Mother to stand trial in bathtub death
Sharon Flanagan told police her 2-year-old son loved to swim, so she took him from their West Virginia home to Pittsburgh hoping to visit Sandcastle water park.
When young Steven said he wanted to swim in the bathtub of their hotel room at the Best Western in Green Tree, she said she dressed him in swim trunks and filled the tub with water -- almost to the top.
But when the 32-pound boy somehow ended up facedown, Ms. Flanagan told detectives, she was unable to pull him from the water, even though hotel surveillance footage captured her carrying him in her arms with ease earlier in the night.
A hotel guest and a security guard took Steven from the tub, and paramedics rushed him to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, where he died July 6. Prosecutors say Ms. Flanagan, 33, of Inwood, intended to drown her son.
"She can't explain other than that she's unable to pull him from the tub," said Allegheny County homicide Detective Steven Hitchings, who interviewed Ms. Flanagan and testified at her preliminary hearing Friday. "She just knew there was some type of force pulling him toward the bottom."
District Judge Anthony Ceoffe ordered her to stand trial on charges of homicide, child endangerment and aggravated assault, saying "this is a profoundly sad situation that absolutely defies logic to me."
Homicide detectives said they charged Ms. Flanagan after her accounts of the July 1 drowning were shifting and implausible. The detectives testified that she eventually told them that at the time her son's head went underwater, she grabbed him by the left arm and left leg as he was submerged.
"Everything about her story said she harmed this child with intent," Assistant District Attorney Lisa Pellegrini told the judge.
But Ms. Flanagan, described by detectives as a fundamentalist Christian who told them "murder was against the Bible," maintains her innocence. Her attorney, David J. DeFazio, said she hedged her stories to police to avoid losing custody of her son during a bitter and unfolding divorce. Detectives' testimony offered glimpses into the marital strife.
Ms. Flanagan told Detective Hitchings she was raised in a religious home in Hudson, Ohio, where her faith dictated that a wife should be submissive to her husband. But her view of her own husband, Steven, changed earlier this year when she claimed she saw him abusing their son. Her accusations were not substantiated by doctors and did not lead to criminal charges, the detective testified. Not long after she made them, Mr. Flanagan filed paperwork in Berkeley County, W.Va., family court suggesting his wife had threatened to harm herself and young Steven, though a judge nevertheless allowed her partial custody of the boy and to travel with him alone.
She told Detective Hitchings she wanted to curry favor with her son over her husband by taking him to Pittsburgh to visit Sandcastle.
"Steven was her everything," Detective Michael Feeney testified Ms. Flanagan told him. "He meant the entire world to her."
The incident happened less than two hours after she and Steven arrived at the Best Western. Ms. Flanagan told police she tried pulling the boy by his arms and legs, at one point leaving the bathroom to put on a back brace. She also said she tried to drain the water, but a towel got stuck in the way. Police said she told them she eventually ran from the hotel room and summoned help at the front desk.
Detective Feeney said a search of Ms. Flanagan's cell phone showed she may have tried to dial 911, but the call never connected.
First Published July 28, 2012 12:00 am