LARGO — It began with a call to check on a 3-year-old boy, found unresponsive in his crib.
He looked malnourished and had severe diaper rash and a bed sore on his back, a deputy who responded to the High Point home July 12 wrote in a report. Paramedics pronounced him dead the same day.
It would take more than six months for detectives to unravel the extent of what they now deem as chronic neglect taking place at the home. It was so bad, Pinellas sheriff’s detectives said, that the boy had lost mobility in his legs, relying on a couch or wall as a crutch. His autopsy, completed late last month, confirmed the cause of death as chronic child neglect.
The parents were arrested Thursday. Ashley Ferguson, 33, faces one charge of aggravated manslaughter of a child and two charges of child neglect. Matthew Ferguson, 34, faces three charges of child neglect.
Two other children in the home — girls, aged 2 and 6, said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri — survived but were found in troubling condition. One had teeth that were rotting so badly, dentists had to remove her top teeth and put crowns on the bottom. The other had diaper rash, cradle cap and anemia. Like her brother who died, one of the girls also couldn’t put weight on her legs.
The mother lied to the father about the children’s medical appointments, according to the Sheriff’s Office. She told deputies the children’s only source of food was milk.
“To date,” the deputy wrote in the Thursday arrest report, one of the girls “is unable to eat solid foods.”
The surviving children have been living with family member since the boy’s death, the Sheriff’s Office said. They received medical care and are undergoing speech and physical therapy.
The circumstances that led to the neglect have not been revealed by deputies. Both parents declined Friday to speak to the Tampa Bay Times from the Pinellas County jail, where the mother remained held in lieu of $95,000 bail. The father was released that afternoon after posting $40,000 bail.
The level of neglect suffered by the surviving children will likely take years to recover from, said Dr. Jennifer Takagishi, a pediatric doctor with USF Health.
How fast they’re able to recover will depend largely on how quickly they are put into a loving and supportive environment. The first step will be to recover physically, Takagishi said. That includes teaching the children how to properly eat food again — if they were ever taught at all.
Next will be finding a way to teach the children to connect again on an emotional level. However, Takagishi fears that the trauma of losing a sibling, and the lack of parental care, will make recovery for the survivors particularly hard.
”Neglect of children happens far more commonly than we like,” she said. “But this level of neglect is extreme.”
The allegations shocked 30-year-old Melody Sanders, who said she had once considered Matthew Ferguson her best friend. They met when Sanders was 13 or 14, and he was four years her senior. He worked at an ice cream store at a citrus grove, Sanders said.
He was a good friend, she said, almost like a big brother. They would go to the movies or the beach, or to watch cars race on Gandy Boulevard. She couldn’t recall which high school he attended, but they both lived in Safety Harbor, she said.
They lost touch over the years, and Sanders moved to North Carolina. Court records show Matthew and Ashley Ferguson married in October 2012 and lived at several addresses around Pinellas County, including an apartment in Largo that they were evicted from in 2014.
The last time Sanders talked to her old friend was over Facebook message a few months ago, she said. She checked his profile and saw that his son had died and sent her condolences. He said it was tough, but they were getting through it day by day.
Then she saw the news of his arrest on Facebook and was in disbelief that it was her old friend.
“It’s heartbreaking to know somebody that I would call my best friend at one time,” she said, “and to think that he would be capable of doing something like this, or his wife.”
The family was living at unit A of a duplex at 15134 Verona Ave. when they were arrested, according to court records. Deputies arrested Ashley Ferguson at the home and Matthew Ferguson at his place of work, a jet ski rental shop in Clearwater, Gualtieri said. A man who answered the phone at the shop declined to comment.
No one answered the door at the duplex on Friday. Many of the households have children, neighbors said, and bikes, scooters and roller skates dotted the neighborhood.
Jonathan Frederick, 25, lives in another duplex next to the Fergusons. He said he’d seen a woman walking outside and talking to herself, and he knew a man came and went from the home. But he didn’t know they had kids.
”I’ve never seen any children at all,” he said.