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A judge who awarded Sheryl Hardy custody says she learned to be a good parent in prison. A detective disagrees. Mom says her baby is "doing great.''
November 24, 2001
JERSEYVILLE, Ill. -- A decade after a Florida judge sent her to prison for helping murder her 2-year-old son, an Illinois judge awarded Sheryl Hardy custody of her 9-month-old baby, saying she had made "extraordinary progress" since the crime.
The death of Bradley McGee in Lakeland in 1989 was so horrific, it prompted the Florida Legislature to overhaul its child protection laws and spend $79-million hiring more social workers to detect child abuse.
Bradley died after Hardy -- then Sheryl Coe -- watched as her husband repeatedly rammed the boy's head into the toilet like a plunger, angered that the toddler had soiled his pants.
Now, after serving nine years in prison, Hardy wants to start over in her hometown 50 miles north of St. Louis with her new husband, Randy Hardy, and their baby boy.
Hardy says she can be a good parent and wants the opportunity to try, but the lead detective in Bradley's death says she doesn't deserve another chance.
"She's an evil person, a murderess," said Paul Schaill of the Fort Meade Police Department. "This baby is going to end up dead, too."
Illinois' child welfare agency also recommended that Hardy not get custody of the boy. Martha Allen, the agency's chief of staff, said she can remember no other time in her six years with the department that a parent convicted in the death of a child won custody of another child.
But Jersey County Judge Thomas Russell ruled on Nov. 16 that he believes Hardy can now be a sensitive and nurturing mother. The judge denied attempts by state prosecutors to abolish Hardy's parental rights based on her earlier crime and ordered the state's child welfare agency to return the baby, who has been in foster care since the day after he was born.
"This may be one of those rare cases where a parent has been able to progress from a point of total inability to parent and protect a child to a point of competence," Russell wrote in his decision.
Prosecutors say they plan to appeal but declined to discuss the case with the Associated Press.
Hardy, too, declined to talk with the AP this week, saying only that her new son is "doing great, now that he's back with me." She then shut her front door on a reporter as she said, "I just want to live my life."
Hardy, 33, says she was sexually and emotionally abused as she grew up in this rural town of 7,500. She says Bradley was conceived when she was raped. She moved to Florida after he was born.
There, she met Thomas Coe, who was living in his truck. The two abandoned 4-month-old Bradley at a mall. The child was placed in foster care, and Hardy and Coe married and had a daughter.
Nearly two years later, when Hardy learned that Bradley's foster parents wanted to adopt him, she asked for custody and got it. Sixty-six days after Bradley arrived at the Coes' rural Polk County mobile home, he was dead.
Thomas Coe, who was convicted of first-degree murder and is serving a life sentence, admitted ramming the boy's head into the toilet. Sheryl Hardy said she lit a cigarette and watched, then joined Coe when he beat the boy with couch cushions until Bradley collapsed. He died the next day of head injuries.
Sheryl Hardy told police that Coe had tormented the boy almost as soon as he arrived. She insists Coe was responsible for the worst of the abuse but said she played a part, too: cleaning Bradley with a garden hose when he soiled his pants, shaking him violently and running a fork over his mouth with feces on it.
"I know it was gross," Hardy told the Chicago Tribune in a recent interview. "I know it was harsh. That's something I see when I close my eyes."
Her two daughters -- another was born when Hardy was in prison -- now live with adoptive parents. Hardy has no contact with them.
Four Florida social workers were charged with failing to report child abuse in Bradley's death. Three were acquitted, but Bradley's main caseworker, Margaret Barber, was convicted and placed on three months' probation.
Hardy says Coe abused her and she was too beaten down to protect Bradley -- a claim Judge Russell cited when he awarded her custody of her new baby. She said she took parenting classes in prison, received counseling and earned her GED, all things that she says make her a good parent now.
Detective Schaill doesn't buy it.
"Sheryl and Tom went through all the parenting classes, the shrinks, in Florida, too," said Schaill, who traveled to Illinois to testify at Hardy's hearing. "Then they butchered the baby."
Kip Liles, a foster mother who cared for Bradley briefly after he was abandoned, said she still has photographs of "Braddy."
"I think of him as that happy, laughing, smiling little baby," she said. "That's what I'll always think of think of when I think of Braddy."