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Tampa police investigate whether father shares blame in baby's death

TAMPA — Days after a Tampa woman was charged with killing her 4-month-old daughter, police are trying to figure out if the baby's father also bears some responsibility.

A week ago, Eboni Thompson grew frustrated with Markala Thompson's crying and put her hand around the baby's neck until the crying stopped, police said.

Thompson, 31, was under court order not to be alone with Markala. The baby and her four siblings lived with their father, Marcus Harden, about a mile from her in east Tampa.

When Thompson visited there last week, Harden stepped out for 15 minutes to go to the store.

Now, Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said, officers are determining whether Harden, 38, should face charges for leaving the children alone with Thompson. He has been interviewed and is cooperating with police, she said.

"We are investigating to determine if he committed a crime and if charges are appropriate," McElroy said.

The Florida Department of Children and Families was protecting Markala nearly all of her short life.

The agency first got involved with Thompson a few years ago because of child neglect complaints involving the other children. A spokesman said he could not provide details, but said there were no signs of abuse or injuries.

When Markala was born in July, DCF officials immediately took her into shelter care. She moved in with Harden in September, and a court granted him custody in early December.

"Once the 4-month-old was born, we were pretty much involved with that kid right away," said the agency's regional director, Nick Cox.

Of Harden, Cox said "all indications were the dad was doing fine" and that "there was a high level of bonding there."

Officials had presented both parents with a "safety plan" that outlined basic standards of care for Markala, including that Thompson should not be left alone with the child. A case worker and Harden discussed the plan, according to a notation in the case file.

Until last week, the agency didn't know about any unsupervised visits by Thompson, Cox said. But, he said, both parents said in police interviews that Thompson was routinely "babysitting" her children, despite the court order prohibiting that.

"The one big question we had was: How in the world didn't somebody know that Mom was around these kids unsupervised?" Cox said. "They acknowledged they knew this was wrong and they were essentially secretly guarding this from everybody."

The agency has since removed the other children, including a toddler son and three daughters, ages 4, 6, and 17.

Reached last week, Harden's brother, 49-year-old Rudolph Harden, called him a loving father who was devastated by the child's death.

Here's what police say happened on Dec. 14:

While Harden was gone, Thompson admitted she got frustrated and put her hand around Markala's neck until she stopped crying. When Markala stopped breathing, Thompson put her in a bassinet and attempted chest compressions but could not revive the child.

Harden returned to find Thompson holding Markala. She placed the child back in the bassinet. When her toddler son went to reach for the baby, Harden stopped him and found Markala wasn't breathing.

Harden panicked and called 911, and the baby was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital and pronounced dead.

Days later, Thompson was charged with first-degree murder and two counts of aggravated child abuse with great bodily harm.

In police interviews, Thompson admitted she had previously hit the child's head on a wall and bent her arm back with enough force to break it, police said.

The Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office confirmed the arm injury and three broken ribs.

Cox said a case manager frequently checked on Markala but was not aware of any injuries. The child's guardian ad litem and day care workers also did not notice the injuries, he said.

Times staff writer Robbyn Mitchell contributed to this report. Lee Logan can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or llogan@sptimes.com.

Tampa police investigate whether father shares blame in baby's death 12/20/10 [Last modified: Monday, December 20, 2010 10:31pm]
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