but could not immediately determine a cause of death. Further studies will take four to six weeks, said spokesman Dick Bailey.

The Sheriff's Office plans to investigate, spokesman Larry McKinnon said.

There's also a civil lawsuit, still unresolved. The Schwade family has sued Saunders and those associated with Hanna's House Family Day Care LLC, which operated in a Northdale home.

For now, the Schwades say they don't want to think about Saunders. They want to celebrate Kaleb's life on Sunday and then bury him at Joshua Schwade's family plot in Indiana.

• • •

Amid all of this, the Schwade family has grown.

Kaleb is survived by a 2-year-old brother, Kaeson, and an 11-week-old brother, Kanton.

At Sunday's funeral service, Kristy Schwade plans to tell Kaeson that Kaleb is in heaven, that in heaven there are no feeding tubes, and that Kaleb can now run, play and eat ice cream.

The church will be filled with roses, lilies and irises. At the end, everyone will release a navy blue balloon, a nod to child abuse prevention.

The mother, 24, hopes to get a social work degree.

She wants to share a message, the same one written on a magnetic memorial ribbon stuck on the back of her van:

"Never shake a baby."

Times news researcher John Martin and staff writer Alexandra Zayas contributed to this report. Ileana Morales can be reached at imorales@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3386. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or jvandervelde@sptimes.com.

Shaken baby who captured hearts on MySpace dies in Tampa 01/27/11 [Last modified: Thursday, January 27, 2011 10:35pm]

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