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Tampa man, girlfriend charged with abuse in death of 3-year-old

TAMPA — For a month, 3-year-old John Taylor Baxley suffered repeated abuse at the hands of his father and his father's girlfriend, deputies said. But authorities didn't know until it was too late.

About 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, dispatchers received a 911 call. The toddler wasn't breathing, the caller said.

The Sheriff's Office said it was apparent he had suffered extensive trauma to his upper body. He was pronounced dead at St. Joseph's Hospital.

On Wednesday, deputies arrested Justin Garwacki, 26, and his girlfriend, Kara O'Connell, 21, and charged them with aggravated child abuse, child abuse, neglect of a child and failure to report neglect of a child.

The Sheriff's Office is still investigating, and deputies expect additional charges, said agency spokesman Larry McKinnon. An autopsy is pending.

Garwacki married Baxley's mother, Crystal Lee Ann Baxley, 25, in March 2006, county records show. She gave birth to their son that November.

But Garwacki also fathered a child with O'Connell, McKinnon said. The little girl is also 3.

In 2007, Baxley filed for divorce in Missouri, where she lives now. A judge set up a visitation plan and told Garwacki to pay $259 a month in child support, Missouri records show.

Last month, Garwacki brought the boy from Missouri to stay with him at a townhome in the 14000 block of Lemon Valley Place in Citrus Park, McKinnon said.

Garwacki lived there with O'Connell and their daughter, who is now in the care of Child Protective Investigations Division, McKinnon said. He said the girl doesn't have any obvious signs of abuse, but she will be medically screened.

Court records show that O'Connell was charged with domestic violence battery in 2009, but the charges were dropped.

The boy's great-grandfather, John Baxley, lives in Tampa, but said he hasn't seen his great-grandson in a while. He said he found out about the boy's death on television news Wednesday.

He offered few words but described the toddler as a sweet, jovial child.

When the elder Baxley was asked how he's doing, he replied, "Not well."

Garwacki and O'Connell were held without bail at the Hillsborough County Jail. Attempts to reach relatives were unsuccessful.

The Sheriff's Office said that over the course of the abuse, Garwacki and O'Connell never sought medical treatment for the boy. If they had, someone might have noticed the signs and alerted authorities, McKinnon said.

The Florida Department of Children and Families had no prior interaction with Garwacki, O'Connell or 3-year-old John, said spokesman Terry Field.

A spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Social Services said the department would examine its records to determine if it has had any dealings with the family, but she said that information would not be available for at least a couple days.

On Wednesday afternoon, Baxley updated her Facebook status to "I just lost my son last nite."

Her profile picture is of a smiling young, blond-haired boy.

News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at or (813) 226-3433.

Tampa man, girlfriend charged with abuse in death of 3-year-old 08/11/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 11, 2010 11:22pm]
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