Murky Waters

The drowning death of a child is always a tragedy. But when does it become a crime? County prosecutors are wading into a dangerous debate.

A vase of plastic flowers rests on its side atop a tiny unmarked grave in Section 53 of Phoenix's Greenwood Memory Lawn Cemetery. Valeria Rico Romero was 10 months old when she drowned in a bathtub in September 2000.

Valeria's 24-year-old mother says that, maybe someday, she'll be able to afford a stone for the youngest of her three children.

In fact, Vanessa Rico asked a Phoenix police detective hours after her daughter died if she'll be allowed to be buried next to Valeria when the time comes.

David Terrill
Phoenix's Vanessa Rico, seen here at her September 21 sentencing for negligent homicide, left her babies alone in the bathtub. Her 10-month-old daughter, Valeria, drowned.
Phoenix's Vanessa Rico, seen here at her September 21 sentencing for negligent homicide, left her babies alone in the bathtub. Her 10-month-old daughter, Valeria, drowned.

Detective Steve Orona's report does not indicate how he responded. A few minutes later, he jailed Rico on a charge of negligent homicide.

The news riveted Arizonans. It was the first time in state history a parent or caretaker had been charged with responsibility for the accidental drowning death of a child. The circumstances of Valeria's death and the ensuing publicity overshadowed most of the other 27 child drownings in the Valley last year.

Valeria died about 3 p.m. on September 27, 2000, at the small west-side apartment of Vanessa Rico's then-boyfriend. Rico put Valeria and her 2-year-old son, Antonio, in a bathtub with the water running. Then she closed the bathroom door and left the apartment.

Rico stepped out to the parking lot, where she chatted with a young man who had driven her to job interviews that day. Two other women were in the apartment, but Rico never asked them to look after the kids.

Early reports suggested Rico left for up to 20 minutes, but more likely it was about five. During her absence, one of the other women finally checked on the babies.

She found Valeria face down in the more-than-half-filled tub, as Antonio stood near the running faucet, the drain stopper in place. The woman snatched the motionless child from the water. Someone screamed for Rico, who fainted when she saw her baby. Valeria was 19 pounds and in excellent health when she died.

Rico lied to police about what had happened, saying she'd just left to fetch a towel from another room for a minute or two.

Within a day of Rico's arrest, Peoria police arrested 20-year-old Janis Anne Perry on similar charges after the bathtub drowning of her daughter, Kataryna. Born with Down syndrome, the 19-month-old had the developmental level of a 10-month-old. She drowned as Perry checked the mail outside, then spoke with a girlfriend on the phone in another room.

Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley soon announced that his prosecutors would file charges against any caretakers deemed criminally negligent in caring for children, whether the deaths or injuries were accidental or not.

"When a parent fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk to a child," Romley said after the arrests, "the line between accident and criminal conduct is maybe crossed. In [the Rico and Perry] cases, the facts established that the line has been crossed."

What he meant was Rico and Perry had put their babies in harm's way by placing them in tubs, then leaving the bathroom, a different situation than one involving a parent whose child somehow fell into a pool and drowned.

Talk-show hosts, news columnists, and 77 percent of local citizens in a Channel 15 poll backed Romley. Some compared the local women to Susan Smith -- the South Carolina mother who drowned her two young sons in a lake to free herself for a romance.

Rico and Perry both pleaded not guilty.

But it took a Superior Court jury only a few hours last July 9 to convict Vanessa Rico. On September 21, Judge Eddward Ballinger Jr. sentenced the young woman to probation, though he could have sent her to prison for up to four years.

And on October 12, Janis Perry pleaded guilty to negligent homicide in her case.

Prosecuting caretakers for unintentionally causing a child's death is a knotty task: The accused may be technically guilty under the law. But, in the Rico and Perry cases, police produced little evidence that the mothers meant to hurt their babies.

Despite Romley's highly publicized intentions to aggressively prosecute child neglect, his office hasn't filed charges against anyone in more than a year for negligent homicide or abuse in accidental child injury or death cases.

"That's because we look at each of these cases really carefully," says Cindi Nannetti, head of the office's sex-crimes unit. "Rick doesn't take these matters lightly, and it's our job to prosecute those cases that make sense to us to prosecute."

Still, the number of child drownings countywide has remained steady in the past year. Twenty-six children have drowned so far in 2001 (14 under the age of 5), compared with 28 (15 under the age of 5) for all of last year.

Unfortunately, child neglect isn't limited to drownings. Children perish in hot cars, on city streets, even from accidental shootings when adults leave guns within reach. Romley would have had many cases to choose from, according to a New Timesexamination of incident reports at the Phoenix Fire Department, news reports, and interviews with law enforcement.

A few examples of troublesome child drownings from the past year:

• A 4-year-old boy visiting from Ohio who drowned in a north Scottsdale pool after his mother left him alone "for a few minutes."

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