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DA: Charges based on habitual neglect

by on February 21, 2013 3:00 PM

A White Township couple remained in the Indiana County Jail this morning to await preliminary hearings on charges that their neglect led to the Feb. 2 drowning of their 13-month-old son in the bathtub in their home.

Tonya Thomas, 25, faces endangerment charges plus additional counts of aggravated assault and criminal homicide — a charge that District Attorney Patrick Dougherty said reflects an ongoing routine of reckless care of their children. Her husband, Wesley Thomas, 24, is charged with endangering the welfare of children and recklessly endangering another person.

“At first you would think this is a tragic accident. Unfortunately, here, it’s a very avoidable tragedy and it’s a tragedy that rises to a level of criminal conduct, in that she had a duty to care for these children,” Dougherty said. “Her failure to provide that care, by leaving them in a tub, is wanton and reckless; that’s what prompted us to file the charge of criminal homicide.”

Investigators said Tonya Thomas left the couple’s toddler, Ryden Wesley Thomas, in a bathtub with two other children, one of them 3 years old and the other “close to 2,” and found Ryden face down in the water when she returned five minutes later. Tonya Thomas told police she advised her husband, who was playing a video game in an adjacent bedroom, to “keep an ear for the kids” while she answered a text message from her mother and went downstairs to grab towels from the laundry, make snacks for the children and retrieve a nebulizer for Ryden, according to criminal complaints filed by state police.

It was not a one-time thing, Dougherty told reporters at a news conference Wednesday in the Indiana County Court House.

Agencies such as Indiana County Children & Youth Services had been summoned to the Thomases’ home along Roush Drive over the past year to check reports that the children didn’t have adequate supervision.

“I know that there are documented concerns over the last 12 months about supervision. There’s a reference to concerns about drowning,” Dougherty said. “This was one of those things that, in my opinion, could have been very easily avoided.”

Paula McClure, the executive director of Indiana County CYS, declined to comment this morning on the agency’s role with the Thomas family.

“It would be very easy to say this is a tragic accident and leave it at that. But after the investigators, the state police did their job and found the information, they found this was a common practice,” Dougherty said. “This did not just happen. It wasn’t a situation where mom needed to run down the hall and grab something and come right back. … She went down to a different floor of the household, with no other adult supervision, relying on a 3-year-old.

“It was systematic, a routine for her to leave the children unattended in the bathtub on a regular basis.”

Tonya Thomas told investigators that her 3-year-old child commonly alerted her to any problems, but said nothing this time.

Dougherty made clear that the homicide charge is not based on premeditation, malice or intent to kill.

“We are not seeking first-degree murder here. This is not a case of … second-degree murder. But I do feel we can make a very strong argument for a third-degree murder. … It comes back to the willfulness and recklessness. Leaving a 13-month-old in a bathtub is recklessness, and recklessness is part of criminal homicide.”

And the charge of aggravated assault, Dougherty said, “provides for reckless conduct that has extreme indifference for the value of human life or that would result in serious bodily injury and death.”

Third-degree murder is punishable by 20 to 40 years in prison and aggravated assault, a first-degree felony, carries a maximum term of 20 years; endangering the welfare of a child, a third-degree felony, could bring a prison term of up to seven years, Dougherty said.

Tonya and Wesley Thomas voluntarily reported to the state police station in Indiana late Tuesday evening to be formally charged by the lead investigator, Trooper Josiah Murdock. The on-call district judge, Susanne Steffee of Homer City, set bond at $250,000 for Tonya Thomas and $50,000 for Wesley Thomas.

As of this morning, no attorneys had been named to represent the Thomases, and their preliminary hearing remained on the Homer City District Court schedule for 8:30 a.m. Monday, although it is expected to be postponed.

Chauncey Ross is the Gazette’s fixture at Indiana Area and Homer-Center school board meetings, has been seen with pen and notepad in area police stations and courts, and is something of an Open Records Act and Sunshine Law advocate. He also manages the Gazette’s websites and answers your questions about them.
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