Making sense of losing Mia

Her mother wants to know what could have made the babysitter so angry that he would injure her.

Published May 31, 2007

TAMPA -- Like many 16-month-olds Mia Angelina Alvarez wasn't good at saying goodbye to her mother.

On Monday morning little Mia was especially cranky. She had a virus and threw up after she woke, her mom said.

Still, Mia mustered enough toddler joy for her morning ritual on the apartment patio with her mother and 2-year-old brother, Anthony, as they watched the neighborhood dogs pass by.

"Doggy!" she'd call out.

No one could have known it would be the last day Naomi Alvarez would hear her daughter's voice.

When Alvarez, 22, went to her 4 p.m. cashier's shift at Winn- Dixie down the block, she left her children in the care of her roommate of two months, Aurelio Gonzalez, a teacher's aide at Liberty Middle School in Tampa.

Two hours later, Alvarez got an emergency call from a distraught Gonzalez.

"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," she recalled him saying. He dropped the baby in the kitchen, he said.

Talking with him as she ran home, she asked when it happened. An hour and a half before he called her, he answered.

Call 911, she demanded.

"I can't believe you waited this long," she remembers saying in her panic. "She's a baby!"

When the terrified mother got to Apartment 513, her curly haired, pudgy-cheeked daughter was lying unresponsive on the futon mattress, her face blue, her head red with marks. Her son was playing in his room.

Gonzalez kept apologizing, explaining how the child slipped from his arms in the kitchen, Alvarez said. It wasn't until after Mia was in surgery at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital that Alvarez and her husband, Anthony, learned another story.

Gonzalez told deputies the baby wouldn't stop crying. He shook her four to five times, according to an arrest report. She kept crying. After 10 minutes, he hit her with a closed fist four to five times on the top and sides of her head, the report says.

Now, Mia's brain was swelling. Her lungs were failing. Even after 24 hours, doctors were having a hard time getting blood to flow to her brain, said father Anthony Alvarez.

At 6:40 p.m. Tuesday the despondent parents allowed doc tors to remove life support.

"Hardest thing I ever been through in my life," a tearful Anthony Gonzalez, 23, said Wednesday as he held his wife's hand. The couple had been estranged, but were planning to reunite even before Mia died.

Living as roommates but not romantic

While the child was still alive Tuesday, deputies booked Gonzalez into Orient Road Jail on a charge of aggravated child abuse. No new charges had been added late Wednesday following the toddler's death.

Hillsborough sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter said authorities would consult with the medical examiner and state attorney before making any changes.

Gonzalez has been an aide to an autistic child at Liberty Middle since November. Before that, his school application indicates he worked as a private tutor.

Alvarez said she met Gonzalez, whom she called JuJo, a year ago at a coin laundry where she worked at the time. The two became friends and agreed to move in together when Alvarez and her husband of three years began having difficulties.

The two would share rent at Ashton Park apartments on N Bearss Avenue. Alvarez's children would have their own room. Alvarez would sleep on a futon in the living room. And Gonzalez could babysit while the mother worked evenings.

"I was having a very hard time looking for affordable day care for my kids," Alvarez said Wednesday, explaining her decision. There was no romantic involvement, she said, but he did tell her he had feelings for her.

The Alvarezes said they had already decided to reunite their family before the tragedy struck. That news did not sit well with Gonzalez, Naomi Alvarez said.

The parents could not make sense of the accusations against Gonzalez. Naomi Alvarez said the autistic students he works with at Liberty love him. A school spokeswoman said the same, though the incident now leaves his job in jeopardy.

"It just shocked me, " Alvarez said. "He never hit me or gave me reason to fear about anything. I just wanted to know what happened. Why did he have to do that? ... What could she possibly have done to make you that mad?"

All during Alvarez's pregnancy with Mia, doctors told her it would be another boy. It wasn't until delivery she learned otherwise. Mia "was just so beautiful, " her mother remembered.

Setting up bank fund for funeral expenses

In her short life, Mia learned to give full-hearted hugs. She loved nudging her dad's head with hers, waving to people as she rode the bus with her mom, and reading her ABCs book over and over again.

"She was the sweetest little girl," Naomi Alvarez said. "So sweet and so smart. ... There are people to this day who only met her once and they are just heartbroken."

The family on Wednesday was working with bank officials to set up a fund to seek donations to help pay funeral expenses.

As they began making burial arrangements, they struggled with what they could possibly say to the man accused of harming their cheerful child.

"My daughter didn't ask for this," Anthony Alvarez said. "He needs to be handled. He really does.

"I have no words for that dude."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Fast Facts: Shaken baby syndrome
Shaken baby syndrome results from violent shaking or impacting of the head of an infant or small child. Symptoms range from irritability, lethargy, tremors and vomiting to seizures, coma, stupor, death. These neurological changes come from destruction of brain cells, lack of oxygen to the brain cells, and swelling of the brain.

Sources: Florida Department of Health, National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome and www.DontShakeABaby.com