LIVE OAK, Fla. – While the deaths of three young children trapped in a freezer Sunday were ruled an accident by the medical examiner, charges of child negligence could be brought in the case, Suwannee County Sheriff Sam St. John told News4Jax.
Deputies said they were called to a home on 173rd Place about 6 p.m. Sunday to find family members performing CPR on the children. Deputies, along with Suwannee County Fire Rescue, transported the three children to Shands Live Oak Regional Medical Center, but they could not be revived.
Investigators said at the time that it appeared the children -- ages 1, 4 and 6 years old -- were playing outside in the yard and climbed inside a chest freezer that had recently been brought to the mobile home. It was outside and not plugged in.
St. John said the medical examiner ruled the deaths accidental suffocation.
The sheriff said the mother of the 4-year-old, who had been watching the children, told authorities she went inside to use the bathroom and when she went back outside, she could not find the children. She woke up the grandmother of the other two children, who was inside the home sleeping, and they went looking for the kids.
Authorities told the Lake City Reporter that the children were in the freezer betwen 20 and 45 minutes while the women searched the property and a nearby vacant home.
When they found them inside the freezer, they were not breathing, and the two began CPR and called 911.
"Upon further inspection of the freezer, an after-market hasp had been installed on the lid in order to secure a padlock on it. It is believed at this time that when the children entered the freezer and the lid closed, the hasp fell shut, trapping the children inside," the Sheriff's Office posted on Facebook.
There was no padlock on the freezer. It had been in the yard for three or four days, according to the Lake City Reporter.
It is against Florida law to leave or discard appliances outside a home because they are considered an "attractive nuisance" to children. Leaving an appliance, such as a refrigerator or freezer, outside a home is typically a second-degree misdemeanor, but if a child is injured or dies, the charge could be a third-degree felony.
St. John said investigators met Wednesday with the State Attorney's Office to explain everything they have and discuss possible charges.
The State Attorney's Office asked the Sheriff's Office to conduct follow-up interviews to clarify some things before a decision is made on whether charges will be filed.
The Florida Department of Children and Families was notified of the children's deaths.
A DCF spokesperson said the family "was known to the child welfare system."
DCF Secretary Chad Poppell released a statement:
"The tragic deaths of these children are devastating. DCF is working with the family to provide grief support services as they mourn the terrible loss of their children. The department has opened a child death investigation and we will continue to support law enforcement."
The sheriff said the 6-year-old boy and 1-year-old girl were brother and sister and lived with their grandmother. The 4-year-old is a friend who lived in the same home.
"There are two families that live in the same residence. There’s a grandmother who lives there. She is a grandmother of the 1-year-old and 6-year-old. The other lady who lives there, she is the actual mother to the 4-year-old girl," St. John explained.
Family friend asks for understanding
A family friend of the siblings, who identified them as 1-year-old Kayleigh and 6-year-old Dawlton, said the children left a huge impression in their short lives.
"She didn’t meet a stranger," Scott Whisnant said of Kayleigh. "Very few kids ever do, but I have seen very few kids where they would go and run up to somebody and just wave to them and start blowing him kisses."
He said Dawlton loved Ninja Turtles and knew how to push buttons.
Whisnant said there had been a lot of support but said sadly there’s also been some negativity, which he said adds more pain to an already tragic situation.
"These two families are grieving. Why are you going to bash them? Aren’t they suffering enough?" Whisnant said. "They do not need to see horrible remarks made. If you don’t understand it, then please don’t bash them. Just ask or try to be understanding."
Dawlton's principal said his class is making a memory book to help them cope with his loss.
Whisnant said he set up a GoFundMe account to help the children's family with funeral expenses.
The funeral for Kayleigh and Dawlton will be at 3 p.m. Friday in Perry. The 4-year-old's funeral has not been set yet.
The Sheriff's Office said anyone who would like to donate to the cost of the services can contact Burns Funeral Home at 850-584-4149.