Prosecutors Upgrade Charges in Toddler’s Death
By Eric Pera
Published: Thursday, March 26, 2009 at 12:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 27, 2009 at 12:35 a.m.
LAKELAND Clarissa Johnson says she never found the perfect home for the ashes of her first child, Michael, who was born three months premature and died from complications of a bowel obstruction.
Now after four years, the 20-year-old Lakeland woman must deal with the ashes of another son, Zachary, who police say was violently shaken to death while in the temporary care of his maternal aunt and her husband, Mysti and Matthew Wyrosdick.
Prosecutors on Thursday upgraded charges against Matthew Wyrosdick to aggravated manslaughter of a child, a first-degree felony punishable by up to 30 years in prison. He is being held in the Polk County jail in lieu of $100,000 bail.
Johnson was at a loss for words Thursday to describe her emotions over the death of her youngest son, Zachary, a precocious toddler taken from her eight months ago after she and her husband, Gene, were jailed on July 26 and were charged with stealing a car and money from an elderly relative.
Zachary’s death on March 13 from injuries suffered a day earlier has been the focus of an investigation by law enforcement and the Department of Children & Families, whose errors in the case are outlined in a 14-page summary included with some 500 pages of DCF documents released Tuesday to the public.
Among those errors – DCF took too long to reunite Zachary and his brother, Austin, 2, with the Johnsons.
DCF also faults staff members at Educare Early Learning Center in South Lakeland who photographed numerous marks and bruises on Zachary while the boy was in temporary custody but never alerted authorities of their concerns.
A decision by DCF whether to suspend or revoke the day care’s license, or to fine the facility, was still pending late Thursday afternoon.
Johnson said Thursday that after she and her husband were released from jail Sept. 12, they worked hard to hasten the return of their children, who were scheduled to come home sometime in April, roughly nine months after they were separated.
“We had already finished our case plan,” she said. “We had stable housing and income.”
The children were placed in the care of Clarissa Johnson’s sister and brother-in-law in Lakeland shortly after the Johnsons were jailed last summer. The placement was made by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in an unusual arrangement.
Hillsborough is one of only about seven Florida counties in which a law enforcement agency, rather than DCF, provides child protective investigations (CPIs), said DCF spokeswoman Carrie Hoeppner.
“It’s a unique system of care,” she said.
Ultimately, Circuit Judge Rex Barbas of Hillsborough County approved a plan giving temporary custody of Zachary and Austin to the Wyrosdicks, despite objections of a DCF CPI in Polk, Hoeppner said.
The Polk CPI’s concerns of inadequate income and Matthew Wyrosdick’s 2002 charge for soliciting a prostitute were overruled, according to a DCF review.
Because the Johnsons were arrested in Hillsborough, the case was handled in that county.
One of the more egregious missteps in the case, according to DCF’s review, was for workers at Zachary’s day care to ignore a state law mandating child care personnel to immediately report suspicions of child abuse and neglect to the Florida Abuse Hotline System.
Between Jan. 9 and Feb. 18, workers at Educare Early Learning Center took 17 photographs of Zachary showing bruises and scratches on his face and head.
Those pictures didn’t surface until after the boy was severely injured March 12 at the Wyrosdicks’ home, Hoeppner said. That same day, Clarissa Johnson notified a child protective services manager of her son’s injuries, initiating an investigation that led to the discovery of the pictures.
Without admitting wrongdoing, Ryan Hamaker, owner of Educare Early Learning Center, told The Ledger he’s cooperating with the ongoing investigation into Zachary’s death.
“We’re not prepared to say too much now (but) we have nothing to hide,” he said. “We are going to reach out to the media at some point. Safety is our primary concern.”
Clarissa Johnson said Thursday that she noticed marks and bruises on Zachary during her visitations at her sister’s home. “I asked my sister, ‘How did he get bruises?’ But Zachary was clumsy,” she said. “He always walked around, falling and stuff,” so concerns were dismissed.
Johnson said she’s been urged by DCF to get counseling to deal with her son’s death, but she’d rather not. “We have to do what they say, even though we don’t want counseling,” she said.
The loss hurts most at home, Johnson said, “because we have his pictures all over.”
A memorial service for Zachary will be held Saturday at 2 p.m. at Willow Oak Baptist Church in Mulberry. His ashes will be placed in a double urn along with those of his brother Michael. Clarissa Johnson said she hasn’t yet decided where the remains will be kept.
[ Eric Pera can be reached at email@example.com or 863-802-7528. ]
DCF 15 Page Summary Can Be Found At The Following Link:
Neighbor Says DCF Was Warned of Abuse Leading To Infant’s Death
State officials say they are reviewing DCF’s oversight of Zachary Johnson.
By Eric Pera
Published: Monday, March 16, 2009 at 10:12 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 16, 2009 at 10:52 p.m.
LAKELAND | Iris Scandrick says she heard what sounded like an old-fashion beating, and the wails emanating from the apartment next door were especially disturbing to the Lakeland grandmother.
Scandrick said she dialed the state hotline for reporting child abuse and anonymously alerted the Florida Department of Children & Families of her concerns.
“I didn’t give them my name, I told them I heard these children screaming,” she said.
Scandrick, 52, said she made the call more than a week ago and assumed her complaint was being looked into. Afterwards, she said, the two boys next door, Austin Johnson, 2, and Zachary Johnson, 17 months, were quiet.
That silence was broken Thursday morning. Scandrick said she again heard cries and an adult male shouting “shut up, sit down.”
“Then I heard a big thump,” she said, which caused her to put an ear to the wall. Describing the next sound, Scandrick hammered her dining room table with her fist.
She said she called the Lakeland Police Department. The police arrived within six minutes.
Zachary was severely injured and was taken to Tampa General Hospital. He died Friday of what autopsy determined were injuries consistent with either a blow or shaken baby syndrome, according to police.
The child’s uncle, Matthew Wyrosdick, 32, who shared temporary custody of his nephews with his wife, Mysti, has been charged with aggravated manslaughter. Prosecutors said Monday they will consider filing a more severe charge but won’t make a decision until they receive all the reports on the case.
Mysti Wyrosdick said Monday evening that she’s in shock over what her husband of two years has been accused of.
“He loves those boys very much,” she said. “I’m not justifying what my husband has been accused of, but I can’t see him doing it. I don’t see it at all.”
Matthew Wyrosdick had his first court appearance Monday in Bartow. His bail has been set at $100,000.
Scandrick said she’s angry and sick over what she considers to be a lack of any response from the DCF into her initial complaint. “I really feel like that boy’s life could have been saved,” she said.
Carrie Hoeppner, a DCF spokeswoman in Orlando, said the department has no record of any calls made to the abuse hotline about the Johnson children. She said the matter is undergoing a thorough review, however, in case something was overlooked.
Also under scrutiny are the steps by caseworkers and their superiors that led to the children being taken last summer from their parents, Earl and Clarissa Johnson, and placed with the Wyrosdicks, Hoeppner said.
“In light of the tragedy, we have an obligation to fine-comb through this case,” she said.
Because of media requests for access to DCF files on the matter, the department is poring through its records, Hoeppner said, blacking out names and other confidential information. The files may be released by the end of the week, she said.
Zachary’s parents were jailed in July on charges of car theft, exploitation of the elderly, credit card fraud and petty theft, Hillsborough County Jail records show.
The DCF placed the children temporarily with their aunt and uncle, and they remained in their custody while their parents, who have been out of jail since September, worked toward regaining custody.
The homecoming was about one month away, Hoeppner said, as the Johnsons were satisfying their case plan.
Mysti Wyrosdick said that early on she was unemployed so the children stayed at home with her two days a week and spent the other three days in day care with monetary support from the state. Wyrosdick, who has since found work as a preschool teacher, said the boys eventually lost their part-time slot to two children in need of full-time day care, leaving Zachary and Austin at home with her husband, who had lost his seasonal job in retail sales.
She said she asked a DCF caseworker “multiple times” for assistance in another day care referral, but never got a response.
“I loved my nephew (Zachary) more than anything else in this world,” Wyrosdick said. “Now, I can’t see my other nephew. I’m by myself trying to figure out what’s going on.”
[ Eric Pera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7528. ]