By Jeff Lehr
NEOSHO, Mo. —
A plea deal reached with Zachary Roland in the death of 22-month-old Bradley Beck sits better with the child’s mother than with his paternal grandmother.
Roland, 21, had been scheduled to go to trial this week on a charge of felony murder in the death of the toddler last summer at a residence north of Seneca where Roland lived with the boy’s mother, Ashley Seymour.
Roland, who was Seymour’s boyfriend, avoided a trial by pleading guilty last week to the lesser offense of involuntary manslaughter and was assessed a seven-year prison term.
Seymour, 23, told the Globe in a telephone interview Monday that she approved of the deal. She said it was better that Roland receive the amount of prison time he did than to see the case go to trial, where he might have gotten off scot-free.
“The plea bargain was a way for me to know that he was going to be punished for the crime,” Seymour said.
She said the problem for the Newton County prosecutor’s office was that there was not any evidence “that (Roland) purposely harmed Bradley.”
The child died of head trauma suffered June 28 inside his home on Holly Road. An autopsy turned up a 4-square-inch patch of blood between his scalp and skull that the pathologist thought could only have come from a severe fall or blow to the head.
According to a probable-cause affidavit, Roland admitted to an investigator that he slapped the boy’s face with his open hand when he started whining as he was giving him a bath in the bathtub. Prosecutor Jake Skouby said Roland told the investigator that he then picked Bradley up, and he slipped out of his hands and fell to the floor because he was “wet and soapy.”
“Roland’s problem was he didn’t come out and immediately contact 911,” Skouby said. “He waited 10 minutes or so.”
Roland reportedly told the investigator that Bradley became unresponsive after he dropped him. He took him into a bedroom, laid him down on a bed and left him there while he picked up Bradley’s sister and took her into another bedroom where the children’s mother was.
The affidavit states that Roland initially told the investigator that he did not return to the bedroom where the boy was for five to 10 minutes. He later revised his estimate of the time to three or four minutes. He told the investigator that when he did return to the bedroom and found the child still unresponsive, he acted as if that was the first that he had noticed that something was wrong with him.
The mother’s estimate of how long Roland had failed to report the injury to her was five to 10 minutes, according to the affidavit.
Skouby said there was no evidence that Roland deliberately dropped the boy or that the 10 minutes would have made any difference in the outcome.
“We didn’t have anyone who could testify to that,” Skouby said.
Sue Beck, the child’s paternal grandmother, expressed disappointment Monday with the plea bargain. She said there have been a number of inconsistencies in statements made by people associated with the case, and she hoped that a trial might clear up some of her questions.
Besides the patch of blood on Bradley’s skull, the forensic pathologist found bruising on the boy’s legs, back and face. The bruises on the boy’s legs had been reported to the state’s child-welfare system 10 days before his death.
A Newton County deputy spoke with a child-abuse investigator from the Missouri Department of Social Services concerning two bruises that were discovered on the boy’s legs on June 18, when he was taken to Freeman Hospital West in Joplin for treatment of a staph infection on his lips.
According to the Newton County sheriff, questions later surfaced as to whether the state ever conducted a home study to ensure the safety of the child. Sheriff Ken Copeland said deputies who entered the home the day of the child’s death found the residence to be filthy, with debris and dog feces strewn about the floor and only the living room cooled to any degree by a single window air conditioner.
Beck said she does not believe that seven years is an adequate amount of time for the loss of her grandson’s life. She said Bradley deserved “every bit of justice that could be mustered.”
“If (Roland) had gone before a jury, this would have been the least he’d gotten,” she said.
Skouby said the boy’s birth father, Charles Beck, failed to answer a subpoena for a deposition hearing before trial and could not be reached for consultation with respect to the plea deal. Skouby said he called Sue Beck to inform her of the plea bargain but was unable to speak with her until after the deal was reached.
Steps in case
ZACHARY ROLAND initially was charged with second-degree murder. The prosecutor’s office amended the charge a few weeks ago to felony murder and eventually made the plea offer of manslaughter.