PALM HARBOR, Fla. (WFLA) – A Palm Harbor father has been charged with aggravated manslaughter in connection with his son’s death. He bonded out of jail Saturday morning.
Lawson Whitaker, 23 months old, was found Friday inside a vehicle in the 1600 block of Castlewood Lane.
Officials received the call around 4:30 p.m. The child “was left unattended in the back of his father’s truck for about eight hours,” deputies said.
The boy’s parents, Troy Whitaker, 41, and Kristin Whitaker, 33, also have a 5-year-old daughter.
Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Troy Whitaker, a firefighter with Hillsborough County Fire Rescue, was taking both children to school Friday morning. He dropped the daughter off and was then supposed to drop Lawson off at preschool, the sheriff said. “For some reason he didn’t,” Gualtieri said.
Troy Whitaker then parked his car around 8:30 a.m. The sheriff said Lawson was in the vehicle from then until 4:30 p.m. Troy Whitaker told investigators he went to Publix, came back and then found his son in the truck. Lawson was in a car seat behind the driver’s seat.
Gualtieri said Whitaker was taking grocery bags out of the truck when he saw his son in the backseat. He dropped the bags on the driveway, the sheriff said. Whitaker started CPR while waiting for emergency crews.
The child was taken to Mease Countryside Hospital and pronounced dead. “He had extremely high body temperature,” Gualtieri said.
Troy Whitaker was charged Friday night. “It’s not an intentional act. I’m not saying it is. What I’m saying is that you got to be responsible for kids, and you can’t leave ’em in the car for eight hours and let their body temperature get to 108 degrees and they die,” Gualtieri said.
Bryant Camereno, a legal expert not affiliated with this case, says an aggravated manslaughter charge is appropriate in this case for two reasons, Whitaker is a first responder and left the child locked in the vehicle for hours. “There’s a difference between losing track of a kid for 30-seconds, a minute versus 4-6 hours of being locked up in a car. Especially if he was in the paramedic field.” Said Camareno. “I’m sure countless times he may have been in a position where he tried to save other children or pets or animals that were locked in a car. ”
Neighbors watched as investigators went through the truck Friday evening.
Retired sheriff deputy Joe Lumpkin leaped from his couch when he heard about his neighbors. “I saw dad performing CPR, compressions, compressions,” Lumpkin said. “He was frantic.”
Whitaker looked stunned as he walked near the pickup, the neighbor said. “I was hoping at the time and praying that CPR would be successful,” Lumpkin added. “As a dad and seeing the child who had just learned my name, who would wave to me daily, pause for me go over to me with those pretty blue eyes.”
Another neighbor said it “reinforces you need to spend as much time was you can with your kids.” “Because you never know when tragedy will strike,” Mike Hansen said.