By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
That terrible morning, Antonio Balta dropped off his girlfriend, Michelle Bashford, at the Gulfstream Park Racetrack in Hallandale Beach, where she worked as a waitress and he as a horse groomer. The couple planned to drive north as soon as she finished her shift. They'd be in New York with their families in a day or two. Balta, a 27-year-old Peruvian, told Bashford not to worry; he'd take care of all the last-minute errands. As she got out of the car, she kissed him and said goodbye to their 9-month-old daughter, Veronika.
Once alone with the baby, Balta ticked off his pretravel chores. He got the car washed, said goodbye to the landlord, and loaded the couple's meager belongings — dishes, baby clothes, photos — into their 1996 Pontiac Grand Prix. He went to a gas station and filled up the tank, buying a bag of Fritos and two Starbucks coffee drinks for the road.
When he returned to the Gulfstream parking lot around 1 p.m. on that spring day — March 13, 2004 — it was 65 degrees out, cool enough for many race fans to wear light jackets. He called Michelle on her cell phone to let her know everything was ready to go. When she got out around 5, they'd head straight for the state line.
She asked what he planned to do until then. Balta said he had to talk to his boss for a minute, to make sure his transfer back to Saratoga would go smoothly. She warned him not to leave the baby alone in the car.
But Balta had taken Veronika inside the track twice before. The loud, flashing slot machines and bustling crowds made her cry. So he cracked the front window a little to give the baby some air. He didn't roll the window down far, though — he didn't want someone trying to kidnap her. Then he went into the casino to look for his boss.
But it was the day of the Florida Derby — the track's busiest day of the year — and his boss, a horse trainer, didn't have time. So Balta returned to the car to check on Veronika. He looked in through the window and saw her playing happily with her favorite toy, a stuffed pink bunny with the words I LOVE YOU across the chest.
Then he went back inside. This time, he ran into some friends. As they talked about his move, Balta placed a few bets. The wagers were all under $10, all on long shots he'd seen around the stables and thought might have a chance. He was hoping to make a little extra cash for the trip.
When his races were over, Balta said goodbye to his friends. They pleaded with him to hang out just a little while longer. Surveillance tapes would later show he was inside for about two hours.
When he stepped out of the air-conditioned betting parlor, Balta was struck by how much warmer it was. The temperature had spiked to 80 degrees. He immediately thought of Veronika and broke into a sprint across the parking lot.
Now, more than six years later, Balta recalls that fateful day from a stuffy cinder-block meeting room at Sumter Correctional Institution in Bushnell, Florida. It was, he says, "the worst moment of my life." His voice is soft, and his words are slow and accented. "When I got there, I could see her through the window," he says, fidgeting with his right hand. "She looked like she was sleeping. I thought she was going to be OK."
Balta has spent most of the time since his daughter's death in a prison cell decorated with pictures of her. He had expected a lenient sentence when, on the advice of his attorney, he pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter of a child. Instead, he got 20 years. It's one of the longest sentences handed down for this type of crime anywhere in the country.
While Balta's arrest originally drew shock and anger —a Sun-Sentinel headline at the time read "Father Gambles as Baby Dies"— the extraordinary length of his sentence has caused a small but dedicated group of supporters to come to his defense. His case highlights the remarkably inconsistent laws that punish this tragic — but not uncommon — mistake.
It happens somewhere in America on average once a week from spring through early fall. Children die in cars due to hyperthermia more than 30 times a year. Sometimes the child crawls into a car when nobody's looking, but most are left by a caregiver. In more than half the cases, it's a parent who forgets the child is in the car.
In August, a 2-year-old died after a Delray Beach daycare employee left her in the back of a van for several hours. Three weeks later, a mother in Miami was charged in the death of her 3-year-old boy after she left him in a car for about 45 minutes. In early October, a 14-month-old girl died after her 28-year-old father left her in the car for three hours outside a church in Miramar.
Roughly one-sixth of child hyperthermia cases in this country occur in the Sunshine State. At least 60 children have died in Florida since 1998, and more than 150 others have been injured. Some years bring more incidents than others: Last year, there were eight cases in Florida. The year before, there were two. In 2004, Veronika Balta was the first of ten. With 49 deaths nationwide by mid-October, 2010 has been the worst year yet.