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Charges dropped against Palm Harbor father who left toddler son in hot truck

The scene last September as Pinellas County Sheriff's personnel walk past the truck in which Troy Whitaker's 23-month-old son, Lawson, died. [DOUGLAS CLIFFORD | Times]
Published Jan. 21, 2017

PALM HARBOR — It was an inexplicable series of events that led a Hillsborough County firefighter to forget his toddler son in a hot pickup truck for eight hours one day in September — but it wasn't criminal, state officials said Friday.

A charge of aggravated manslaughter was dropped against Troy Whitaker, 42, after prosecutors could not prove he acted recklessly in his child's death, even though negligence was clear, according to Bruce Bartlett, chief assistant state attorney in Pinellas County.

"We looked at every aspect of this case, this guy's life, what he was doing on that particular day in some way to at least justify how this could have possibly have happened," Bartlett said. "The guy is extremely remorseful. . . . It was an accident. He screwed up."

It was clear Whitaker's actions were not intentional, Bartlett said, but to charge him with aggravated manslaughter, prosecutors would have had to show he acted with "intentional disregard."

For a driver who caused a traffic fatality, that could mean speeding erratically while changing lanes instead of just absentmindedly running a red light. For a parent who left a child in a hot car, that could mean, for example, drinking at a bar before forgetting the youngster was in the backseat.

On Sept. 9, Whitaker left his home in Palm Harbor with his two children and dropped his 5-year-old daughter, Addison, off at Ozona Elementary School about 8:30 a.m. He was supposed to make a second stop to drop 23-month-old Lawson at New Horizons Country Day School "but for some reason he didn't," Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said at the time.

Bartlett said Whitaker, whose wife was out of town, returned home, made some phone calls about signing his daughter up for soccer and studied on the computer for a fire promotional exam. He later went outside to walk the dog and didn't notice his son. About 3:30 p.m., he got back in the truck to drive to Publix.

All the while, Lawson had been strapped since that morning in his car seat behind the driver's side of the Chevrolet Silverado, where his body temperature would reach 108 degrees.

It wasn't until Whitaker arrived home from Publix and grabbed his groceries from the front seat that he noticed Lawson in the back, Gualtieri said a news conference that day.

When a neighbor heard Whitaker's desperate screams and ran over to help, the father was already trying to perform CPR on the child in the driveway while his phone was on the ground connected to 911.

"It's just heartbreaking to listen to the 911 call where he discovered the kid," Bartlett said. "What he will live with for the rest of his life far exceeds anything that could be done to him with regards to punishment."

In a statement through their attorney, Ron Hanes, the Whitaker family said it was thankful prosecutors recognized this was "a terrible accident and tragedy."

"Words will never be enough to describe how much we love and miss our happy, bright, energetic, blue-eyed and loving boy, with his beautiful soul and big smile," according to the statement. "We love you and miss you, Lawson, every second of every day, and would give anything to have you back."

Whitaker left jail the day after Lawson's death on $50,000 bail. He was immediately placed on administrative leave from his job as a firefighter, which was still in effect Friday, Hanes said.

At the time of the incident, Gualtieri said there was no evidence the father deliberately left his son in the truck, but in the eyes of the law, the situation amounted to criminal neglect.

On Friday, Gualtieri would not comment on whether state prosecutors made the right call but said he respects the decision.

"It's a very, very tough case; a very tough situation," Gualtieri said. "Everybody, in their various roles in the various stages in the proceedings have to make judgment calls they think are right and appropriate."

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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