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.

At first blush, the public seems to want much tougher treatment of negligent caretakers -- until it comes to themselves. New Times recently spoke with seven people at random at Paradise Valley Mall, including two young mothers with children in tow.

Each of the seven -- five of whom are parents themselves -- applauded the prosecutions of Vanessa Rico and Janis Perry.

"You just don't put your kid in a tub and then split," said John Lugo, the Phoenix father of a 4-year-old girl. "There's just no excuse for putting her in a place where she could get hurt."

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.

But all but one of the seven reconsidered their position when asked, "Have you unintentionally ever put your child somewhere where he or she was at risk for serious injury or death?"

"Of course I did, and my babies were very lucky," said Joyce Spencer, a 44-year-old Scottsdale insurance agent. "I remember this like it was yesterday. We had a pool without a fence. This was a long time ago, and we were stupid. My 2-year-old was playing near the pool, and my nephew -- he was 8 or 9 -- was over swimming. I ran in to get the phone. I think I told my nephew to keep an eye on my Ralphie. I'm gone three or four minutes, tops. As I walk back out, I see Ralphie tumble in the water. I jumped in and got him out, and he was fine. But he really could have drowned."

Spencer is asked if she should have been charged criminally if he had drowned.

"Hmmm," she replied, stroking the head of her 3-year-old granddaughter. "I don't think so. Maybe. But maybe not. I really don't know."

Vanessa Rico never did testify at her trial, in part because she surely would have admitted to the jury that she had erred in leaving her babies unattended in the tub.

"Yes, I think it was my responsibility to be there with my baby," Rico told New Times shortly before her sentencing last month. "I have to live with what I did until I die. . . . But I see all those other people who screw up and don't get arrested and put on TV. Why did they pick on me and that other girl [Perry]? I am guilty of a bad accident."

One reason Rico did escape jail or prison after her negligent homicide conviction was the favorable report of the Adult Probation Office.

Probation officer Paul Anderson noted that Rico only had a minor brush with the law -- driving without a license -- before Valeria's death, and that he could find no evidence of prior substance-abuse problems.

"It is unlikely [she] acted with malice, or that the death of Valeria Romero was anything but an accident," Anderson wrote. "[Rico] does not appear to pose a threat to the community, and this writer believes that the interests of the victim, community, [her] remaining children and [Rico herself] would be best served if [she] were placed on probation."

Judge Ballinger adopted all of Anderson's recommendations -- including ordering parenting classes and community-service training. It seemed Rico would stand a good chance of getting her two surviving children returned to her, as early as next spring. The pair have been in foster care since their mother's arrest, though authorities had allowed her regular supervised visits.

But Immigration and Naturalization Service officials detained Rico soon after she was sentenced. Rico, who has been living in the States illegally since moving here from Mexico as a young girl, has been shipped to Eloy to await disposition of her case. If she is deported, what will happen to her two children is uncertain.

Rico had spoken in the days before she was sentenced of getting back her two surviving children and starting a new life, with her new boyfriend.

"I am Catholic and I pray every day," she said. "I pray for my angel [Valeria], and I pray for my other kids, too. I pray for myself to be there for my kids when I get them back, and to be fast, because you don't know what's going to happen. I know that people hate me, but I'm not a bad person."

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