Charges refiled in tot's death

Paul Peirce
| Wednesday, May 22, 2013, 9:34 p.m.

State police refiled criminal homicide and aggravated assault charges Wednesday against an Indiana County woman whose 13-month-old child drowned in a bathtub on Feb. 2.

Homer City District Judge Susanne Steffee had dismissed both complaints against Tonya Thomas, 25, of Rousch Drive in White Township after the death of her son, Ryden, after a preliminary hearing.

On May 13, Steffee ruled there was insufficient evidence presented to hold Thomas for trial on the more serious charges of homicide and assault. Steffee ruled that police did present enough evidence for the case to proceed to trial on charges of reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of a child.

While acknowledging the refiling of complaints “is rare,” District Attorney Patrick Dougherty said that he believes it is appropriate.

“At the end of the day, a child has died, and we feel we have to hold the individual responsible for causing this death. I thought we presented enough evidence to prove a prima facie case, but (Steffee) disagreed,” Dougherty said.

At the preliminary hearing level, a district judge determines only whether the prosecution's case has enough merit to take it to a trial in Common Pleas Court where guilt beyond a reasonable doubt must be proven. Suspects can enter guilty pleas.

Dougherty said there is no new evidence in Thomas' case, but at the next preliminary hearing, he plans to introduce more evidence, including Thomas' alleged prior history of child care issues with county Children and Youth Services.

Police charged Thomas because she had left Ryden unsupervised in the tub, along with his 2- and 3-year-old siblings.

Dougherty said he believes the “bottom line is you don't leave a 13-month-old alone in the bathtub for even five to 10 minutes under the direct supervision of a 3-year-old.”

Thomas' attorney, public defender Bradley Ophaug, argued on May 13 that the case should have been dismissed because evidence showed the death was an accident, with “no intent” to harm the toddler.

Dougherty countered Wednesday that he believes a third-degree murder conviction, which could result in a 20- to 40-year prison sentence, is possible and intent is not at issue.

He noted that jurors or a judge would be asked to determine whether Thomas' actions created “a wanton and willful disregard” that placed her child at extreme risk of death.

Thomas, who is due to give birth to her fourth child soon, declined comment on Wednesday, as did public defender AnnaMarie E. Everett.

Her husband, Wesley Thomas, 24, waived his right to a preliminary hearing May 13. He has been charged with reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of children.

Trooper Josiah Murdock testified at the hearing that Tonya Thomas told him in an interview that she allowed the children to play in the tub 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 testified that Thomas said she texted her mother twice after leaving the children alone in the bathtub.

Murdock said Tonya Thomas admitted that she “often” left the children alone in “about 3 to 4 inches of water” in the bathtub.

When she returned to the bathroom, she discovered Ryden face down in the water, police said.

Her husband was charged because he was playing a video game nearby and knew the children were alone in the tub, police said. Murdock said Tonya Thomas had asked her husband to “keep an ear out for the kids.”

Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860.

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