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Toddler's death in hot car sets up potentially divisive court case

PALM HARBOR — A loving father inadvertently leaves his toddler son in a pickup truck during a typically scorching Florida summer's day. The child dies.

His father will undoubtedly face a lifetime of questions about what some may call an incomprehensible act of inattention and carelessness. He may be judged by his family and ultimately by his own conscience.

But should he be judged in a court of law?

The death Friday of a 23-month-old boy left in a sweltering truck by his father, a Hillsborough County firefighter, and the decision to criminally charge the dad, sets up a potentially divisive court case that will examine whether the father's act rises to a level of actual negligence and not just a tragic accident.

The father, Troy Whitaker, 41, was charged with aggravated manslaughter late Friday in the death of his son, Lawson, after the Pinellas County sheriff said he left the boy in the family's Chevrolet Silverado for about eight hours after dropping off his 5-year-old daughter at school. The boy's body temperature reached 108 degrees.

Whitaker left jail early Saturday on $50,000 bail. When TV reporters asked if he had anything to say, Whitaker said, "Are you kidding me?"

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said there was no evidence the father deliberately left Lawson in the truck.

"This is one of the toughest of all circumstances because of what it involves," Gualtieri said. "It involves a father who left his kid in the car for eight hours with no explanation."

Even so, the sheriff said, in the eyes of the law, the situation amounts to criminal neglect.

But that call was already drawing fire Saturday as friends and neighbors questioned how a loving father and public servant could face prison when he already faces the unfathomable burden of having caused his son's death. A GoFundMe page had been set up late Saturday afternoon to help Whitaker with legal fees and collected nearly $3,000 after just two hours.

"Despite the credibility of being a public servant who gladly risks his life every time the tones go off, the Sheriff ... felt it appropriate to have Troy taken into custody and criminally charged," an introduction on the page said. "Nothing could be a greater reach."

READ MORE: Tampa dads design device to prevent children from dying in hot cars

Lawson Whitaker is the 29th child to have died of heat-related causes from being left inside vehicles in 2016, according to the website noheatstroke.org.

Whether a parent or someone else is charged at all in the death of a child left in a hot car is highly variable, even in Florida. Some law enforcement agencies have treated similar cases as tragic accidents that do not warrant charges. In a 2009 report, the Washington Post said 40 percent of all cases lead to no criminal charges.

In July, Florida prosecutors decided against charging a Deltona middle school teacher in the death of her cousin, who she left in the back of a sports utility vehicle. Though prosecutors said in a memorandum that the case "was both tragic and avoidable," they decided against charges because the woman had not acted recklessly.

"Things happen in the care of young children that are unexpected even by experienced parents," the memorandum said.

Legal experts interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times said Whitaker's case will come down to the father's behavior during the day. "If you look at the statute, there's the potential it could be prosecuted," said former Hillsborough prosecutor Lyann Goudie. "The problem is what were the circumstances?"

Investigators are retracing Whitaker's steps Friday leading up to 4:30 p.m. when the frantic father pulled his son's limp body from a car seat and began performing CPR. A neighbor said he heard an inconsolable Whitaker yelling several times, "I can't believe I did this."

Whitaker helped his son and daughter Addison into the car and left by 7:50 a.m. Friday. He dropped Addison off at Ozona Elementary School at 8:30 a.m. and was supposed to stop at New Horizons Country Day School — but didn't.

Lawson, likely asleep, was left in the driver's side back seat, facing forward, while his father was inside the home at 1635 Castlewood Lane studying for a fire department promotional exam, the sheriff said.

Whitaker went outside to walk the dog and didn't see his son. Then he got in the car around 3:30 p.m. to head to Publix. He told deputies he didn't see his son then, either. Gualtieri said that means, by Whitaker's account, he didn't notice Lawson in his rearview mirror or see him through the gap between the risen headrest that deputies found.

"I assume he didn't see the child, or he would have done something," Gualtieri said.

It wasn't until Whitaker pulled back into his driveway to unload the groceries that he found the boy. "We're trying to figure out if this something more than straight gross negligence," Gualtieri said. "We're looking at video cameras along his routes, all that."

Whitaker passed a Breathalyzer, the sheriff said. Gualtieri said Whitaker refused to take a blood test when deputies were checking if he was impaired. Later, he admitted he declined the test because he smokes marijuana.

He told investigators he was not under the influence on Friday, and Gualtieri said at this point there's no evidence that points to impairment being a factor in the death.

The Pasco-Pinellas state attorney's office will decide whether to prosecute after doing its own investigation, said Bruce Bartlett, a prosecutor who is a spokesman for the office.

Nobody answered the door to the Whitaker home early Saturday afternoon, and neither the father nor his wife, Kristin Whitaker, who is the chief advancement officer for the Girl Scouts of West Central Florida, could be reached for comment.

Whitaker's neighbor and friend, retired Pinellas sheriff's deputy Joe Lumpkin, said the Whitakers are both loving parents who are devastated by Lawson's death.

Lumpkin said he spoke to Kristin Whitaker Friday and told her to turn her back on what critics in the community might say.

"I told her, 'You know the kind of man you married and you know the kind of dedicated father that he is. You know that.' She looked at me in pain and she said, 'I know. I know it was just an accident.' "

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