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Woman charged in her baby's death will be sent to mental health center

Kathleen Steele, 62, makes her first court appearance Friday via video monitor at the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center. Steele was charged with aggravated manslaughter of a child in connection with the death of her 13-day-old baby.
Kathleen Steele, 62, makes her first court appearance Friday via video monitor at the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center. Steele was charged with aggravated manslaughter of a child in connection with the death of her 13-day-old baby.
Published Aug. 13, 2016

The baby, just 13 days old, was blue and cold by the time paramedics arrived Monday.

A neighbor frantically performed CPR, but it was too late. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the girl had fractures in her skull like "cracks in the sidewalk."

When deputies arrived at the home, Gualtieri said, they grew suspicious of the mother, 62-year-old Kathleen Steele.

A widow who gave birth to the first of her three children at age 55, Steele seemed detached, the sheriff said. She was putting away groceries as her newborn lay lifeless.

"It's not what you would expect to see when there's that kind of injury to a newborn," Gualtieri said.

Days later, investigators said they uncovered that Kathleen Bridget Steele was beaten to death by her 6-year-old brother. Their mother had left them locked in a minivan for about 30 minutes, the sheriff said.

Deputies arrested Steele on a charge of aggravated manslaughter of a child on Thursday. She appeared in court Friday and was released on $100,000 bail in the evening, but authorities planned to transfer her to a mental health facility, Gualtieri said.

A judge ordered that she be placed under house arrest, wear a GPS monitoring device and stay away from children.

Those who knew Steele expressed shock Friday as authorities released new details about the case.

Her attorney Robert Love said the mother, who joyfully announced her first pregnancy on a TV reality show in 2009, was "devastated."

• • •

Steele was raising three children, Gualtieri said: the 6-year-old boy, his 3-year-old brother and their newborn sister.

The family had errands to run Monday morning in and around St. Petersburg. Their first stop, the sheriff said, was the pediatrician's office to check on the baby girl.

As they left the doctor, Steele's 6-year-old son dropped her phone and cracked the screen. The mother drove a rented minivan to CPR Cell Phone Repair on 66th Street N.

While workers fixed the phone, Steele took her children to Rae Rae's Cafe on Central Avenue, a diner-style restaurant where they were regulars.

Owner Nicci Rowley remembered they split sandwiches. The brothers played with creamers and jelly containers on the table. The baby girl napped in a carrier.

"Everything seemed fine," Rowley said. "Everybody seemed to be completely normal, just like they always are."

They left about an hour later and headed back to CPR to pick up the phone.

About 1:50 p.m., Steele walked into the store. She left her three children in the minivan — doors locked, engine off, windows up — for about half an hour, Gualtieri said. The baby began to cry. Her oldest brother later told investigators he thought about getting help but was locked in the minivan.

So he picked up his sister, the boy told deputies, and started playing with her.

Gualtieri said the boy smashed the girl's head against the minivan's ceiling, dropped her to the floor and clobbered her.

Steele returned to the minivan and finished running errands — renewing her rental car agreement and checking on repairs at her old house — before heading to her rental home at 356 Bath Club Blvd. N in North Redington Beach.

After finally realizing the baby was hurt, the sheriff said, Steele called a nurse who lived nearby and not police.

The nurse arrived, started CPR and handed her phone to the 6-year-old boy. She told him to dial 911.

• • •

Steele came to motherhood late. In 2009 she was featured on the reality show I'm Pregnant and . . . 55 Years Old. A broker at Raymond James & Associates, Steele said on the show that she had delayed having a family while working long hours.

After several attempts, Steele became pregnant in 2009 with her first child, the 6-year-old. Her husband died in 2011 but she had two more children using his frozen sperm, Gualtieri said.

A Raymond James & Associates spokeswoman declined to discuss Steele on Friday. But the company issued a statement expressing "its deepest condolences to the family."

Neighbors were shocked to learn of the infant's death. Luke Ligrani, who said he lived near the family for roughly 10 years, said Steele was always with her children. Sometimes, she played with them in the front yard.

"She was just being a mom," he said, adding that he never saw Steele mistreat her sons.

"(She and her husband) made choices later in life that don't make sense to most people, myself included, as far as having those kids at that age," Ligrani said. But he added: "There's no doubt in my mind she loved those kids."

Some neighbors said they only knew Steele because of a fire last month at her house at 476 Bath Club Blvd. N. The July 7 blaze began near a dryer about 4:30 p.m., but the cause was unknown, according to a Madeira Beach Fire Department report. The flames spread to the kitchen and garage, sent smoke pouring through the house and caused an estimated $150,000 in damage.

Outside the house that night, neighbor Lisa Burke saw Steele standing with two boys and two large dogs. She later learned that the older woman was pregnant.

"I thought she was actually the kids' grandmother," Burke said.

Steele gave birth to the baby girl on July 26. Three days later at a Treasure Island hotel, according to deputies, Steele said her newborn daughter sustained a head injury.

The mother told investigators she tripped going down the stairs during a fire alarm. The baby fell from a carrier.

Hospital doctors said the girl had minor bleeding in the brain and called the Department of Children and Families hotline.

Pinellas sheriff's child protection investigators determined July 30 that there was no evidence of abuse and that the baby's injuries were accidental.

Investigators were set to follow up with Steele on Aug. 1 after the baby was released, but she rescheduled the appointment for this Wednesday — two days after the girl would die.

Investigators, however, received another hotline call on Aug. 2, according to Gualtieri. The caller said Steele's children were unsupervised and malnourished. Investigators visited the family, the sheriff said, but found no evidence of abuse or neglect.

Sheriff's child protection investigators handle cases within Pinellas for the state Department of Children and Families.

A DCF spokeswoman said the agency had no involvement with Steele before the recent incidents.

• • •

Proving that Steele is guilty of aggravated manslaughter of a child could be difficult, according to defense attorneys.

Mike Benito, a Tampa criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor, said that for the state to prove its case, it will have to show that Steele had reason to believe leaving her daughter with the 6-year-old could have resulted in harm.

Tampa lawyer Barry Cohen said Steele's state of mind could be the foundation for a criminal defense.

Her attorney would have to figure out if she was capable of understanding the consequences of her actions, he said.

"It all comes down to her mental state," Cohen said. "That's where I would start."

Times senior news researchers Caryn Baird and John Martin and staff writer Megan Reeves contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com.

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