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Charges upgraded in toddler's death

A grand jury Friday indicted a Weeki Wachee woman on charges of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse based on evidence from the death of 19-month-old Brian Kitchen last month.

In May, Tonia Upton, 33, was charged with second-degree murder, which does not suggest premeditation. However, jurors who sat through eight hours of testimony in the case decided to upgrade the charge and add the abuse charge.

Circuit Judge Jack Springstead ordered the grand jury's decision sealed until authorities could arrest Upton, who has been free since May 26 on $20,000 bail. Friday night, the unemployed waitress was being held without bail in the Hernando County Jail.

Brian Kitchen's aunt, 31-year-old Deborah Kitchen, said she was pleased with the indictment.

"Right now, I'm ecstatic over this," she said. "Right now, I'm glad. I'm happy she's being charged with first-degree murder."

Generally, homicide cases are considered by grand juries to determine the merits of the charges. Jurors may choose to affirm the charges, upgrade them or acquit the defendant.

Based on the boy's age and the extent of his injuries, prosecutors have called Brian's death one of the worst cases of child abuse in Hernando County history.

Sheriff's detectives arrested Upton on a second-degree murder charge May 25.

A day earlier, Upton had told investigators that Brian died of a blow to his head by his older sister, 3-year-old Amber. The two had been fighting over a robot toy, Upton had said.

But autopsy results showed Brian's injuries were much more severe, including a skull fracture and a ruptured stomach.

Upton then told police she had punched the boy repeatedly in the stomach during the week before he died.

Authorities said Upton knew Brian was seriously injured, growing weaker and dying, but would not call for help because she feared criminal charges.

She told authorities she abused Brian out of frustration she felt toward the toddler's father, Doug Kitchen.

Kitchen had allowed his children to stay with Upton because he thought she could take better care of them than he, his relatives said. Meanwhile, he lived with his parents in a mobile home near the Hernando-Pasco county line.

The children were from his marriage to Gina Kitchen. The couple are separated.

Upton has two sons of her own.