On June 20, 2016, two children died in separate drowning incidents in Tarrant County: A 13-year-old girl during swim practice in Southlake and a one-year-old boy in a pool at his family’s apartment complex in Fort Worth.
Both cases were ruled accidents.
But only one resulted in criminal charges.
In the Southlake case, Tracey Boyd — the former coach of the victim, Elise Cerami — was indicted last month on a state jail felony charge of abandoning/endangering a child by criminal negligence, officials confirmed Wednesday.
In the Fort Worth case, the drowning of Adrian Romero-Valadez was determined — both by the Tarrant County medical examiner and authorities — to have simply been an accident.
The two cases were under different circumstances but highlight the gray area officials are left with: Was a drowning, as tragic as it might be, a result of criminal negligence?
Boyd’s attorney, Dan Hagood, said Thursday that Boyd was “devastated” by Cerami's death, “but she's also devastated that there are criminal charges that flowed from these actions."
“But it's why they invented the courthouse,” Hagood said.
Details about the case remained scarce Thursday evening.
The Star-Telegram asked Southlake police what possible criminal actions Boyd took, and whether Christensen was also investigated, but they declined to comment, as did the district attorney’s office.
Elise had been at the Carroll school district’s Aquatics Center, practicing with her district-owned swim club, the North Texas Nadadores. After a warmup lap, she sank into the water.
When her teammates realized she hadn’t surfaced, they pulled her out, and staff members, including then-head coach Bill Christensen, administered CPR while awaiting paramedics.
Elise was taken to Baylor Regional Medical Center in Grapevine before being transferred to Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth, where she was pronounced dead.
More than a year later, it’s still unclear why Elise sank into the water. Boyd’s involvement also remained unclear Thursday.
In a drowning prevention video produced by Cook Children’s in May, Elise’s mother, Lori Cerami, said, “No one heard her drown, no one saw her drown and no one was actively scanning the water. Regardless of experience, no one is drown-proof.”
Cases have to be “egregious”
Wade Walls, a Fort Worth Police Department investigator, said a parent’s or supervisor’s actions have to be “egregious” to rise to the level of criminal negligence.
Over the last two years, Walls said there have been about 10 child drownings in Fort Worth. None resulted in charges.
Each was reviewed by the district attorney’s office and the Police Department’s Crimes Against Children Unit, as is the practice with every child death.
The drowning of Romero-Valadez, who was 21 months old, was an example of what investigators see often — a tragic accident, Walls said.
The one-year-old had escaped from his family’s apartment while his mother was getting ready for work. He walked 40-50 yards to the apartment’s pool, where other children were swimming. The pool gate was propped open and the child, who was in diapers, walked into the water.
“Nobody noticed a thing until he was already in the water,” Walls said.
The boy’s mother told police that the front door to the apartment had not been closing properly and that her child had a history of trying to get outside.
“It was an accident,” Walls said. “Yes, you should pay attention to your child 24/7. But is that realistically possible when you’re taking a shower for 15 minutes or getting ready for work? We try to watch them all the time, but you can’t watch them all the time.”
The Fort Worth investigators approach each case with a question: “How would a reasonable person act in the same situation?” Walls said.
Alcohol or drug use could factor into possible charges, but not always.
“If you’re at a pool party and everyone is having some beer, no,” Walls said. “If you’re passed out in your apartment because you’ve been drinking for 12 hours, yeah, that could be a factor.”
Tyler Dunman, a special-crimes prosecutor with the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office in Conroe, said his office uses a “plus-one” approach when deciding whether to prosecute drownings and other child deaths.
“If someone ran inside for one second and came back out and the child drowned, that might not get us there,” Dunman said. “But your ‘plus-one’ might be that the kid was left without a life preserver. What’s the next step that takes this above something ordinary?”
Dunman said he believed it would be unlikely for a grand jury to indict a parent in the accidental drowning of their child.
“It’s different, though, when you talk about a third party, a coach or someone who a parent has left to care for their child,” he said. “That is a different standard for a grand jury.”
Family focused on prevention
In a statement Thursday, Elise’s family said the indictment against Boyd “describes her conduct” in the drowning incident, adding, “we believe the district attorney will devote the full resources of their office to the case against Boyd.”
“While the court system proceeds with the grand jury’s indictment, our efforts will continue in water safety an drowning prevention,” the statement said.
Elise’s mother, Lori Cerami, has pushed for the Carroll school district to raise its safety standards at the Aquatics Center and participated in the drowning prevention video.
In an email Thursday, she wrote, “One of our challenges has been that the community thinks that something was wrong with Elise, therefore they cannot relate, as this could never happen to their child. This creates a barrier, causing people to disregard the important message of water safety and drowning prevention.
“Yes, Elise was a strong swimmer, but contrary to the rumors, she was very healthy.”
In June, Cerami spoke at a Carroll school board meeting, asking trustees to require swim coaches to undergo lifeguard training through the American Red Cross.
The lifeguard training, Cerami said, is much more rigorous than the standard training for swim coaches.
“For the safety of our kids, swim coaches, who often act as first responders, should hold the highest standard of safety between the two certifications,” Cerami told the board.
In September, administrators doubled the number of lifeguards at the Aquatics Center, but officials continued to review facility practices and procedures. In May, board members approved a plan to add two supervisory positions to oversee the lifeguard program.