Florida toddler's 'wrapping' death ruled homicide

3:26 PM, Oct 24, 2013   |    comments
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FORT MYERS, Florida -- The three years of Michael Lee McMullen's life, which ended Saturday, were fraught with domestic violence, custody shifts and attempted intervention by the Department of Children and Families.

The toddler was found unresponsive Saturday after spending four hours tightly wrapped in about six layers of blanket as a form of punishment. First responders reported Michael was warm and soaked in sweat, his jaw showed signs of rigor mortis and his hands were clenched, according to a Lee County Sheriff's Office report. He was pronounced dead 40 minutes after arriving at the hospital.

On Tuesday, the county medical examiner ruled Michael's death a homicide. Lee County deputies arrested three people on charges of aggravated manslaughter of a child - Michael's maternal grandmother, 56-year-old Gale Watkins; Michael's stepfather, 21-year-old Douglas Garrigus; and family friend 45-year-old Donella Trainor. Trainor also faces a charge of aggravated abuse of a child for torture, malicious punishment or caging. All three reportedly lived at the River Forest Drive home in east Lee County where Michael died.

Michael's cause of death was not released Wednesday.

Lee County deputies learned the form of punishment Michael endured was a common practice his family referred to as "the wrap." On Saturday, Michael was cranky and complaining, so Trainor rolled him in a king-sized blanket to calm him, tying the ends so his head was covered and he could not break free, according to the sheriff's office report.

Watkins and Garrigus checked on Michael while he was wrapped. Neither freed him, though he was screaming for help and hyperventilating, according to the report.

Watkins, Garrigus and Trainor were in Lee County court Wednesday morning, where it came out that Trainor was found guilty of child abuse in Lansing, Mich., in the 1990s, according to prosecutor Francine Donnorummo with the state attorney's office. Trainor remained in Lee County Jail on Wednesday in lieu of a $600,000 bail. Bail for Garrigus and Watkins was set at $250,000.

DCF had prior involvement with Michael's family, and was providing services when Michael died, according to spokeswoman Terri Durdaller.

"The tragic circumstances around Michael McMullen's death saddens and infuriates everyone involved in the child welfare system," Durdaller said in an email. "The Department of Children and Families is currently investigating the senseless death of this little boy."

The family's remaining children have been placed in foster care, Durdaller said.

Watkins acted as caregiver to Michael and three other children - a 7-year-old boy, a 4-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy, according to child support papers filed in Lee County court.

In June the children were taken from their mother, Samantha Jolene McMullen, following a domestic violence incident between McMullen and her husband, Garrigus. Investigators found McMullen tested positive for marijuana and medication for which she had no prescription, according to a DCF report.

The next month, investigators received a report that Watkins made the children sleep in cages to prevent them from getting up at night, and her home was filled with cigarette smoke and the smell of cat litter. But upon visiting the home, DCF found no indication of child maltreatment and closed the investigation.

DCF was aware McMullen was residing in the home with her children - which the court allowed, though the children had been removed from her custody.

Lee County court records also document domestic violence issues with Michael's biological father, Allan Alberto Pineda-Bautista. Watkins filed a domestic violence injunction against Pineda-Bautista in August, on behalf of Michael and his sister. According to the injunction, Pineda-Bautista had problems with drugs, alcohol and mental illness.

Neither Pineda-Bautista nor McMullen were arrested in Michael's death. It's unclear where they were when it happened.

Rickie Trainor, Donella Trainor's brother, was shocked to hear his sister was implicated in a toddler's homicide.

Rickie, who lives in Arizona, said he last saw her a few months ago in their native Lansing, Mich. Nothing seemed wrong, Rickie said.

"Hearing that she did something like that," Rickie said, "that's something that I've never seen inside of her."

Michael's parents could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Marisa Kendall, The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press

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