Man arrested after boy fell from tree, died

Teen working with tree service cut through his safety harness

MIDDLEBURG, Fla. – The owner of a local tree trimming service is facing manslaughter charges for allowing 14-year-old Blake Bryant to climb a tree in Middleburg and to help cut it down. Bryant fell to his death last month and that's when the Clay County Sheriff's Office and OSHA started investigating.

The Clay County Sheriff's Office announced Monday that Jonathan Wilkes, 37, is facing charges of aggravated manslaughter of a child.

Clay County deputies said he was working with acquaintances for the John Wilkes Tree Service at a home in the 4200 block of Scenic Drive in Middleburg.

Bryant (pictured, right) climbed a tree on the property and was cutting off a section of the tree with a chain saw when he accidentally cut through his safety harnesses and fell to the dirt ground below, deputies said.

Bryant was flown from a landing zone at Omega Park off County Road 218 to UF Health Jacksonville, where he pronounced dead.

Wilkes' former landlord reached out to channel 4 Monday night to talk about the arrest. The landlord said she's been outraged by the story and thinks Wilkes has received the appropriate punishment for the accident.

"That's child labor, that's almost like something you see that happens in another country," the former landlord said. "I think it's absolutely appropriate, yes I do, yes I do."

Channel 4 spoke with Wilkes' wife last month at their Palatka mobile home, which their landlord told Channel 4 they were evicted from two weeks ago. At the time Wilkes' wife told Channel 4 that Wilkes was "devastated" and that Blake "doesn't work for Johnny."

Wilkes' wife told Channel 4, "Johnny pretty much took him under his wing. (Wilkes) Wanted to make sure he (Blake) didn't wind up on the street."

Wilkes' former landlord had different things to say about Jonathan Wilkes.

"I think that it's child abuse, and you're not doing something putting a child under your wing. If you put a child under your wing, you give them a place to live, food. This child, I know he had a lot of problems, but you don't put him up in a tree," the former landlord said.

The arrest covers only the parts of the investigation considered criminal in nature, deputies said. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Department of Labor will deal separately with issues regarding the business of John Wilkes Tree Service.

Clay County detectives were told the teen was assisting on this one project but did not normally work for the company. The teen's parents were friends with the tree service's owner.