W.Va. mom charged in toddler's near-drowning


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A 2-year-old boy clung to life after nearly drowning in a Green Tree hotel bathtub on Tuesday, and his mother was jailed on attempted homicide charges after Allegheny County police said her implausible explanation of the incident quickly unraveled.

Steven Flanagan was in "grave condition" on life support at Children's Hospital of UPMC of Pittsburgh. His mother, Sharon, 33, also is charged with child endangerment, aggravated assault and reckless endangerment. Paramedics found her son "pulseless and not breathing" in their room on the sixth floor of the Best Western on Greentree Road, where they went about 8:30 p.m. Sunday for reports of a drowning. Hotel guests called 911 after Ms. Flanagan ran down a hallway screaming, "My baby! My baby!"

Her son was face down in the bathtub, she told police, and unable to lift him. She left the room to summon help.

But Allegheny County homicide detectives cast doubt on her concern, writing in a criminal complaint that the version of events she described "appeared fabricated and untruthful" and changed under their questioning. Police said Ms. Flanagan was the lone caregiver at the hotel with the boy, but she did not inquire about his condition or try to see him until Monday morning. Detectives said the mother and son had traveled to Pittsburgh for a getaway and had checked into the Best Western only about two hours before the incident. The boy's father was at their West Virginia home at the time.

He traveled to Pittsburgh to be with his son in the hospital, where relatives declined to comment through a spokeswoman. At the family's request, she would not provide details about Steven's condition, but police wrote in reports that he had bruises on his body and no brain function.

"It's very difficult on our officers," county police Superintendent Charles Moffatt said. "Most of them are married. Most have children. Anytime a child is involved, it's really heart-wrenching, especially in a case like this."

Detectives said they were skeptical early in their discussions with Ms. Flanagan. At Children's Hospital, she told them Steven had been "swimming" in the bathtub while she sat on the lid of the toilet. The boy either fell while climbing on the edge of the tub or got in on his own, she said, but somehow ended up face-down, the criminal complaint says.

She said she was unable to move the toddler, even as she "pulled on both of his arms and at one point on his arm and left leg" but the boy was "stuck."

Ms. Flanagan is 5-foot-6 and 150 pounds, police said. Hospital staff told detectives her son weighs 32 pounds, "indicating that the child could have been easily removed from the bathtub by an average-sized care-giving adult."

But, Ms. Flanagan told police, she sometimes suffers back pain, so she left the bathroom and retrieved an ACE bandage to help support her back. She put it on before returning to the tub, where Steven was still face-down.

She explained to police that she pulled the basin plug, but the water only drained halfway before a washcloth became stuck in the drain, the complaint says. She said she moved the cloth, then tried to hold her son's head above water by lifting his chin.

Ms. Flanagan told detectives that "during the beginning of the event, her son still had life in him," but by this time he was "lifeless." She said she panicked, grabbed her keys and cell phone and left the room to summon help. Yet she locked herself out, she said, and ran to the front desk -- she could not remember if she took the stairs or an elevator -- where she got a key. A security guard and another hotel guest then pulled the boy from the tub, according to the complaint.

Hotel staff would not comment on the case Tuesday. A sign on room 603 says "Do Not Disturb," and the floor was quiet. Inconsistencies in Ms. Flanagan's story prompted detectives to interview her again, this time at county police headquarters. This time, they said, her story shifted. She said that at the time her son's head went underwater, she grabbed him by the left arm and left leg as he was submerged, the complaint says. She said she was unable to lift him out and was holding him in place as she grabbed him.

"In fact," the complaint says, "she stated that she felt like something was actually pulling him toward the bottom of the tub."

Contacted by phone, her father said the family was "in complete shock."

Ms. Flanagan's bond was set at $250,000, court records show. She will have to undergo an evaluation through the jail's behavioral clinic before she can post bond.

neigh_south

Sadie Gurman: sgurman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878.


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