PALM HARBOR, Fla. — “The child's body temperature at about 5 o'clock was about 108 degrees,” Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said at a press conference on the night of September 9, 2016, a few hours after deputies were called to the scene of a child’s death.
23-month-old Lawson Whitaker died after he was left strapped in a car seat in his father's pickup truck for eight hours in the summer heat.
Troy Whitaker, a Hillsborough County firefighter, had taken his daughter to school and was supposed to drop Lawson off at daycare that morning, but didn’t.
“He could offer no explanation other than he thought he dropped the kid off and he didn't. And that doesn't make any sense, quite frankly,” said Gualtieri at the time.
Detectives charged Whitaker with felony aggravated manslaughter of a child.
“Somebody needed to be the voice for that deceased child that night,” said Gualtieri, who believes the case met the standard of culpable negligence needed to prove the case, since Whitaker left the child in the car for eight hours and drove around with his body in the vehicle before finally noticing him.
But the State Attorney's Office later decided not to prosecute.
In case documents obtained by the I-Team, the Assistant State Attorney who analyzed the case said "negligence alone is not criminal," which he believed was required to secure a conviction.
“There were other charges available to the State Attorney if he wanted to charge,” Gualtieri said.
Experts tell us those charges could have included lessor child abuse-related charges and possibly drug possession charges.
Detectives found powerful narcotics — Oxycodone and Hydrocodone — in unmarked bottles in Whitaker's home the day Lawson died.
In transcripts of interviews obtained by the I-Team, both Troy and his wife denied the pills belonged to them.
“It's not something that's easy to get. A lot of doctors are hesitant to even write prescriptions for those drugs,” said Pharmacist Bob Parrado.
Parrado often serves as an expert witness, testify in prescription drug trafficking cases.
“They're also very good to get high on,” he said of the opiates found in Whitaker’s home.
The case report says Whitaker consented to a test to indicate whether he had consumed alcohol, which showed he had not.
But he refused to consent to a blood draw after his son’s death.
Investigators sought and received a search warrant for his cell phone after he refused to turn it over.
Records indicate an analysis of his phone shows he made multiple searches for "Pill 512" — Oxycodone — the day before Lawson's death.
Reports say investigators found powdered urine and a package of chemical hand warmer, used to cheat drug tests, in his home.
They also collected ashes, believed to be from marijuana, from the sink of his master bathroom.
In the report, investigators say Whitaker admitted using marijuana and said he could not pass an employment drug screening if it were given to him that day.
“To me, that's enough to ask for a search warrant to pull blood, to require that blood be given,” said law professor Jeff Swartz, who is a former judge and prosecutor.
“Why would we do that? We charged him with the highest level he could be charged. That had no bearing on this,” said Sheriff Gualtieri.
The report says a paramedic who responded to the scene that day told detectives "Troy's pupils were very constricted and did not react when the lighting changed."
“That's one of the signs of opioid intoxication,” said Parrado, who said that would indicate a relatively high level of the drug had been used.
The report says Whitaker “became verbally hostile," "began using profanity," and "invoked his right to an attorney" when asked if he mixed narcotics with marijuana.
“Wouldn't you want to know?” said Parrado. “If I was an investigating law enforcement person I think that's a question I'd be asking.”
Parrado stressed that because they did no drug test that day, they have no way of knowing what, if any, drugs Whitaker may have used.
“I want to see how much is in his system. I want to try to establish that the reason why this kid was left in the car was because he was just high,” said Swartz.
“I've never heard of that being done in those types of situations,” said Gualtieri.
A State Attorney's Office report says there's no way to prove drug use had anything to do with Lawson's death.
Prosecutor Bernie McCabe says the decision not to prosecute Whitaker was his alone and he stands by the decision.
He says these types of cases are tough because losing a child is a worse punishment than any one the court could give.
“I respect his right to do that. I don't always agree with what he does, but that's the way the system works,” said Gualtieri.
Whitaker did receive a written reprimand from Hillsborough Fire Rescue for admitting drugs would be in his system if he was given a drug test.
As part of his punishment, he was required to submit to six random drug screenings.
We contacted both Whitaker and his attorney, but neither responded.
If you have a story you’d like the I-Team to investigate, contact us at Adam@abcactionnews.com .