PORT RICHEY — A little after 10:30 Friday morning, 2-year-old MacKenzie Smith shot herself in the stomach with a gun she found on a bedroom nightstand in the home she shares with her mother and her mother's boyfriend, authorities said.
The bullet went through her body. MacKenzie, who was still conscious, was flown by helicopter to an area hospital where doctors performed surgery on her. She was listed as critical, but stable.
Authorities say the gun was a .38 caliber semiautomatic belonging to her mother's boyfriend, Ralph Ronzino, 22.
Ronzino was charged Friday night with child neglect by culpable negligence and possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. Kevin Doll, a spokesman for the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, said investigators found 202 grams — or about half a pound — of marijuana inside the home at 10018 Freestone Lane, as well as two other handguns and an AK-47 assault rifle in the home and "easily accessible to the child."
Court records show Ronzino, who is not the toddler's biological father, has two prior arrests involving marijuana. He was charged with possession of the drug in 2005 in Pinellas County, although that misdemeanor charge was dropped, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Last year, he was arrested in Hernando County on a felony charge of possession of marijuana with intent to sell. Court records show he pleaded no contest and was sentenced to probation, which he completed in January.
Doll said Friday's shooting is still under investigation and it's unknown whether MacKenzie's mother, Jessica Smith, 22, will face any charges.
"I told him, 'I don't want the guns around the baby,' " Smith told Detective Tony Bossone of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.
Why was the gun on the nightstand? Smith told detectives that Thursday night, "we were watching TV, and I heard a gunshot."
Other neighbors in the Regency Park area said they heard it, too. Ronzino told detectives he got his gun and went outside to see what was going on. The couple's car was burglarized in January, and a 9mm Glock handgun was stolen. Neighbors said the couple also had their trash cans stolen a few days ago.
After finding nothing unusual outside Thursday night, Ronzino brought the gun back inside the house and put it on the nightstand, Doll said.
"Leaving a handgun out is not something you want to do," Doll said. But it happens. Last month, a 3-year-old Clearwater boy was shot in the chest by his 6-year-old brother, who found a gun on top of a television set in a bedroom.
Gabriel Carpio was taken to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg after the Feb. 20 incident, then transferred to All Children's Hospital. His parents requested that no information on his condition be released.
A man who answered the door of the family home Friday afternoon declined to comment.
In that case, the .32 caliber semiautomatic gun was registered to the boy's father. Police did not file charges against the parents but forwarded information from their investigation to the State Attorney's Office to determine if any charges would be filed.
Neighbors of Smith and Ronzino say the young family moved into the Port Richey neighborhood last summer, and the friendly little girl with blond, curly hair often waved to people.
"They're good parents," said neighbor Louise Sohl, 67, who lives across the street from the family. "They never let her out of their sight." Sohl said MacKenzie and her mother went trick-or-treating wearing matching Dorothy costumes from The Wizard of Oz. Without prompting, MacKenzie said thank you for the candy, Sohl said.
"She's a doll baby," Sohl said.
Friday morning, Sohl saw Smith and MacKenzie outside, putting trash into their new bins. Then, about 10 minutes later, she heard Smith screaming. Then the sirens came.
"I can't believe something like that would happen," Sohl said. "It only takes a second."
The house was cordoned off with crime scene tape, and Ronzino and Smith were held for questioning for more than two hours. Ronzino slumped on the driveway, his head on his knee. Smith sat in a wicker chair on her front sidewalk, hugging a pillow, crying and rocking.
Times researcher Will Gorham and reporters Kim Wilmath, Molly Moorhead and Rita Farlow contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.