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Couple charged with child abuse in death of son

Authorities say the parents failed to seek treatment for the 2-year-old boy after he was stung by a swarm of yellow jackets last fall.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 11, 1999

TAMPA -- After a swarm of yellow jackets stung their toddler 432 times last fall, Wylie and Kelly Johnson gave him a cool bath.

As 2-year-old Harrison Johnson's breathing became labored and his heartbeat slowed, his parents put him to bed.

Hours later, the boy was pronounced dead at a local hospital.

Now 71/2 months later, authorities have charged the Johnsons with aggravated child abuse in relation to the Sept. 28 incident.

The Johnsons, whose religious beliefs eschew medical treatment, have refused to be interviewed and have never given detectives a reason for not getting help for their child, said Hillsborough sheriff's Lt. Greg Brown. "All we know is this: They waited seven hours to seek any kind of medical treatment," he said.

Investigators, armed with arrest warrants, have been unable to locate the Melbourne couple, Brown said. The Johnsons were visiting friends in Tampa at the time of the incident.

Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Pam Bondi said it took months to charge the Johnsons because of complicated factors.

"The investigation required extensive consultation with medical personnel and time-consuming laboratory work," Bondi said.

Deputies said that after Harrison Johnson stumbled onto a yellow jacket nest at the Countryside Village Mobile Home Park about 5 p.m., his parents did little to help him until 12:20 a.m. the next morning, when Wylie Johnson called 911 to say his son had stopped breathing.

Paramedics who responded said they found the child covered in stings and unresponsive, and his parents calm. Harrison was pronounced dead Sept. 29 at 1:30 a.m. at St. Joseph's Hospital.

At the hospital, the Johnsons refused to tell deputies their name or address, Brown said.

This was not the couple's first brush with the law over their religious beliefs. As part of a small religious group known as Bible Readers Fellowship, the Johnsons were acquitted in March 1998 of charges they did not report the death of a 1-month-old girl born to a couple from their group.

During questioning for that case in October 1996, Wylie Johnson told detectives he relied on his religion for healing. Asked if he would ever call 911 to help his child, he replied, "I don't know."

The Johnsons' attorney did not return calls Monday.

A medical examiner's report lists the boy's cause of death as "envenomation by wasps."

While reactions to such stings vary, it's more than likely the multiple stings had serious effects that included a lowering of blood pressure, breathing and kidney problems, said Dr. Sven Normann, a toxicologist with the Florida Poison Information Center.

The medical examiner's report also revealed that a small amount of allergy medicine was found in Harrison Johnson's stomach, raising the possibility that someone tried to treat him at some point. Normann said it was likely the allergy medicine was administered before the paramedics arrived, since they found the child unconscious and not breathing.

-- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

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