tampabay.com

Family remembers its beautiful princess

Heather Romance's grandmother didn't know why the babysitter was arrested until finding out that he is accused of sexually assaulting her.

By ABBIE VANSICKLE 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 SpongeBob SquarePants doll, a picture book about Cinderella and lots of dolls.

The last time that 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 her hand.

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

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

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

She blames Eric Tate, 18, 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 good babysitter.

"He knew how to handle 2-year-olds," Romance said Friday. "We're all just numb right now."

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

"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 Romance, 20.

Romance was 17 when she became pregnant with Heather. She and Jammie Cessna, 28, of Riverview had been dating 1½ years when they learned that their soon-to-be 7-pound, 5-ounce baby girl was on the way.

It was an easy pregnancy. But after eight hours of labor, doctors at Brandon Regional Medical Center decided to take Heather by caesarean section. Brown was in the delivery room.

"It was special," Brown said. "It kind of made Heather more like my child than my grandchild."

After Mommy and Daddy, Heather's first word was "TeeTee," her nickname for Romance's sister, Jennifer, Cessna and Romance said.

The wide-eyed blond toddler loved ice cream and any kind of junk food, Brown said. Tate was attentive to that. Romance said he often bought her candy baby bottle pops, one of her favorite treats.

Romance heard from Tate about 11 a.m. Wednesday. He told her that 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. Her mother met her.

She brought with her Heather's favorite storybook, The Perfect Wedding, the story of Cinderella's marriage.

She never got the chance to read it to Heather.

They weren't allowed to see Heather right away, she said.

Tate was there, but Brown asked him to leave. Cessna drove from Fort Myers, where he was working on his grandmother's home.

At the hospital, Brown watched deputies take Tate into custody, she said. At the time, Brown didn't know why.

When the family learned that Heather had been sexually abused, they were sickened, Brown said.

"I didn't like him the day I met him," Brown said. "I didn't like how he looked. I didn't like the fact that he didn't have a car, he didn't have a job."