Babies left in hot cars: Accident or crime?

That terrible morning, Antonio Balta dropped off his girlfriend, Michelle Bashford, at the Gulfstream Park Racetrack in Hallandale Beach, where she worked as a waitress and he as a horse groomer. The couple planned to drive north as soon as she finished her shift. They'd be in New York with their families in a day or two. Balta, a 27-year-old Peruvian, told Bashford not to worry; he'd take care of all the last-minute errands. As she got out of the car, she kissed him and said goodbye to their 9-month-old daughter, Veronika.

Once alone with the baby, Balta ticked off his pretravel chores. He got the car washed, said goodbye to the landlord, and loaded the couple's meager belongings — dishes, baby clothes, photos — into their 1996 Pontiac Grand Prix. He went to a gas station and filled up the tank, buying a bag of Fritos and two Starbucks coffee drinks for the road.

When he returned to the Gulfstream parking lot around 1 p.m. that spring day — March 13, 2004 — it was 65 degrees out, cool enough for many race fans to wear light jackets. He called Michelle on her cell phone to let her know everything was ready to go. When she got out around 5, they'd head straight for the state line.

She asked what he planned to do until then. Balta said he had to talk to his boss for a minute, to make sure his transfer back to Saratoga would go smoothly. She warned him not to leave the baby alone in the car.

But Balta had taken Veronika inside the track twice before. The loud, flashing slot machines and bustling crowds made her cry. So he cracked the front window a little to give the baby some air. He didn't roll the window down far, though — he didn't want someone trying to kidnap her. Then he went into the casino to look for his boss.

But it was the day of the Florida Derby — the track's busiest day of the year — and his boss, a horse trainer, was busy. So Balta returned to the car to check on Veronika. He looked in through the window and saw her playing happily with her favorite toy, a stuffed pink bunny with the words I Love You across the chest.

Then he went back inside. This time, he ran into some friends. As they talked about his move, Balta placed a few bets. The wagers were all under $10, all on long shots he'd seen around the stables and thought might have a chance. He was hoping to make a little extra cash for the trip.

When his races were over, Balta said goodbye to his friends. They pleaded with him to hang out just a little while longer. Surveillance tapes would later show he was inside for about two hours.

When he stepped out of the air-conditioned betting parlor, Balta was struck by how much warmer it was. The temperature had spiked to 80 degrees. He immediately thought of Veronika and broke into a sprint across the parking lot.

Now, more than six years later, Balta recalls that fateful day from a stuffy cinder-block meeting room at the Sumter Correctional Institution in Bushnell, Florida. It was, he says, "the worst moment of my life." His voice is soft, and his words are slow and accented. "When I got there, I could see her through the window," he says, fidgeting with his right hand. "She looked like she was sleeping. I thought she was going to be OK."

Balta has spent most of the time since his daughter's death in a prison cell decorated with pictures of her. He had expected a lenient sentence when, on the advice of his attorney, he pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter of a child. Instead, he got 20 years. It's the longest sentence handed down for this type of crime anywhere in the nation.

While Balta's arrest originally drew shock and anger —a Sun-Sentinel headline at the time read "Father Gambles as Baby Dies"— the extraordinary length of his sentence has caused a small but dedicated group of supporters to come to his defense. His case highlights the remarkably inconsistent laws that punish this tragic — but not uncommon — mistake.

It happens somewhere in America on average once a week from spring through early fall. Children die in cars due to hyperthermia more than 30 times a year. Sometimes the child crawls into a car when nobody is looking, but most are left by a caregiver. In more than half the cases, it's a parent who forgets the child is in the car.

In August, a 2-year-old died after a Delray Beach daycare employee left her in the back of a van for several hours. Three weeks later, a mother in Miami was charged in the death of her 3-year-old boy after she left him in a car for about 45 minutes. In early October, a 14-month-old girl died after her 28-year-old father left her in the car for three hours outside a church in Miramar.

Roughly one-sixth of child hyperthermia cases in this country occur in the Sunshine State. At least 60 children have died in Florida since 1998, and more than 150 others have been injured. Some years bring more incidents than others: Last year, there were eight cases in Florida. The year before, there were two. In 2004, Veronika Balta was the first of ten. With 49 deaths nationwide by mid-October, 2010 has been the worst year yet.

"It's one of the worst tragedies a family can experience," says Janette Fennell, founder and president of kidsandcars.org, a Kansas-based safety advocacy group. Fennell's organization tracks child deaths and injuries in and around cars. According to her group, more than 450 kids have died from hyperthermia in vehicles since the mid-1990s — when safety experts told parents to move car seats to the back, to avoid the dangers of passenger-side airbags.

A March 2009 article by Gene Weingarten in the Washington Post Magazine, "Fatal Distraction," pondered whether parents who forget their children in cars should be charged with a crime at all. The story, which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, detailed how the human brain is capable, especially when aggravated by stress, of simply forgetting that a child is in a car all day.

In Florida, prosecutions and penalties vary widely. In some cases, no charges are ever filed. In others, the caregiver ends up in prison. In the 50 fatal incidents in Florida since 1998 for which public information is available, government policies differed significantly from one jurisdiction to the next. Some counties, such as Miami-Dade, prosecuted every case, while other jurisdictions, like Sarasota County, have declined to file criminal charges in similar circumstances.

In total, charges were filed in 58 percent of the Florida cases, and of those, most defendants were convicted — about 85 percent. In most cases, the defendant was given probation, though prison sentences ranged from a few weeks to Antonio Balta's 20 years.

The tragedy strikes across ages, races, and socioeconomic status. But each story has its own awful twist, a point when an ordinary, mundane day turns into an unimaginable nightmare.

One Coral Springs mother watched her two oldest children play soccer at a park for hours on a warm Saturday afternoon before remembering that her 9-month-old was still in the car. No charges were filed.

A Lake Worth woman's 4-year-old son died in the back of her Ford Expedition as she got her nails done the day she was to be married. The boy had sneaked into the back seat and hid in an attempt to spend extra time with his mother and aunt. They didn't notice him when they parked the car outside a salon for three hours. The mother was so distraught she had to be sedated at the hospital. Again, no charges were filed.

A Naples woman dropped her oldest child at school and thought she'd also dropped her 2-year-old daughter at daycare when she headed to work at a bank, where her Toyota Corolla remained parked in direct sunlight all day. After work, she drove all the way to the daycare to pick up the girl before noticing the body on the floor of the back seat — in the sweltering heat, the baby had escaped her car seat but couldn't get out of the car. The mother ended up pleading no contest to child neglect and received two years' probation.

After waking up and finding his girlfriend's 1-year-old son unresponsive in the car where he'd been left, a frightened 20-year-old in Fort Lauderdale put the dead baby in his crib and initially told police the child died from SIDS. An autopsy showed the baby's body temperature had reached about 108 degrees at the time of death. The man was sentenced to a year in jail and drug treatment.

The only sentence that even approaches Balta's was handed down in 2004, to a Lake Worth woman who left her 4-month-old in her own driveway overnight. She told police she passed out after drinking four or five beers and using marijuana, cocaine, and Xanax. She woke up at 2 p.m. to find her baby dead in the beat-up Pontiac parked outside. Two hours after the tiny girl was removed, her body temperature was still 106.3 degrees. The mother was sentenced to five years in prison.

Just four months after Antonio Balta accidentally killed his daughter, a dentist in Boca Raton brought his 3-year-old son with him to the office. He left the boy asleep in the car, thinking he'd be inside for only a minute. Three hours later, after a call from a relative and a sprint across the searing parking lot, he found the toddler unconscious, still strapped into the back seat of the family's Ford Explorer. The boy died an hour later. The dentist pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter to avoid the anguish of a trial. The judge withheld conviction, sentencing the father to ten years of probation and 500 hours of community service.

"One of the most tragic parts is that these situations could almost all be prevented with either more awareness or the use of technology that's already available for automakers," says Fennell of kidsandcars.org. Safety groups suggest putting a wallet or purse in the back seat of the car during every trip (even if the child isn't in the car), setting a cell phone alarm as a reminder to check on the baby, or scheduling emails that automatically ask, "Did you drop off the child at daycare?" High-tech gadgets — like censors that trigger an alarm if a child is left in the seat while the ignition is off — have been designed and tested by NASA engineers, but manufacturers have been reluctant to sell them for fear of liability issues.

"One of the reasons this is still such a problem is that nobody wants to believe this can happen to them," Fennell says. "Believe me, it can. Most of these people are caring, doting parents who made a terrible, terrible mistake they have to live with for their rest of their lives. There's a temptation to demonize them because that makes the tragedy easier to understand, maybe, but I work with many of these people. They are good people, good parents who are in hell wherever they go, whatever they do, whether they go to prison or not."

Antonio Balta sits against a blank wall in the stark prison meeting room, near a dusty, old fan. He can hear the echo of other inmates howling in the yard. Now 33 years old, he's 5-foot-9 and barely 150 pounds. Ash-blue prison scrubs hang baggily on his slouched frame.

Asked to describe his early life, he says in a soft voice, "Things have always been bad."

When Balta was a boy in Peru, his father was in the military and scarcely around. His mother cleaned houses. As a teenager, he baby-sat his infant cousins. His parents sent him to America — illegally — in 1993, when he was 16, to live with his uncle, a jockey. They hoped he'd have a better life away from the streets of Lima.

Balta says he worked odd jobs at horse tracks as his uncle followed the racing circuits from Florida to California to New York. At Belmont Park in New York, his first job with racehorses was as a "hot walker," the guy who cools down the horses after a race.

Eventually, his family settled near the track in Saratoga Springs, New York. At 20, Balta got his then-girlfriend, Jenny, pregnant. They married, had a second child, and separated soon after. He rarely saw the kids or paid child support.

In early 2002, Balta met Michelle Bashford, an American girl who was at the track with her father. Balta was betting that day — and winning. They went out for margaritas and hit it off. Within weeks, they were sharing an apartment. In November, Michelle announced she was pregnant.

They debated an abortion. He worried about money but missed having a baby around — the smells, the feel of the soft skin. "I told myself I could get another job and support this baby," he says. "Plus she could work a little, so everything was going to be all right. She was so happy. I'd never seen her that happy. She was crying.

"Michelle is a good woman," he says as he stares at the floor. "She has a good heart."

The day Veronika was born — May 21, 2003 — Balta had gone to work. When he'd left in the morning, Michelle wasn't having any pains. When he called that afternoon, Michelle's father answered. The baby was on the way: "You better hurry!"

Balta sped to the hospital. In the lobby gift shop, he stopped to buy the small pink bunny with I Love You embroidered on the chest. When he got to the room, he learned he'd missed the birth by about 20 minutes. The baby was sleeping. He leaned down to his daughter and whispered, "I'm sorry I didn't make it to meet you. I didn't know you were going to come early."

He worked extra hours during Saratoga's horse season while Michelle stayed home with Veronika. At the end of the racing season, his boss invited him to work in Kentucky. Michelle, who'd never lived outside of New York, was excited at the prospect of traveling. They packed everything they owned into Balta's '96 Pontiac Grand Prix and set off across the United States. Life was filled with promise.

Balta did a good job in Kentucky and was invited to work with the team in Florida. Michelle was elated. She'd always wanted to live by the beach.

They drove to Hallandale Beach December 3, 2003. The only hotel room they could afford had roaches crawling out of the refrigerator, so the first two nights in South Florida, the family slept in the Grand Prix.

After Balta began working at Gulfstream Park, they rented a $300-a-month efficiency in Hallandale, right across from the track. Michelle got a job waiting tables in the track restaurant. They couldn't afford daycare; when both parents worked, Balta took Veronika with him to the stables. He would park her stroller outside each stall and talk to her as he brushed the horses. He sang to her, calling her "mami" — short for mami chula, Spanish for "pretty mommy."

In March, the Florida racing season was ending and the couple planned their trip back to New York. They decided they'd drive up directly after the Florida Derby.

The night before they were scheduled to leave, Michelle suggested they drive into the night and skip the last day of work. "I have a bad feeling," she said.

Balta calmed her. The Florida Derby is the biggest horserace of the year in the Sunshine State. The track would be busy. She'd make a lot of money.

"It's just one day," he remembers saying.

Balta opened the door and saw Veronika hunched over in her seat. He called her name, but she didn't move. As he lifted her out of the car, he could feel her hot skin.

"Veronika!" he said again, moving her gently.

The baby's lips were bluish-purple. Her eyes rolled back in her head. A milky foam dropped from her mouth.

"Veronika! Veronika!"

Though he'd never learned the technique, he attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. No response. He called Michelle, panicked.

"The baby isn't waking up," he said.

"What do you mean the baby isn't waking up?" he remembers her saying.

He started the car. With Veronika on his lap, he drove toward the track ambulance. Michelle met him there. When EMTs tried cooling the baby with ice and a damp cloth, she moved her arms a bit. Balta remembers someone saying she'd be OK — she just needed to go to the hospital immediately.

As Balta stepped up into the ambulance to ride with his baby, a police officer grabbed his arm. He should stay. They had some questions.

"They were already treating me like I did this on purpose," Balta says.

Multiple police officers asked him to explain what happened. At first, he said he thought maybe she had choked on her milk. Soon, though, he admitted he'd left the baby in the car — for "not long," he told police.

He was still in the back of an investigator's car more than an hour later when a nurse at the scene informed him that Veronika had died on the way to the hospital. He remembers staring out the window, feeling like the car was closing in around him.

At the police station, he saw Michelle. From across a small waiting room, she sobbed and asked him over and over how this could happen. He didn't have any answers.

They were taken to separate rooms. Two more officers interviewed Balta; then he was placed under arrest.

At his sentencing a year later, the courtroom was filled with reporters, photographers, a few former co-workers, and Michelle's family. Wearing orange scrubs two sizes too big, Balta looked like a confused little boy. His hands were folded in front of him. His eyes were distant. He spoke a little English, but that day, the words all seemed new and strange. Everyone was talking so fast.

Just two months earlier, the dentist in Boca had pleaded guilty and received probation, so Ken Padowitz, Balta's attorney, hoped for a similar resolution. He figured that at worst, Balta might serve a year or two and then be deported. That's why Balta pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter of a child and threw himself at the mercy of Circuit Judge Ilona Holmes.

At the sentencing, Balta did not cower or cry. He did not shake, scream, or plead with someone to kill him. He just stared, catatonic, as the lawyers around him argued over what should become of him.

A psychologist testified that Balta has an IQ of 74 and is emotionally disconnected. Padowitz called him "borderline retarded."

But prosecutor Howard Scheinberg reminded the court that Balta was betting while his daughter died alone. "This baby died trapped and tied down in a human sauna," he said. "In the stifling, 125-degree car, the baby's body temperature reached 107 degrees."

When it was time for Balta to speak to the court, his voice didn't crack. He shed no tears. In slow, heavily accented English, he said, "I did a mistake. I suffer her loss every waking hour of each day. She was my life."

Judge Holmes — who did not respond to requests for comment for this article — apparently wasn't moved. She told him his actions were "totally callous" and "heinous." Balta didn't recognize most of the words the judge was using, but he understood what came next: "Twenty years."

Looking back, Balta's attorney feels like he let him down. Padowitz says he thinks of the case often. His own children can be heard playing in the background as he speaks by telephone.

"I felt sorry for the child who died here," he says, "but I also felt enormous sympathy for Mr. Balta himself. He received much too harsh a sentence. It's a tragic situation in every way, but his sentence was disproportionate to the specific facts of this case. From the first the time I met with my client, it was clear to me he was suffering from a mental deficit. That's a significant fact in this case and wasn't accounted for. The prosecution focused on the facts that would stir the emotions of anyone hearing them."

He believes the 20-year sentence was a reaction to public outrage at the time. "He didn't wake up that morning intending to commit a crime or hurt his child," Padowitz says. "There are people who wake up in the morning knowing they're going to go commit a criminal act, knowing they're going to shoot somebody, and they don't get as long as he got."

The attorney who prosecuted the case, Scheinberg, had young children at the time of the sentencing. "I just couldn't imagine what [Balta] was thinking," Scheinberg says. "He had a stroller in the trunk. He knew the effects of the heat. She was only 9 months old. She was small. He could have carried her."

Scheinberg notes that Michelle, Veronika's mother, pushed for the max penalty. (She did not respond to requests for comment.) "She adored that little girl," he says. "She told us she had caught him doing the same thing at least twice before, and she warned him. She was completely devastated. She told us she wanted the death penalty, but we had to explain that wasn't an available sentence."

He points out that unlike so many other parents who accidentally leave their children in hot cars, Balta chose to leave Veronika. "I'm not suggesting he was trying to eliminate the burden of having a child in his life; I just think it was a burden to have a child that day."

Balta's ex-wife, Jenny, with whom he has two children, says he has always been an irresponsible father. "We have two precious kids together, but he was no dad to them even before he went to prison," she says. "My daughter is 9, and he has not seen her since she was under a year old. He chose to walk away from them. If you are gonna paint a picture of him, get all the angles."

Scheinberg resigned from the State Attorney's Office two years ago but says he thinks of this case a lot and believes the sentence was fair.

"Frankly, I'm surprised anybody is outraged over this sentence," he says. "It's not overly extreme. He killed his little girl."

However, a small network of supporters around the country believes Balta has endured enough punishment. Even if he made an egregious error in judgment, they say, a 20-year sentence is too harsh.

Doris Sutton is an 89-year-old poet living in La Hoya, California. She first heard about Balta's case from the news in 2004 when she was visiting Fort Lauderdale. She has met him in prison and now dedicates several hours every week to getting him out. She founded the Committee to Free Antonio Balta, a collection of a dozen or so advocates around the country.

Sutton regularly calls judges, politicians, and reporters to discuss Balta's case. "He's a good man," she says. "He's not a criminal. He's a grieving father. It was an accident. Either deport him now, send him to be with his parents, or just let him out. I want to see him free before I die."

Members of the committee correspond with Balta through letters and Christmas cards, and several have gone to Bushnell to see him. A creative-writing professor at the University of California, Riverside, is working on a screenplay inspired by Balta's struggles and the dedication of his defenders.

Another supporter, Stacey Brodfuehrer, of upstate New York, says, "I just felt compelled to reach out to him. I wanted to tell him that there are people out there who hear about his situation and they don't think it's right."

Sutton has personally written to every member of the Florida Legislature on Balta's behalf at least four times. State Rep. Joe Gibbons, a Democrat from Hallandale Beach, has heard her pleas. Gulfstream Park is in his district.

"You hate to see inconsistencies in our judicial prudence like that," Gibbons says. "I'm not going to blast our justice system, but obviously he didn't have the same kind of representation as the dentist [who was sentenced to probation]. You have to look at the fact he's a person of color. You have to look at his economic level."

In 2007, when he was a rookie representative in the Florida House, the first piece of legislation Gibbons passed was a bill making it a crime to leave any child younger than 6 alone in a motor vehicle for more than 15 minutes. (He says he'd rather not have the 15-minute clause, but "politics are politics." Janette Fennell says, "You should never leave a baby in a car for any amount of time, period.")

While Gibbons's law established a crime, it also set the maximum punishment at five years in prison. Had this legislation passed two years earlier, Gibbons notes, Antonio Balta would be out of prison by now. "But the law can't be retroactive," he explains. His bill will not affect Balta's sentence.

Gibbons says that to keep Balta in prison — where he cannot earn income to support his two other children — costs the state about $50,000 every year. If he serves out his entire sentence, Balta will have cost Florida taxpayers more than $1 million. "We're spending money on adjudication and not education," he says. "And when he gets out of prison, he's going to be deported. Who is that helping?"

Because he pleaded guilty, Balta has no chance to appeal his sentence, and because he isn't a U.S. citizen, when he gets out of prison, he'll be deported immediately. The only alternative would be an executive pardon.

Gibbons plans to ask Gov. Charlie Crist to release Balta before he leaves office later this year. A representative from Crist's office says the governor has not yet decided whether he will take up Balta's case.

Just beyond the 14-foot fences, rolls of razor wire, and armed guards of the Sumter Correctional Institution lie sprawling green pastures. The air smells like horses — like the stables where Antonio Balta used to sing to Veronika.

After more than an hour in the cinder-block meeting room talking about accidentally killing his daughter, Balta looks tired. Six years in prison have taken a toll. Nobody would mistake him for a little boy now.

During his time behind bars, Balta has earned his GED and now helps other inmates study for the exam. He does carpentry and has crafted an elaborate wooden dollhouse for a niece. He goes months without hearing from anyone on the outside. (As part of his sentence, he is forbidden from contacting the Bashford family.)

His cell is lined with photos of Veronika. He says he thinks of her every day. "Every time I see kids on TV, I think about holding her," he says. "She would be 7 now. I think about what she would look like and what we would be doing for her birthday."

A prison administrator lets Balta know it's time to go. He walks slowly through narrow halls toward the prison yard. The hot summer sun blazes in through the door frame. Balta pauses for a moment before stepping outside.

There are 14 years left on his sentence, but he'll never get out of prison.

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