Did these parents accidentally suffocate their children? Or did a mysterious ailment cause them to die?

In Pinellas County, officials say Sudden Infant Death Syndrome doesn’t exist.
"I pray for hope. Sometimes, it is a cry for help," explains Martí Gonzalez, whose son Patrick was 2 months old when she found him unresponsive in his crib in May 2015. "Some days, I'm OK, and some days, I'm not."
"I pray for hope. Sometimes, it is a cry for help," explains Martí Gonzalez, whose son Patrick was 2 months old when she found him unresponsive in his crib in May 2015. "Some days, I'm OK, and some days, I'm not." [ PHOTOS BY JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Published Dec. 11, 2019|Updated Feb. 25, 2020

The worst day of her life started out wonderful.

A bright morning in May 2015. A Thursday.

“It was bliss,” Martí Gonzalez said, wiping her eyes. “A perfectly ordinary, perfect day.”


A family photo of Patrick Gonzalez taken the day he died.
A family photo of Patrick Gonzalez taken the day he died.

While her husband was at work at a data center in Tampa, and her older son was at preschool, Martí, then 41, got to spend a few quiet hours in their St. Petersburg home with her baby.

Patrick was 2 months old, “a big chunk of a kid,” Martí said, almost 15 pounds. Calm and watchful, he seemed to take in everything around him. He had a strong kick and was starting to lift his head. He loved being cradled in his mother’s arms.

Martí bathed her baby that morning, fastened on a clean diaper and dressed him in a new onesie with black and white stripes. She slicked back his shock of dark hair. He looked so cute, she took a photo of him, staring up at her with those wide, blue eyes and what looked like -- maybe? -- the start of a smile.

About 10:30 a.m., Martí fed Patrick and carried him into the new nursery. The crib had a foam mattress, fitted sheet and a bright blue Gators pillow. Martí had put the pillow at the bottom of the crib, so Patrick would have something to look at but couldn’t roll into it.

She kissed his forehead and lay him on his stomach.

She knew some people said you should place infants on their backs to sleep. But her older son had always slept on his stomach, and Patrick seemed to sleep better that way, too. So he lay with his head turned to the right, facing the window.

While Patrick slept, Martí made lunch for her 3-year-old, Augie. She was grateful to have maternity leave from her job as a writer for AAA, to have time to focus on her boys. Her mom brought Augie home about noon, then Martí and Augie made cupcakes. “A perfect day,” she said.

Augie went down for a nap around 1 p.m. Martí gathered the laundry, got the baby monitor from her bedroom and clipped it to her belt, so she could hear Patrick over the roar of the dryer. She was glad he was sleeping for so long.

Just after 2 p.m., she put in another load of clothes, then went to check on her boys. Augie was in his corner room, sleeping beneath his posters of Herbie the Lovebug.

Patrick was in the same position she had left him.

But he was too still. His tiny fingers were blue. When she touched his hand, it was cold.

Her screams woke Augie, who ran into the room. She stumbled through the house searching for her phone, then opened the front door and ran into the street, wailing, “My baby’s not breathing!” A neighbor came over and swooped away Augie. Martí finally found her cell and called 911. The operator told her to try chest compressions. She scooped Patrick from his crib and began CPR. Soon, paramedics took over.

“But I knew,” Martí said. “I just knew.”

One of the paramedics asked how her baby had been sleeping.

“When I said, ‘On his stomach,’ everyone gasped,” she said. “Like they knew, then, that it was my fault. I’d killed my son.”

The last time Martí saw her baby, he was strapped to a gurney, his eyes closed to the sunlight, as he was wheeled into an ambulance.

Martí called her husband: “Meet me at the hospital. Patrick’s not breathing.” All the way there, over the bridge across Tampa Bay, Henry Gonzalez begged God: “Please! Don’t let this happen!”

The fire chief drove Martí to All Children’s Hospital. There, she met her husband.

And a team of detectives.


On Sundays, the Gonzalez family places a flower on a memorial brick at St. Paul's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg.
On Sundays, the Gonzalez family places a flower on a memorial brick at St. Paul's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg.

Patrick Gonzalez was one of 100 infants who died in Pinellas County in their sleep during the last decade.

More than half of those babies died in their parents’ beds. Two died on their fathers’ chests. Three were beneath their mothers’ breasts. One rolled off a mattress and got wedged between the bed and headboard. Another was tangled in sheets by his mother’s feet. All of them were under a year old.

And born healthy.

The Pinellas County Medical Examiner’s Office did an autopsy on each infant: 67 boys and 33 girls. According to William A. Pellan, who oversees investigations, none of those babies should have died.

William A. Pellan has overseen investigations for the Pinellas County Medical Examiner's Office for 20 years.
William A. Pellan has overseen investigations for the Pinellas County Medical Examiner's Office for 20 years.

Five babies have died this year in Pinellas alone, "and another four in Pasco,” Pellan said in November. “No one wants to talk about it.”

Imagine trying to wake up your infant and realizing that he’s still whole, still beautiful. But gone.

What happened? Was it your fault?


For 50 years, medical examiners have been saying that thousands of babies die each year from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS. The diagnosis, also called “crib death,” is really one of exclusion: Doctors can’t find anything else to explain it.

Pellan is not a doctor, but he and a growing number of medical examiners, physicians and researchers across the world say that there is no such thing as SIDS. Babies don’t just die in their sleep. They suffocate because someone didn’t put them down safely.

“In the 20 years I’ve been here, we haven’t attributed a single infant death to SIDS,” Pellan said.

Of those 100 infants his office examined in the last decade, investigators called 20 deaths “undetermined.” The rest were ruled as being caused by asphyxia.

The Florida Association of Medical Examiners doesn’t have a policy about how to classify infants who die suddenly, spokesman Michael Bell said. “It is left to the individual offices or pathologists.” Some counties record SIDS deaths, others don’t. The Florida Department of Health classifies Sudden Unexpected Infant Deaths -- SUIDS, and includes causes of accidental suffocation and SIDS.

“I don’t understand why anyone is still using SIDS,” Pellan said. “No one would accept a finding of Sudden Adult Death.”

When Pellan’s own boys were babies, he said he made sure they only went to bed on their backs, alone, in a bassinet, without any pillows, blankets or toys. He even took the cushion off the rocking chair where his wife breastfed, so she couldn’t get comfortable, so she wouldn’t fall asleep.

“I can’t imagine what these parents go through, waking up to that horror.”

But why can some babies sleep on their stomachs, or with their parents, and survive? Is it luck? “There are risk factors,” Pellan said. Studies show that boys are more likely to suffocate than girls, especially if they have recently been circumcised. African-American babies have a higher rate of dying in bed. The danger also seems to increase if the infant was a preemie, had respiratory problems or a cold, or if someone in the house smoked.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services still refers to SIDS as a cause of death. So do the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Mayo Clinic. In 2017, across the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 3,600 babies died unexpectedly -- 1,300 by unknown causes, 900 from suffocation and 1,400 of SIDS.

Sharyn Parks, who researches infant deaths for the federal agency, said the rate has remained relatively unchanged since 2000. But, she said, SIDS classifications are dropping as accidental suffocations increase.

In April, a study Parks worked on was published in Pediatrics. Her team looked at 250 infant deaths across 10 states -- and found that unintentional suffocation was the top cause of death. More than 70 percent of those babies died in their parents’ beds. More than half were on their stomachs.

Doctors used to recommend that babies sleep on their stomachs, so that if they spit up, they wouldn’t choke. Then some said to put babies on their sides, between foam bumpers. But by the late 1990s, research had shown that babies were less likely to suffocate if they were on their backs -- where they didn’t have to turn their heads to breathe. More experts began wondering if SIDS really exists.

Canadian coroners stopped using SIDS in 2017. The term, they said, is worthless because it doesn’t explain the death.

But five years ago, the National Institutes of Health released findings under the headline: “Brain abnormality found in group of SIDS cases.” Doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital say they’ve discovered evidence of lower levels of serotonin and a certain protein, along with other problems, in babies who died in their sleep. They are working to identify infants at increased risk.

And two doctors from Tokyo Women’s Medical University argue that there is a “medical necessity” to call the sudden death of an infant SIDS even if the syndrome might not exist. In a 2001 letter to the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, they wrote, “In addition to the social significance, it relieves the mother of responsibility.”


The Rojans, a St. Petersburg High School community service club, prepare sleep care packages for new mothers at the Juvenile Welfare Board headquarters in Clearwater. Pictured center is Alana Schmaldienst, 16.
The Rojans, a St. Petersburg High School community service club, prepare sleep care packages for new mothers at the Juvenile Welfare Board headquarters in Clearwater. Pictured center is Alana Schmaldienst, 16.

Pinellas County is leading the state in the push to educate parents, according to April Putzulu of the Juvenile Welfare Board.

The county launched a “Sleep Baby Safely” campaign last year, with funding from property taxes. Posters and pamphlets promote the way infants should sleep: ABC - Alone, on their Back, in a Crib.

New mothers get onesies that say, “This Side Up.” First-responders are trained on how to talk to parents about putting their babies to bed.

Other counties also have been addressing the issue.

Hillsborough County’s Healthy Start Coalition is talking to Realtors, asking them to reach out to infants’ parents as they move into a new home, giving free cribs to those who take a 90-minute parenting class. Palm Beach County started a safe sleep parenting app. And Manatee County is teaching safe sleeping classes to inmates.

April Putzulu of the Juvenile Welfare Board explains Pinellas' safe baby sleeping campaign during a conference in Orlando.
April Putzulu of the Juvenile Welfare Board explains Pinellas' safe baby sleeping campaign during a conference in Orlando.

Putzulu repeats the message whenever she can. “If SIDS existed, if healthy babies were just dying in their sleep mysteriously, then the medical examiner would see babies dying in car seats or swings or on walks in their strollers. But they aren’t.”

More infants die in adult beds than anywhere else, she said. “In Pinellas County alone, we’ve lost enough in the last decade to fill six kindergarten classes.”


Family photo of Zakai, who died when he was 4 months old.
Family photo of Zakai, who died when he was 4 months old.

Juanita Simmons didn’t want to go out that night. But her mom convinced her she should have a few hours of fun.

So Juanita kissed her baby on his nose and headed out with a friend to see a movie.

Juanita was 19 then, and in the four months since Zakai had been born, she seldom left him. During her math class at St. Petersburg College, he snoozed in his car seat beside her feet. In church, he cooed along as she sang.

That night -- Feb. 24, 2010 -- Juanita got home around 11 p.m. Her mom was feeding Zakai, but Juanita couldn’t wait to hold him. She took her baby, cradling him as he drained the bottle. She burped him and laid him on his back on her twin bed. She propped a pillow between him and the wall. About midnight, she lay down beside him.

At first, she was facing him, but at some point, she turned her back. When she woke at 8:30 a.m., she leaned over to kiss her son.

Zakai was still on his back. But frothy, white fluid stained his lips. When she lifted him, his body was cold. She blew into his tiny hand, trying to warm him. She started screaming, “No! No! No!”

Paramedics pulled up to the house at 8:49 a.m. and tried to revive Zakai. Juanita wanted to ride with him in the ambulance, but a detective stopped her. “Did you roll over on him?” asked the officer. “Did you suffocate your son?”

He wasn’t on his stomach, she told them. He was healthy, happy. “God had a better plan for him.”

Police examined the baby at the hospital and found no bruises or marks. “Nothing suspicious,” said the report. “No evidence of trauma.”

Juanita begged the detective to let her hold her baby one more time.

“Why didn’t you put him in a crib?” asked the officer.

“It scared me, to have him that far away,” she said. “If he needed anything in the night, I wanted him to have his mama right there.”


It seems natural, to sleep with your baby, to keep him safe and warm, to be beside him in bed when you’re breastfeeding. To listen to him breathing.

But babies’ lungs develop slowly, said Pellan, the medical examiner. For the first few months, they can only breathe out of their noses. And since their noses don’t yet have cartilage, when the nostrils are pressed against blankets, cushions or even stuffed animals, babies can’t breathe. It only takes a few seconds to suffocate.

“They lose oxygen to the brain, then lose consciousness,” Pellan said.

Gravity pulls the blood to the lowest portion of the body, so medical examiners can tell if a baby died on his belly or back.

From a Pinellas County autopsy report.
From a Pinellas County autopsy report. [ courtesy of Pinellas Medical Examiner's Office ]

Even the Bible references the dangers of co-sleeping. In 1 Kings 3:19, in the King James version, one mother warns about another: “This woman’s child died in the night, because she overlaid it.”

By the seventh century, if your baby died while sleeping with you, that was “a punishable offense,” according to an article in the National Institutes of Health Library of Medicine. European officials, in the 18th century, insisted that parents put infants in “protective wooden arcuccios,” slatted coverings for babies that had openings for breastfeeding but kept the mother or wet nurse from rolling over on the child.

In the 1830s, for the first time, a doctor proposed that something called “thymic asthma” was causing babies to stop breathing in their sleep. At the same time, popular wives’ tales held that witches and cats sucked away babies’ breath.

Even after doctors started warning about SIDS, in the late 1960s, mothers kept telling their daughters to put babies down on their bellies. “That’s how you slept, so it must be best.”

Recommendations for stomach sleeping continued into the late 1980s, according to the article, which was published in May 2018. During those two decades, the authors estimate, that advice may have contributed to the unnecessary deaths of 60,000 babies.


Nikia Truitt holds a photo of Rodriguez Madry, Jr. taken a few days before the infant was found dead in his bassinet. The baby lived for only two weeks.
Nikia Truitt holds a photo of Rodriguez Madry, Jr. taken a few days before the infant was found dead in his bassinet. The baby lived for only two weeks.

Two weeks after having her son, Nikia Truitt was still in the hospital, battling an infection from her C-section. She started having an uneasy feeling. “An intuition,” she called it later. She phoned her boyfriend, who was home watching the children.

Nikia, 30 at the time, had eight kids. The oldest was 14. She’d had four with other fathers, four with her high school sweetheart, Rodriguez Madry, including the baby, his namesake. Junior was a chubby boy with thick black hair, who slept well and seldom cried.

“Is everything okay?” Nikia asked her boyfriend just after midnight, on Jan. 14, 2017. He assured her things were fine. Her sister was there helping.

They talked for a half-hour, while he fed the baby 4 ounces of formula. She heard him burp their son. Then he said he’d call her back, after he put the baby to bed.

Nikia waited all night, watching shows blur by on the TV, wondering why Rodriguez hadn’t called back.

Around 9 a.m., a nurse burst into Nikia’s room and unplugged the landline. Seconds later, Nikia’s cell rang. “Rodriguez died,” her boyfriend’s grandmother said, straight away.

“What are you talking about? I just talked to him!” Nikia shouted.

“No, Junior. The baby,” the grandmother cried. “He died in his sleep. I’ve got him in my arms right now.”

“What? How? What happened?” Nikia shrieked. She screamed so loudly, her sister heard her from down the hall, where she was getting off the elevator.

Terry Truitt gathered Nikia in her arms but didn’t know what to say.

Nurses helped settle Nikia into a wheelchair, and her sister rolled her toward the emergency room. Her boyfriend was walking in circles, holding their baby against his chest, sobbing. “What happened?” she said.

“I don’t know,” Rodriguez said, rocking. “I don’t know. I don’t know … “

Nikia stood up, held out her arms and demanded, “Give me my baby!”

Rodriguez had made frozen lasagna for the kids that night, he told Nikia. He gave them baths, laid out their clothes for school the next day, had everyone in bed by 9 p.m.

He had changed Junior’s diaper after the midnight feeding, snapped him into a onesie, tugged a soft, knit cap over his head. He wrapped his son in a blue blanket, “like a baby tortilla,” and lay him in the yellow bassinet beside his king-sized bed.

While his son slept, he watched The Incredibles on TV. Rodriguez, who grew up without a dad, said, “I wanted to be a superhero to my kids.”

The baby woke him, crying, about 3 a.m. So he made another bottle, fed him about half of the formula, changed his diaper, rolled him back into the blanket, and placed his son on his back in the bassinet. He propped the bottle beside the baby.

Hours later, Rodriguez got up to use the bathroom and saw that his baby wasn’t breathing. He had blood on his nose.

When his father lifted him, he was limp.

“Help! I need help!” Rodriguez shouted, running into the living room. Nikia’s sister, who had been sleeping on the couch, grabbed her nephew. His skin was so ashen and icy. She suctioned his nose, then his mouth, then tried CPR.

By then, all the kids were up and crying. Nikia’s sister handed the baby back to Rodriguez and called 911.

Nikia was holding her dead baby in the hospital when police came to question her. They already had talked to Rodriguez and her sister. “I don’t know. I don’t have a clue,” Nikia kept saying. “I’m trying to figure that out myself.”

The questions lasted for what felt like hours. Through it all, she held her son. Then one of the officers said the coroner was on his way. “We have to do an autopsy,” the detective told her.

“Oh, no you’re not,” screamed Nikia, clutching the child against her chest. “He’s too little to be cutting on. You’re not taking my baby!”


In Florida, detectives investigate every unexpected death of an infant. Officers examine the child for injuries and bruises, note where the baby was sleeping and what items were nearby.

“Most of the time, by the time we get there, they’ve been dead for a while,” said Largo Detective Chris Berard.

Berard has been a detective for two decades and on Pinellas County’s Child Abuse Death Review Committee for a dozen years. For the last year, he has been training his officers about what to look for at a scene, how to question parents — and inform them that their baby’s death was their fault. “Most of them will go on to have other children,” he said. “We want to make sure this never happens again.”

This spring, Berard even created a new code for his department. Each time an officer responds to a call where there is a baby — even if it’s for a noise violation or stolen bicycle — the officer is supposed to ask the parent to see where the child sleeps and make sure they know to keep their baby on its back, alone, in a crib. Officers are supposed to add a “2B” to those calls, to alert everyone there is a baby at that address. Often, Berard follows up with a visit.

Some day, he hopes, sleeping babies on their backs will become as common - and unquestioned - as using car seats.

“We have to teach everyone that it’s not God or the bogeyman coming to take their babies,” Berard said. “It’s about responsibility. There are things you can do.”

The autopsy comes next, always within 24 hours. Coroners test for drugs and disease. They draw marks on reports with illustrations of generic infants, showing where there was bruising, discoloration or marks from an IV.

Someone from the medical examiner’s office calls each family, to share the official ruling. And a copy of the autopsy is sent to the Child Abuse Death Review panel.

“We have conversations with the investigators and detectives,” said Pellan, the medical examiner. “But whether to remove other children is up to the Department of Children and Families.”

Detectives decide whether to pursue criminal charges.

In the United States, parents are rarely charged with rolling over on their babies, or putting them to sleep on their stomachs, or in blankets, where they suffocated. Prosecutors argue: What punishment could be worse than losing your child?

But in Florida -- in the last three years -- two mothers were charged with killing their babies by co-sleeping. A Winter Haven woman was arrested in 2016, when her 18-day-old son suffocated in her bed. Another child, a daughter, had died in similar fashion seven years earlier, and police ruled that an accident. But last year, a judge sentenced the 26-year-old to four years in prison for “neglect of a child with great bodily harm.”

A 5-week-old Wellington baby was sleeping with his dad in January 2018 when the boy fell out of bed and hit his head on the floor. His parents took him to the hospital, where doctors checked him out and sent him home. They warned the parents: “Don’t sleep with your baby. Ever.”

But less than a week later, the mother put the infant on a pillow in her bed, beside her, covered him with a blanket and watched a movie on her phone. Six hours later, she woke to her husband’s screams.

Police charged her with negligent manslaughter. In August, the 33-year-old pled guilty to a lesser charge: culpable negligence. She has to complete 300 hours of community service, get treatment for mental health issues and take parenting classes to keep custody of her 5-year-old son.


Martí Gonzalez wears a charm made from the handprint of her son Patrick.
Martí Gonzalez wears a charm made from the handprint of her son Patrick.

Police separated Martí and Henry Gonzalez at All Children’s Hospital, each in an office near the emergency room. They asked about the baby’s birth, medical history, about their home and marriage, where their son slept, what was in his crib, whether they had given him any medications.

Martí answered their questions, but everything felt so far away, like she was watching herself in a movie. She kept waiting for someone to yell, “Cut!” so everything could go back to normal.

She wanted to hold her baby. She wanted her husband to hold her. But the interview continued, for what felt like forever.

“It was a criminal investigation,” Martí said. “We had just lost our son and there was no sympathy from anyone. I get that the police have to do their job, but I was already struggling with guilt. They made me feel I was a bad parent.

“I didn’t need them to tell me that."

Henry wanted to see Patrick, so he could kiss him goodbye.

Someone came to ask them about donating their baby’s organs; they’d have to decide right away. Martí couldn’t stand the thought of surgeons slicing into her son. Someone else came to get “the body.”

Martí was too upset to protest. She just wanted to go home. As they drove down their street, they saw that their house had been wrapped in yellow tape — turned into a crime scene. Martí's mother had let detectives inside, and they were examining every room, taking more than 150 photos. “They looked in our fridge,” Martí said. “They took the bed linens for evidence.”

The St. Petersburg Police Department would later conclude that there were “no signs of foul play or homicidal violence.”

That night, after Martí and Henry finally got Augie to sleep, they lay in the dark, staring at the ceiling. She kept asking, “Why us?” He kept answering, “Why not us?” They are devout Catholics and thanked God for giving them Patrick. Then they began crying, “Why did you have to take him away?”

About 5 a.m., they were startled by a loud knock at the door. Outside the front window, they saw red and blue lights. A police car was parked across the street, and a woman was on their porch. “I’m from the Department of Children and Families,” she said, showing an ID. “I need to talk to you.”

She also wanted to talk to their 3-year-old. She told them they would have to take him to a clinic in a few hours, for a physical exam, to make sure he wasn’t being abused — or at risk in any way.

Martí started shaking. Were they going to take Augie?

She called a lawyer that day. She called a funeral home. She called her family.

Henry’s sister came over and cupped Martí's face in her hands, “You did not do this,” she said, again and again. Martí's sister called the Florida SIDS Alliance.

Martí and her sister had grown up hearing stories about their cousin Christopher, who relatives said died of SIDS in the 1960s. Martí never knew Christopher and didn’t really know what SIDS was.

In 1985, a group of Florida families whose infants had died in their sleep started an alliance to share stories, research and support. Charlene Melcher, whose baby died 21 years ago, explained to Martí what would happen next. The coroner in Pinellas County is not sympathetic to a SIDS diagnosis, Melcher told Martí. Patrick’s death certificate surely will say, “asphyxiation.”

“I knew in my head that he didn’t suffocate,” Martí said. “There’s no scientific reason. I just feel it to be true. Saying it’s asphyxiation is no better than me holding a pillow over my son’s face. ”

Martí thanked Melcher. “Patrick died of SIDS,” she told her husband. Then, she paused. “Or am I willing to accept that diagnosis to assuage my own guilt?”


Khalesha Truitt, 11, kisses the grave of her little brother, Rodriguez Madry Jr., at Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Clearwater. "I remember him grabbing my finger when I patted him to sleep."
Khalesha Truitt, 11, kisses the grave of her little brother, Rodriguez Madry Jr., at Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Clearwater. "I remember him grabbing my finger when I patted him to sleep."

None of the parents in those Pinellas County cases were charged with crimes.

All say they will never be whole again.

Zakai would be 10 years old now.

“The coroner said he died from lack of oxygen to the body,” said his mother. “I don’t know if he choked or what.”

The autopsy is clear: “Asphyxiated while co-sleeping with parent.”

After losing Zakai, Juanita had three more babies, all girls. Even when they were infants, she slept beside them. “They need their mama close.”

Her daughters have heard about their older brother. They know he was buried in a blue casket. For a while, Juanita couldn’t bear to see photos of her son. But now, he smiles from their living room wall.

Juanita had planned to take him horseback riding and on an airplane, things she had never done. “And I wanted to get him a little wallet, so he could take his mama to the nail salon.”

She dreamed of him once, a few years ago. It’s still so vivid. “I’d strapped all the girls into their car seats, and I turned to get Zakai. But he was floating away,” she said. “And he was calling down to me, saying, ‘Mama, I’m okay.’ ”

At Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Clearwater, a separate area is reserved for infants.
At Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Clearwater, a separate area is reserved for infants.

Rodriguez Jr. would be almost 3. A rambunctious toddler, his dad is sure of that. He pictures himself watching cartoons with his boy, eating Happy Meals. He blames himself that his son isn’t here.

“The doctor said it was SIDS. I didn’t know anything about it, so I looked it up,” said Rodriguez Sr. “I still don’t know. All I know is I wish I’d gotten up to check on him sooner.”

Nikia still feels robbed. She doesn’t really blame the boy’s dad, but they broke up. They see each other, try to co-parent. But, she said, “I need time to fix me.”

She remembers doctors telling her that their son died of “something like SIDS, but it wasn’t SIDS.” Two months later, she said, the coroner called and said: Asphyxiation.

“I just wish I’d been home with him,” Nikia said. “If I had been, he’d still be here.”

When she moved into a new house this fall, she built an altar to Rodriguez Jr. around the fireplace, black-and-white photos of his tiny face and hands. Her children all remember their brother and that night, when no one could save him.

Martí Gonzalez plays with her son Augie, 8, with Henry Gonzalez (at left) in their St. Petersburg home. After Patrick's death, a social worker at All Children's Hospital gave the family a list of resources that included SIDS support groups, even though county officials say there's no such thing.
Martí Gonzalez plays with her son Augie, 8, with Henry Gonzalez (at left) in their St. Petersburg home. After Patrick's death, a social worker at All Children's Hospital gave the family a list of resources that included SIDS support groups, even though county officials say there's no such thing.

Patrick’s parents are planning for his 5th birthday. They feel like they should celebrate the boy he would have been, or commemorate the beautiful baby he was, or do something. Maybe set up a scholarship, through the Rowdies, so his name will live on?

His photos are the first thing everyone sees when they walk through the front door. There’s one of his big brother, holding him in his arms. Another of him in that striped onesie, looking right at his mother, taken that last day, moments before he fell asleep.

After Patrick was gone, Martí wanted another baby. But she miscarried. And they haven’t been able to get pregnant again. She and Henry talked about adopting but worried: What if someone brought up Patrick? “I lost my own child, on my watch,” Martí said. She worried about being labeled an irresponsible parent. “Who would give me another?”

She still goes to church and thanks God for her two sons. She doesn’t blame him. She blames herself. Henry doesn’t. But they have been in counseling since Patrick died. Their therapist diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder. “How do you enjoy life again?” Henry keeps asking. “How do you cheer at a Gators’ game? Take a vacation? Not feel guilty about laughing?” Sometimes, at work, he hides in a back room and cries.

The ache is most unbearable when they watch Augie, who is 8, playing by himself. “His brother should be there beside him,” Martí said. She still has nightmares and worries someone will take Augie away. “What if he falls off the jungle gym?” she asked. “Will they think we abused him?”

A few months ago, Augie’s second-grade teacher asked the students to draw portraits of their families. Augie drew his baby brother -- and gave him angel wings.

“We told him Patrick will always be with us,” Martí said. “But he died because something in his brain didn’t work.”

They never got a copy of the police report, or the autopsy. Never asked for them.

Funeral home workers folded Patrick’s death certificate into an envelope, with other paperwork. They never opened it.

My baby is gone, Martí said, and nothing will bring him back.

“What does it matter what the medical examiner says happened?”

Times researcher Caryn Baird and data reporter Connie Humburg contributed to this report.

Information/how to help

For more information on safe sleep practices for infants:

To donate a new playpen for parents who can’t afford a crib or if you need one, call or text: 727-512-3740. Or email:

SIDS: Through the years

1969 -- Doctors first use the term Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

1978 -- The term SIDS is added to the International Classification of Diseases.

1985 -- A group of parents form the Florida SIDS Alliance.

1990s -- Doctors say babies should sleep on their backs to reduce the chance of SIDS.

2000 -- Pinellas County medical examiners stop using SIDS to classify infant deaths.

2001 -- A French professor says the World Health Organization should remove SIDS from the International Classification of Diseases.

2014 -- The National Institute of Health publishes a news release saying, “Brain abnormality found in group of SIDS cases.” Research continues into underlying causes.

2017 -- Canadian coroners stop using SIDS, saying the term has become largely meaningless because it doesn’t offer insight into the cause of death.

2018 -- Pinellas County launches a “Sleep Baby Safely” campaign.

About the story

Times reporter Lane DeGregory built a database of infant deaths in Pinellas County during the last decade. She cross-referenced them with autopsies and police reports, which were obtained through Freedom of Information requests, and made spreadsheets noting when, where and how the child died, whether there were drugs or alcohol involved, whether the child was with his family or in foster care. Then she sent certified letters to the parents, asking to talk to them about their infants. Only three families agreed to be interviewed for this story. Additional information came from state databases about infant deaths, research from the Florida Child Abuse Death Review Summit, plus interviews with the medical examiner’s office, local police and fire department officials, and representatives of the Juvenile Welfare Board.

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