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Beloved girl's life cut all too short

Heather Marie Romance's family is trying to remember the good times with her, but how she died clouds it all.

By ABBIE VAN SICKLE and REBECCA CATALANELLO
Published August 19, 2006


TAMPA - In a corner of a mobile home on Jamie Drive, young Heather Marie Romance's toys are piled up in a jumbled bundle.

There's a Sponge Bob Squarepants doll, a picture book about Cinderella and lots of dolls.

The last time 2½-year-old Heather toddled around this home, she was a healthy child, a girl who loved the Disney princesses, anything yellow and sloshing in the kitchen sink while her grandmother washed dishes.

"She was a princess," said her grandmother, Debbie Brown, 45, as she stood on the front steps, a box of tissues in hand.

Heather was just a few months shy of her third birthday on Nov. 18, when she died earlier this week. At first, the family believed she had fallen off the couch while in the care of a babysitter.

But the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office has arrested the babysitter and accused him of sexually assaulting Heather, causing such severe injuries that she died.

"Heather didn't deserve what she got," Brown said, tears in her eyes.

She blames 18-year-old Eric Tate, Heather's babysitter and the boyfriend of Heather's mother, Amy Romance.

Romance said she met Tate six months ago after a friend and co-worker recommended him as a babysitter.

Tate was arrested Wednesday and charged with capital sexual battery. He is being held at Orient Road Jail without bail.

He has not been charged in the child's death.

"He lied, he lied," Brown said. "He lied the whole time, and we didn't find out until the Sheriff's Office went out there."

Brown, a Wal-Mart employee, shares a small mobile home in the East Tampa Mobile Home Park with her daughter, Amy, 20.

Amy was 17 when she became pregnant with Heather. She and Jammie Cessna of Riverview had been dating a year and a half when they learned the soon-to-be 7-pound, 5-ounce baby girl was on her way.

It was an easy pregnancy for the most part. Cessna, now 28, would fetch watermelon when Romance had a craving. The two of them looked forward to their first and only child.

But after eight hours of labor, doctors at Brandon Regional Medical Center decided to take her by caesarean section.

As Heather got older, she learned to love lizards and worms and tadpoles. "Once you got her outside," Romance said, "you couldn't bring her in."

She enjoyed ice cream and candy. And Tate was attentive to that. Romance said Tate often bought Heather lots of candy baby bottle pops, one of her favorite treats.

Amy Romance got a call from Tate at about 11 a.m. Wednesday. He told her Heather had fallen off the couch and was unconscious.

Romance left her job at a Verizon call center and rushed to St. Joseph's Hospital, where Brown met her.

Doctors hooked Heather up to a ventilator to keep her alive. But as Amy Romance describes it, her daughter's brain wasn't telling her heart what to do. Cessna sped to the hospital from Fort Myers, where he was working. The parents stayed by their baby's side until Thursday, when doctors finally said nothing more could be done.

During an hourlong interview Friday, Cessna could barely lift his eyes from the ground. His arms appeared heavy and his shoulders slouched in grief. His kept his sentences short, except to talk about how he plans to remember his daughter. "Just how happy she was all the time - always smiling."

For Tate, once a trusted friend, the family has only fury.

When Brown saw him at the hospital, she asked him to leave. She watched as deputies took Tate into custody, though it wasn't until the next day that she knew the reason behind his arrest.

"I want him to feel the same pain and sorrow that Jammie and I are going through," Romance said Friday. "I don't think he's worth the prison sentence. This is one of the situations where you're so angry, but at the same time, you're so helpless."

Romance met Tate through a friend at Verizon who was using him as a babysitter. Brown recalls him saying his mother used to run a day care. Romance spent a week observing Tate with her daughter before she agreed to allow him to watch her, she said. She also contacted his former employer, an afterschool program, the name of which she couldn't remember on Friday.

So, for the last six months, Tate cared for Heather three days a week, Tuesday through Thursday.

The two soon started dating and lived together for the past month. They moved to Lutz at the beginning of August to live with another couple and two other children.

Heather's family never noticed any signs of sexual abuse, but they were concerned that Tate sometimes treated Heather too much like an older child.

But that's nothing compared to sexual abuse, she said.

The family made funeral arrangements through Stowers Funeral Home in Brandon on Friday. A viewing is planned for Tuesday followed by a service on Wednesday. Heather will wear her Cinderella gown.

As Brown walked around the house, looking for photos of Heather, she kept seeing reminders of the child.

On a note pad on a desk, Heather's name was written 10 times in several different colors of ink. Romance had been helping Heather to write the letters just days before she died, Brown said.

Tears came to her eyes again.

"I didn't want her to grow up, I wanted her to stay little," she said.

It never occurred to her that Heather might be gone before she had a chance to grow old.

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at vansickle@sptimes.com or 813 226-3373.