Recent case of toddler who died in hot car reminds parents to check vehicle for kids

No parent thinks it can happen to them.

Leaving a baby behind in a car in very hot weather is unimaginable.

Law enforcement officials across the Treasure Coast have said such cases are exceedingly rare here, but when parents do leave babies behind, the circumstances are often very similar.

Anyone can forget.

"It's shock and awe. A lot of people, first thing that they will say is 'I would never do something like that,' " said Stuart Police Lt. Michael Gerwan. "But you would be surprised how easy it is to get distracted and forget."

Cases on Treasure Coast rare

James Fidele went inside his Port St. Lucie home March 6 for several hours to work after dropping several of his children off at school.

His 2-year-old toddler was still inside the family's vehicle.

Fidele discovered his son several hours later and immediately called emergency responders. The child was taken to a local hospital, but pronounced dead. Fidele, 37, was charged with a felony − leaving a child unattended in a motor vehicle causing great bodily harm. He's due in court June 29.

Across the Treasure Coast, cases like this are rare, according to sheriff's and police officials, but they do happen, particularly in Florida's very hot summer months.

This Port St. Lucie case in which a child died is the only one on the Treasure Coast so far this year. It is one of seven cases like it across the country, according to, a national nonprofit child safety organization that tracks child deaths in hot cars.

In an overwhelming majority of child hot car deaths, it was a loving, responsible parent that unknowingly left the child. And, 43% of children who were unknowingly left were supposed to have been dropped off at child care, according to the website.

On average, 33 children have died in hot cars in the United States in each of the the last 5 ½ years, statistics show. The most fatalities were in 2018, with 54. None of these cases, except for the Port St. Lucie case, were on the Treasure Coast.

Port St. Lucie Police Sgt. John Dellacroce

"I cannot recall anything over the last five or 10 years of another child being left in a car and passing away from the heat," Port St. Lucie Police Sgt. John Dellacroce said.

Chief Deputy John Budensiek, of the Martin County Sheriff's Office, said his agency has never dealt with a case in which a baby or child died after being left behind in a vehicle.

"We have had close calls where babies were rescued from cars after being forgotten in vehicles, but none have ever actually passed away from dying in the car," he said.

Charges can vary

A study of records over the past 10 years from police and sheriff's agencies on the Treasure Coast revealed 15 cases in which law enforcement charged people in connection to leaving behind a baby or child in a hot car, including the recent Port St. Lucie case.

Three cases, which did not result in the death of a child, were investigated by the St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office.

Eleven were investigated by the Indian River County Sheriff's Office, but it was unclear if any prior to 2018 involved a death.

St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara

St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara said charges can range from misdemeanors to felonies.

“Any person responsible for the supervision of a child — whether that person is a parent or guardian — may be charged with a noncriminal traffic infraction or a second-degree misdemeanor for violating Florida law if they leave any child under the age of 6 inside a motor vehicle unattended," Mascara said.

If the violation causes the child great bodily harm, the person may be charged with, at the minimum, a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine, he said.

"Habitual or violent offenders may be subject to longer prison sentences,” Mascara said.

Gerwan, of Stuart police, said there's only one case involving a baby death he can recall in his long career with the department. It's one he investigated and it sticks with him to this day.

On a summer day in 2006, a Stuart woman dropped a child off at school, completed a day of work and was about to finish loading groceries in her truck. She opened the truck door and saw the unthinkable.

Her baby was dead in the backseat. The infant was supposed to be in daycare, but he had been in her truck all day.

"I remember that day vividly," Gerwan said. "It was really a traumatic experience to investigate that and to see the aftermath."

Nellier Lima, then 26, was charged with aggravated manslaughter of a child, records show. She was sentenced to two years of house arrest and 10 years of probation, according to TCPalm archives.

Similarly, in July 2009, two women in Indian River County were each charged with manslaughter in the death of their sons, after each woman unknowingly left a baby in their vehicle in the parking lot of their work place for the day.

More: Father arrested after 2-year-old son left in vehicle in Port St. Lucie dies, police say

More: Woman accused of leaving kids in hot SUV while playing game at Indian River County arcade

Preventative Measures

Officials said technology in cars, such as motion sensors and alert systems have helped notify parents and caregivers that they've forgot their children.

Still, not all vehicles are equipped with such technology.

"Not everyone has the ability, or the financial means to buy that kind of stuff or vehicles that have those access abilities, or added on ... features," said Lt. Joe Abollo of Indian River County Sheriff's Office. "So I would say it's more the self accountability. People just need to be responsible when it comes to child safety ... I know, it's hard, easier said than done, but just be alert and aware of your surroundings."

Law enforcement officials said visual reminders are a helpful tool.

“In today’s hurry-up world, put an item on your passenger seat, such as a pacifier, doll, and/or stuffed animal, to remind yourself of the precious cargo in your back seat to prevent a tragedy of leaving a child in a car,” Mascara said.

Abollo said making sure babies are not "out of sight, out of mind" behind the driver's seat, so a parent can see them when looking over their shoulder.

Additionally, passersby who see a baby trapped inside are legally allowed to break the window of the car to free the baby if necessary, Budensiek said.

Martin County sheriff's Chief Deputy John Budensiek

He said the law allows a person "if they see a baby locked in a car with nobody around, or a pet for that matter, they can call 911, and then they can proceed to break the window of the vehicle to rescue the infant from the car."

Typically, leaving a child behind is a result of too much multitasking. Law enforcement officials recommend to take a step back to ensure a baby is safe.

" ... I want to remind parents, that it's so easy to become preoccupied and forget what's most important to you and it happens," Gerwan said. "Slow down. My message would be to slow down and remember what's actually going on."

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Mauricio La Plante is a breaking news reporter for TCPalm. Follow him on Twitter @mslaplantenews or email him at

This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: Cases of babies dying in hot cars rare on Treasure Coast