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Hillsborough firefighter arrested after toddler dies in hot pickup truck

PALM HARBOR — A man has been charged with aggravated manslaughter of a child after deputies say he left his toddler son in a hot pickup truck for eight hours on Friday.

The boy, who was almost 2 years old, was found just after 4:30 p.m. in the backseat of the truck, which was parked outside his family's home at 1635 Castlewood Lane. His body temperature had reached 108 degrees, said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

UPDATE: Firefighter arrested for son dying in hot pickup trucks makes bail

He said the boy, named Lawson, was supposed to have been dropped off at day care by his father, Hills­borough County firefighter Troy Whitaker, that morning. That didn't happen, the sheriff said, and at some point the boy died in the vehicle due to "very, very high" temperatures.

Neighbor Aaron Begay said he was mowing his lawn across the street when he heard guttural screams from the father.

"I can't believe it, I can't believe it, I can't believe it," Begay said he heard his neighbor cry.

Whitaker, 41, had just pulled into the driveway, thrown open the back door of his Chevrolet Silverado, groceries spilling onto the concrete. He pulled his limp 23-month-old son from his booster seat and began to perform CPR on the driveway.

Begay made his way over to the driveway in front of Whitaker's corner lot, one-story home and saw a cellphone already connected to 911 lying on the ground. He said Whitaker was "inconsolable," so Begay picked up the phone and yelled, "You have to get someone here now."

Gualtieri said Whitaker left his home about 7:50 a.m. to drop his 5-year-old daughter, Addison, off at Ozona Elementary School at 8:30 a.m. and was supposed to make the second stop at the New Horizons Country Day School, "but for some reason he didn't." Whitaker then drove back home, leaving Lawson inside the car throughout the day while he studied for a promotional exam for the fire department, the sheriff said.

The car seats for both children were facing forward, the sheriff said, with Lawson's on the driver's side.

Gualtieri said at some point during the day, Whitaker went outside to walk the dog, but said he still didn't realize his son was in the truck. About 3:30 p.m., he drove the truck to Publix on U.S. 19.

READ MORE: "Fatal Distraction" by Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post

He spent about 40 minutes in the store, the sheriff said, before returning to the truck to place the groceries on the front passenger seat. Gualtieri said Lawson "had been deceased well before" this time, but Whitaker told deputies he still did not see his son until he got back home and opened the door to grab the groceries.

Investigators tested Whitaker for impairment, but results were negative. The sheriff said Whitaker told investigators that he thought he had dropped off his son at the day care.

"But that doesn't make sense, quite frankly," Gualtieri said.

The sheriff said someone has to pay for the child's death.

"You've got to be responsible for your kids. You can't leave them in a hot car and let their temperature get up to 108 degrees," he said. "He did this with negligence … and under Florida law, that is child abuse. He has got to be responsible for his actions."

Whitaker was arrested and transported to Pinellas County Jail, where he was being held without bail.

Contact Megan Reeves at mreeves@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4153. Follow @mreeves_tbt.

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