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Lakeland woman held 11-month-old daughter under scalding hot water, killing her, police say

Authorities say Pamela Black killed her 11-month-old daughter by immersing her in scalding hot water and causing third-degree burns over most of the infant's body. [Lakeland Police Department]
Authorities say Pamela Black killed her 11-month-old daughter by immersing her in scalding hot water and causing third-degree burns over most of the infant's body. [Lakeland Police Department]
Published Apr. 25, 2019

On Nov. 6, 2018, at 6:30 a.m., 11-month-old Serenity Gunter was pronounced dead at Tampa General Hospital. She died as the result of thermal injury burns that covered 60 percent of her small body.

Lakeland police Tuesday charged and arrested the infant's 21-year-old mother, saying she intentionally caused her child's violent death.

"The victim, Serenity Gunter, was intentionally immersed in scalding water by her biological mother, defendant Pamela Black, on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018, at their residence, 5115 N Socrum Loop Road, apartment 85," investigator Neal Robertson wrote in an arrest report.

On Oct. 23, authorities said, Pamela Black held most of her daughter's body in a kitchen sink filled with water measured at more than 140 degrees as the child screamed, causing third-degree burns from Serenity's chest to her ankles. It took almost 90 minutes for Black and a friend to take Serenity to a hospital in Lakeland, where she was then airlifted to Tampa General Hospital.

Serenity died two weeks later.

Black originally told investigators she was giving Serenity a bath in the kitchen sink as she prepared to cook dinner. She said she tested the water before placing Serenity in, adding some bubbles and toys, and turning away to wipe a counter down.

She said she left the cold water running because Serenity liked to play in it.

While her back was turned, Black said she heard Serenity scream and turned to see that her child had "bumped" the hot water and turned it on, she told investigators.

But medical staff at Lakeland Regional Health and Tampa General didn't buy Black's story.

Black repeatedly told hospital staff and investigators that Serenity was sitting in the sink, but the burns indicated her arms and feet were out of the water. Additionally, Dr. Jasmine Patterson, who treated Serenity when she arrived at Tampa General, said Serenity would have had splash marks if the water had been running.

Polk County Medical Examiner Vera Volnikh performed on autopsy on Serenity and determined her injuries came from an immersion burn.

"Dr. Volnikh stated the victim's body was folded inward by her torso and legs and was lowered, buttocks-first, into the scalding hot water forcefully," Robertson wrote.

It would have only taken two seconds for Serenity to suffer third-degree burns, Volnikh said.

According to Volnikh, Serenity also had a brain bleed consistent with being shaken. She said the bleed likely occurred the same time as the burns.

According to investigators, Black tried to get her husband, Taylor Smith, to go along with the story.

Taylor Smith told police he was playing outside with his 2-year-old son when he heard screams he'd "never forget" and ran inside to find Black standing over the sink with her left hand under Serenity's arms and her right hand holding her by the legs.

Smith said Black showed no emotion as he grabbed Serenity, wrapped her in a towel and ran to their roommate Brock Blanton's room. Blanton and Smith put aloe and baby powder on Serenity's body to help with the burns. As the burns began to blister and peel, Smith told Black that Serenity needed to go to the hospital.

A friend of Black's pulled up to the apartment and drove them to the hospital. It was 8 p.m., an hour and a half after Black is accused of holding her daughter under scalding hot water.

Black was charged with aggravated child abuse and aggravated manslaughter. She is being held without bail in Polk County jail.

Contact Daniel Figueroa at dfigueroa@tampabay.com. Follow @danuscripts.

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