Police: Indiana County parents charged in baby's death had left kids unsupervised before
By Jennifer Reeger
Published: Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013, 11:45 a.m.
About a year ago, officials from Indiana County Children and Youth Services and other agencies began working with Tonya and Wesley Thomas because of concerns that they were not properly supervising their three young children.
Caseworkers worried that one of the children might drown when left unsupervised, Indiana County District Attorney Patrick Dougherty said.
On Feb. 2, when Tonya Thomas left her 3-year-old, 2-year-old and 13-month-old children to play in the tub as she did some chores downstairs, authorities said, the tragedy that caseworkers feared had come true.
Now Tonya Thomas, 25, and her husband, Wesley Thomas, 24, of White, face charges in the drowning death of their 13-month-old son, Ryden.
Tonya Thomas was charged with criminal homicide, aggravated assault, reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of children. Wesley Thomas was charged with reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of children.
“At first you would think this is a tragic accident,” Dougherty said during a news conference Wednesday. “Unfortunately, here it's a very avoidable tragedy, and it's a tragedy that in this matter rises to the level of criminal conduct in that she had a duty to care for these children, and that her failure to provide that duty of care by leaving them in a tub unsupervised is wanton and reckless.” Dougherty said Tonya Thomas faces the homicide charge because she was the one bathing the children that night and it was “routine” for her to leave the children unattended in the tub.
He said he plans to pursue a third-degree murder conviction in the case, which carries a sentence of 20 to 40 years in prison.
Wesley Thomas was charged because he was aware his wife had left the children in the tub and did not go in to supervise them, Dougherty said.
Tonya Thomas told police that on the evening of Feb. 2, after bathing the three children and brushing their teeth, she allowed them to play in the tub for awhile in the family home on Roush Drive.
She said she took a text message from her mother, then went downstairs to take towels out of the dryer, get medication for Ryden and prepare a snack, Dougherty said. She was gone for more than five minutes.
“It's believed that she was relying on the 3-year-old daughter to provide supervision of the other children in the tub,” Dougherty said.
On her way downstairs, she passed a bedroom where Wesley Thomas was playing a video game. She asked him to “keep an ear out for the kids,” but Wesley Thomas never checked on them, according to court papers.
Tonya Thomas told police she “got a bad feeling” and went upstairs to find Ryden face-down in the water. She told authorities she performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on her son, but could not revive him. He was pronounced dead at Indiana Regional Medical Center in White.
Indiana Coroner Michael Baker said Ryden died of asphyxiation due to freshwater drowning.
He said there was no sign of trauma or abuse.
Dougherty said the agencies involved with the Thomas family never took the children from the parents' care, opting to work with them through in-home services, parenting classes and supervision.
He said he took the family's history into account when deciding on the charges.
“It's really easy to say ... this is a tragic accident and leave it at that, but ... we find out that this was common practice,” Dougherty said.
“This didn't just happen. It wasn't a situation where mom needed to grab something and she came right back. ... She went down to a whole different floor of the household with no other adult supervision, relying on a 3-year-old.”
The couple turned themselves in to state police on Tuesday. Their other children are staying with family members, authorities said.
The Thomases are being held in the Indiana County Jail. Tonya Thomas' bail was set at $250,000 cash; her husband's was set at $50,000 cash.
They face a preliminary hearing on Monday morning before Homer City District Judge Susanne Steffee.
Jennifer Reeger is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6155 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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