Family of 5-year-old hires attorney, 4 charged with manslaughter

Family of 5-year-old hires attorney, 4 charged with manslaughter
Published: Jun. 16, 2017 at 12:51 PM CDT|Updated: Jun. 16, 2017 at 10:27 PM CDT
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(Clockwise): Washington, Phillips, Robinson, and Taylor (Source: West Memphis PD)
(Clockwise): Washington, Phillips, Robinson, and Taylor (Source: West Memphis PD)

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Four employees are charged with manslaughter in connection with the death of a 5-year-old who was left in a daycare van in West Memphis. Two of those employees have turned themselves in to police.

Christopher Gardner, Jr. was found dead in his booster seat eight hours after the van arrived at Ascent Children's Health Services on Monday, June 12.

"They need to explain why and how they let this happen to my child," mother Ashley Smith said.

West Memphis Police Captain Joe Baker said four people could have prevented the child's death had they done their jobs and checked on the van.

"These people all had an active, hands-on part in conduct that led to this tragedy occurring," Captain Joe Baker said. "If any one of the four had have done the job they were assigned to do that morning, we feel that there is a very good chance this could have been avoided and we wouldn't have the situation we have with a 5-year-old child no longer being with us."

Baker said the four employees were forthcoming with information when investigators spoke to them.

"Initially when my detectives spoke to the four women involved they were forthcoming, for the most part, with what happened," Baker said. "They realized errors had been made."

Because employees did not follow the facility's protocol and did not conduct secondary checks of the van, police said the employees missed seeing Christopher three separate times.

While the employees are facing criminal charges, Gardner's family has hired Memphis attorney Randy Fishman to file a civil lawsuit against Ascent.

"You reported that this company [Ascent] is paid per child that shows up at school so they're not overly concerned if the child got out of the van or not cause they're going to sign them in anyway," Fishman said.

According to police officers, the surface temperature of the seat inside the van was 141 degrees at the time of the boy's death.

Baker confirmed that Gardner died of hyperthermia, which is caused by body temperature reaching a point that is significantly above normal.

The four people charged with manslaughter in the case are all Ascent employees:

Kendra Washington, 40, was a van driver for Ascent and the designated van safety inspector on this particular day. She was in charge of the second check of the van. Washington turned herself in and remains in custody.

Felicia Phillips, 42, was the driver of the Ascent van on June 12.

Pamela Robinson, 43, was the adult rider assigned to the van that Gardner was in.

Wanda Taylor, 43, was Ascent's transportation supervisor. Police said she was the one who checked Christopher in despite him not making it inside the classroom.

Investigators said Robinson and Washington have turned themselves into law enforcement.

All four women will be held in jail without bond until their first court appearance on Monday at 9 a.m.

"Felony manslaughter, you have to have a reckless component in a person's death to make it a manslaughter charge. We feel like their conduct, and their lack of conduct, definitely rose to the level of reckless behavior that led directly to the death of this 5-year-old child," Baker explained.

Investigators said the workers missed seeing the boy three times, and it was only after 30 minutes of cooling the van down that Taylor found the boy inside the van.

"They all have all said, and still maintain, that they did look and they don't understand how they didn't see him," Captain Baker said. "We've done some reenactments and we've done a lot of point-of-view photography and looking at the van and we don't see how that if they had performed these secondary checks that there any way possible they could've missed this child in the van."

In addition, Captain Baker explained how the safety alarm inside the van works. They determined proper protocol was not followed, which is why the alarm failed to save Gardner from being left behind.

"The safety alarm was functioning. The thing about the safety alarm is the way it functioned is, when it becomes active, when they turn the van off and they're ready to offload the children, they have to go to the rear of the van on the interior and push a button, which if it's not pushed in a certain amount of time, it sets off a larger alarm," Baker said. "These vans are very compact, there are numerous car seats in them, and there is a very small aisle. So what we understand they do, rather than go through the van, which it's designed to make them go through every row and seat to make sure no children are there, there is just not really the space on this van to do that, so it sounds like what their normal practice is rather than go through that process, they go to the rear door and push the button which bypasses the whole point of having a safety alarm which is to seat-by-seat, kind of methodically go through and make sure nobody is in the van."

Captain Baker said so far, Washington is the only woman to turn herself in. He was told by her attorney that the others are aware they are being charged and have obtained lawyers. Baker also said the investigation is not over and they're being very thorough in order to make sure justice is served for Christopher Gardner.

"It's impossible for me to see how you would miss this child from where he was sitting in the van if you did any kind of check at all on the van," he said. "We want to make sure we have that well documented so it's very easy to see how hard this would be to leave the child in that van even if you were halfway paying attention."

Arkansas State Representative Dan Sullivan is the CEO of Ascent Child Healthcare. He sponsored a bill that became law that lessens the authority of the Arkansas Early Childhood Commission.

The little boy's funeral will be held next Saturday at Anthony Funeral Home in West Memphis.

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