Homicide charge dismissed against Indiana mother in drowning
By Paul Peirce
Published: Monday, May 13, 2013, 3:18 p.m.
An Indiana County district judge dismissed homicide and aggravated assault charges Monday against a pregnant mother who is accused in the drowning of her 13-month-old son in a bathtub on Feb. 2.
Tonya Thomas, 25, initially was charged with murder in the death of her son, Ryden, because she had left him unsupervised in the tub, along with two siblings, a 3-year-old and a 2-year-old, in the family home in White, prosecutors said.
“There was no intent,” argued attorney Bradley Ophaug of the public defender's office. “It was just a tragic accident.”
After a preliminary hearing, Homer City District Judge Susanne Steffee ruled there was insufficient evidence to hold for court homicide and aggravated assault charges against Thomas.
Held for trial were charges of reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of children.
The mother, who is due to give birth soon, declined comment as she left court Monday afternoon.
Her husband, Wesley Thomas, 24, waived his right to a preliminary hearing. He has only been charged with reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of children.
“I think it's the basics of Parenting 101. You don't leave three children — ages 13 months, 2 years old and 3 years old — in a bathtub alone under the supervision of a toddler,” District Attorney Patrick Dougherty argued.
Dougherty said he had no plans to refile the homicide charge against Tonya Thomas.
Trooper Josiah Murdock testified during the hearing Tonya Thomas told him in an interview immediately after the drowning that she allowed the children to play in the tub after their baths while she went downstairs to get towels out of the dryer, get medication for Ryden and prepare a snack. She was gone for more than five minutes, authorities allege.
Murdock said Tonya Thomas “cooperated” during the investigation. He said she was interviewed Feb. 2, shortly after Ryden was pronounced dead at Indiana Regional Medical Center, and again Feb. 19.
Murdock admitted under cross-examination by Ophaug that Tonya Thomas was “extremely emotional” during the initial interview. He noted under direct examination by Dougherty that she recalled in the second interview to texting her mother twice after leaving the kids alone in the bathtub.
Murdock said Tonya Thomas admitted that she “often” let the kids alone in “about 3 to 4 inches of water” in the bathtub as she would take care of other issues related to “getting them ready for bed.”
“She said (the 3-year-old) was a tattletale and would always yell whenever something was wrong,” Murdock said.
The trooper said under cross-examination that Tonya Thomas told him in the second interview that she did not complete all of her intended chores that evening and returned to the bathroom early because she got a feeling something was wrong. That is when she discovered Ryden face down in the water, the trooper said.
Her husband was charged because he was playing a video game, sitting on the bed and knew the children were alone in the tub, police said. Murdock said Tonya Thomas asked her husband to “keep an ear out for the kids” while she completed the chores.
Asked the distance Wesley Thomas was from his children as he played the video game while they were in the tub, Murdock said “between 12 to 15 feet.”
Ophaug asked Murdock how the decision was reached not to charge Wesley Thomas with homicide.
Murdock said it was a “collective” decision made by state police and Dougherty after reviewing all of the evidence and interviews.
Tonya Thomas, dressed in a white sweater and blue jeans, became emotional at one point during the hearing as Murdock described to Steffee the mother's reaction as she was questioned at the hospital.
Tonya Thomas rubbed tears off her cheeks as Murdock described the events that evening.
Ophaug said he believed Steffee made the correct decision.
“Tonya remains very distraught and emotional about this. She's still grieving over her son ... she's been denied visitation of her other two children since this happened,” Ophaug said.
Ophaug noted his client had been working on her child-rearing skills, including attending parenting classes required by county youth services prior to Feb. 2.
Asked if he believed Mrs. Thomas deserved to get her children returned, Ophaug didn't hesitate.
“The sooner, the better. This was clearly just a tragic accident,” he said.
She was facing a potential 20-to-40-year prison sentence if she were to have been convicted of third-degree murder.
Both Thomases are free on recognizance bond pending trial. Tonya Thomas was released from the county jail April 23 on $250,000 signature bond on the condition she be placed on electronic home monitoring under order of President Judge William Martin.
Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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