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Officials capture 9-foot Burmese python that strangled 2-year-old Sumter County girl

OXFORD

The intruders can grow up to 26 feet and weigh more than 200 pounds. Their muscular coils can strangle everything from large animals to an entire ecosystem. Once they were unwanted pets. Now thousands of them are here.

They've infested the Everglades. They threaten native birds and mammals. They've taken on Florida's natural predator, alligators, and tried to swallow one whole.

Now, one of the giant snakes has killed a 2-year-old girl.

Shaiunna Hare was strangled Wednesday by the family's pet albino Burmese python, according to the Sumter County Sheriff's Office.

Deputies say the nearly 8-foot, 6-inch yellow-tinged snake escaped its enclosure at night, slithered into her room, wrapped itself around her as she lay in her crib, repeatedly bit her and squeezed her to death.

The mother's boyfriend, Charles Darnell, awoke to find his pet missing. He found it in Shaiunna's room, on top of her. Darnell, who is not her father, freed the girl by stabbing the snake with a 6-inch knife and a meat cleaver.

Injured, the snake released the child and slithered away inside the home. In a call to 911 at about 9:40 a.m., an unidentified man sobs as he tells the operator what happened.

"The baby's dead," he says. "Our stupid snake got out in the middle of the night and strangled the baby."

• • •

Darnell, 32, told authorities he last checked on the snake about 12:30 a.m. It had escaped its terrarium.

He put the snake in a bag and put it back inside the glass case. Then he put a quilt over the terrarium and tied something around the quilt. State law says pythons are supposed to be kept under lock.

Early in the morning, the snake escaped again.

Sumter deputies and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers had to get a warrant to enter the home to find the two snakes Darnell kept in the house. The other was a 6-foot red-tail boa constrictor named Dixie.

Armed with the warrant, nine men entered the home at 4:45 p.m. Five minutes later, two men carried out the unnamed python. TV crews from Tampa to Orlando drove to this rural community an hour north of the Magic Kingdom to watch.

The young snake was nearly 9 feet long and weighed 15 to 20 pounds, officials say. It was injured. Bloody puncture wounds were visible about a foot from its nose. It was taken to a local veterinarian to see whether it needed to be euthanized.

Investigators also carried out a crib, a bloodied mattress, the knives used to attack the snake and a small amount of marijuana.

Darnell and the girl's mother, 19-year-old Jaren Hare, signed over custody of the snake to the state. Dead or alive, it will be kept as evidence in the investigation.

• • •

Darnell and Hare were questioned by investigators but not taken into custody. They may be re-interviewed after today's scheduled autopsy on Shaiunna.

"We still have to investigate this case and at some point there could be some negligence charges," sheriff's Lt. Bobby Caruthers said.

Department of Children and Families spokeswoman Carrie Hoeppner said the agency has investigated several complaints involving this family during the past year.

A "couple" of incidents were verified, she said, but she did not disclose details.

Caruthers confirmed that a month ago that deputies responded to a "DCF-type call" at the home. Child abuse and neglect investigators will look into Shaiunna's death, Hoeppner said.

Darnell was arrested in May on numerous drug charges. A charge of larceny was dropped against Hare when she was 16.

• • •

In Florida the invasive Burmese is one of four python species considered a "reptile of concern." Owners must obtain a state permit.

But Darnell did not have one, deputies say, and failing to do so is a second-degree misdemeanor punishable with time in county jail.

Adults in similar situations have faced even harsher charges. In 1999, a 3-year-old in St. Louis was suffocated by a pet 7 ½-foot African rock python. His parents were charged with endangering the life of a child. A judge acquitted them before it went to a jury.

The Burmese python is one of Florida's most dangerous invaders, one of a growing number of nonnative species threatening the state's ecology.

It is one of the six largest species of snakes in the world, a nonvenomous native of Southeast Asia. It feeds itself by constricting its prey, including rodents, birds and small mammals. The biggest ones can swallow their victims whole.

Florida's wildlife is not used to such a predator. But it has become one here because so many have discarded their former pets into the wild, especially in the Everglades.

In 2005 a famous and fatal encounter between a 13-foot Burmese python and a 6-foot alligator served as a warning of what's to come. Scientists found the python exploded after trying to swallow the gator. The gory photo was splashed all over the world.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, Shaiunna is the 12th person to be killed by pet pythons nationally since 1980. Five were adults, two were teens and the rest children ages 8, 3, 21 months and 7 months.

• • •

Danelle Goghegan, who had a child with Darnell, defended him Wednesday. She said he shouldn't be charged in connection with the child's death.

"I think it's crazy," she said. "He's a great father. It was a pure accident, a devastating accident.

"The snake has never been aggressive before."

Nurse Diane Strickland, 51, lives just a mile from the scene. When her husband called her about the helicopters overhead, she knew what had happened.

"I knew exactly what it was because when I drove by one morning there was a gentleman standing outside with that snake draped around his neck," she said. "It shocks me that anyone would keep a snake where it could get out, especially with children.

"You got to keep your kids safe."

Information from other news organizations was used in this report. Times researcher Shirl Kennedy and staff writer Bill Duryea contributed to this report.

Reptiles of concern

The Burmese python may reach a length of 26 feet and a weight of more than 200 pounds. The largest Burmese python captured in the Everglades was 16 feet and 150 pounds. A nonnative species, they were introduced to the Everglades and now the population there is estimated in the tens of thousands. In 2008, the National Park Service removed and destroyed 311 of the snakes. Burmese pythons are considered a "reptile of concern," which means they have habits that may adversely affect the environment or may be a threat to public safety. Other reptiles of concern are the Indian python, reticulated python, African rock python, amethystine or scrub python, green anaconda and Nile monitor lizard. Burmese pythons, like all reptiles of concern, must be licensed by the state in order to be kept as pets. The license costs $100 per year and mandates specific caging requirements. Burmese pythons more than 2 inches in diameter must be implanted with a microchip that identifies the animal.

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Officials capture 9-foot Burmese python that strangled 2-year-old Sumter County girl 07/01/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 17, 2009 11:22am]

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