A Father's Plea, Part I
When Anthony Venter saw the crime-scene tape and police outside his estranged wife's apartment, he bolted from his car toward the door. Thinking only of his son Kyle, a bright-eyed, blond-headed 3-year-old, he questioned the first policeman he came to.
"I'm the kid's father," Venter recalls telling the officer.
"Well, your wife tried to commit suicide," he was told.
"Let me have my boy," Venter said.
Then came the most awful four words he's ever heard.
"Your boy is dead."
Venter barely remembers what he did next. His mind left him. He ran away screaming. When he came to a metal sign post, he banged his head on it, hard -- but he felt no physical pain.
It could have been worse; Venter was spared the scene inside the Margate apartment, which was both obviously staged and nightmarishly surreal.
Kyle's lifeless body, fully dressed, lay face-up and perfectly straight on his bed, which was shaped like a race car. He'd been carefully placed there, likely after he died.
An empty bottle of Ambien, prescription sleeping pills strictly for adults, had been discarded in the trash. The pills had been crushed up by the boy's mother, Dinutze "Dee" Venter, who then apparently forced the boy to overdose.
The bathroom, with several candles still burning, was like a ghoulish shrine. A plugged-in toaster sat on the edge of the toilet, and there was a curling iron in the tub, which was full of water. A double-edged razor had been left on the floor and, over the sink was taped a computer printout of a picture of a smiling, happy Kyle.
Dee Venter, who had created this macabre still life, was half-conscious in the master bedroom. Blood dripped from superficial wounds on her wrists, the result of a feeble suicide attempt. Paramedics rushed her to Northwest Medical Center, where she fully recovered. She didn't say much to police when they tried to interview her, but notes addressed to Anthony that she'd left scattered throughout the apartment detailed her contradictory thoughts. On the wall above her dead son was one that included the words, "You will never be able to humiliate us again -- I want you to think of Kyle and how much you hurt him and abandoned him and what his last little thoughts must have been."
Another: "I wish you well and will always love you with all my heart. I will take care of Kyle in our new home and have peace knowing that you or anyone else can't hurt him anymore."
And another: "This is all your fault."
Of course, this was no one's fault but her own, yet Anthony says that people still assume he must bear some of the blame. He must be a monster of some kind. What else could have driven a 35-year-old woman to kill her child?
The court system even seems to be stacked against Anthony. Though he felt it was a clear-cut, first-degree, premeditated killing, a grand jury indicted Dee Venter for second-degree murder on May 3, 2001. Not long after that, assistant state attorney Brian Cavanagh told Anthony that he should accept a plea offer to reduce his ex-wife's charge to manslaughter, which would likely entail an eight-year prison sentence. A jury, Cavanagh told Anthony, would sympathize with the mother and possibly not convict her at all.
Anthony, whose opinion is given great weight since he is the primary living victim of the crime, told the veteran homicide prosecutor that there was no way he would accept such a deal. Second-degree murder in Florida carries a 25-year minimum sentence. He wanted her to do about 40. She killed his son. She needed to pay.
Instead, she was freed. On June 14, 2001, Circuit Court Judge Ronald Rothschild allowed Dee Venter to bond out of jail. A wealthy developer and friend of hers named David Schroeder posted the $250,000 bail and allowed her to live in his Coral Springs home with him and his wife.
There has been silence ever since. The trial has been delayed ten times, with the latest court date set for May 2. Just last month, Cavanagh again asked Anthony to endorse the manslaughter plea offer. (The prosecutor, who was in trial last week, didn't return my phone calls). Again, Venter rejected the idea. "If it were the other way around, I would be on death row right now," he said. "Men don't get the same rights. They always take the woman's side."
Anthony told me that last fall, when I first began looking into this case. Last week he called and said that after waiting more than two years and paying a private attorney for advice, he's finally ready to cut a deal. Fifteen years in prison. He believes his former wife's defense attorney, Michael Dutko, will accept that plea. (Dutko wouldn't comment on the matter, saying he didn't want to negotiate a plea in a newspaper.)
Anthony says he just needs to resolve the case before he can recover from the loss. "I need to be able to try to get my life back," he says. "I need to find some happiness again."
When Anthony, who is from South Africa, first told me about his plight, I was skeptical. He's a big man, well over six feet tall. What horrors might he have visited upon Dee to cause her to do something so outrageous?
And after culling the court file, meeting Anthony, and reading lengthy letters Dee wrote to him and others, it has become clear that Kyle's murder was indeed the culmination of a long pattern of verbal and physical abuse. Not by Anthony but by Dee. The husband was virtually terrorized by a woman who was fully a foot shorter than he and practically half his weight. When Anthony tried to free himself from her grip, she showed him who was boss by stealing the life of his son.
Next week: How a marriage led to a child's murder.
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