Saturday, November 25, 2017
Public safety

St. Petersburg police: Father squeezed, abused 7-week-old daughter before her death

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ST. PETERSBURG — When police asked him about his baby daughter's torn lip, Jeremiah Dillard told them he pinched and squeezed her cheeks.

They asked him about her fractured ribs and broken clavicle. He said he squeezed 7-week-old J'Lena Dillard tight, police said. The father said he wanted to strengthen her ribs, to make her a "tough" baby.

She also suffered a brain hemorrhage. Dillard told police he would visualize horns on his head and head-butt the infant.

While J'Lena's mom was away at work, her dad told police that he was "slacking off" on feeding her. She weighed less than 95 percent of other infants her age.

Dillard told police he didn't mean to kill his baby girl in late September. But on Feb. 8, he showed up at the St. Petersburg Police Department and told officers he was responsible for her death. Three days later, he was arrested in the infant's murder.

That's according to statements police said Dillard made, revealed in a search warrant filed to access the father's cellphone for photos of his daughter's injuries.

Dillard, 33, is due in court Monday to be arraigned on a charge of first-degree murder in the death of J'Lena, who was pronounced dead in the early morning hours of Sept. 24 at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital. She was 54 days old.

St. Petersburg detectives who came to the hospital that morning interviewed Dillard and mother Shefe Cotton about the baby's injuries. The detectives also noted that J'Lena appeared to be underweight.

Both parents denied harming the baby, and had various explanations for her injuries. Dillard was supposed to be watching the couple's two children while Cotton worked. The investigation continued as police awaited the results of an autopsy from the medical examiner.

Pinellas-Pasco associate medical examiner Wayne Kurz ruled on Jan. 26 that the baby's death was a homicide caused by asphyxia and contributing factors were blunt trauma and malnutrition. His autopsy report noted multiple traumas to her head and scalp.

On Feb. 7, detectives interviewed Dillard at the police station. He denied killing J'Lena, but said she may had been injured during "rough playing." He also said he was smoking marijuana while the baby was nearby, according to the warrant.

During the interview, he showed police a photo of J'Lena on his phone, which he said was taken Sept. 19, five days before she died. It showed her with a swollen left eye, which Dillard said was where he accidentally rubbed olive oil into her eye.

Dillard told police he was very religious and put olive oil, which he called "blood of Jesus," on J'Lena regularly.

The next morning, Feb. 8, he returned to the police station, according to the warrant, and confessed to J'Lena's death: "I am responsible for the death of my daughter," he said. "I want to turn myself in."

Police said Dillard admitted that when J'Lena was found unresponsive, he did not want Cotton to call 911, fearing he would be to blame. He said he wanted to put olive oil on the infant first, according to police.

Police said Dillard denied he intentionally killed J'Lena, and was not arrested at that time.

The next day, the medical examiner told police that the baby's injuries showed signs of age, which indicated to police that J'Lena was repeatedly abused.

On Feb. 10, police called Dillard and asked him to turn himself in. He said he was going to Gainesville to see his mother one last time, the warrant said, "because he knew that he was going away for life." He turned himself in later that night.

Dillard had two children with Cotton, 24. The Florida Department of Children and Families removed their other daughter, who was 2 years old, on Sept. 29, five days after J'Lena's death.

DCF spokeswoman Jessica Sims said the agency had no prior knowledge or involvement with J'Lena. She said any other history Dillard might have with DCF was confidential.

Dillard had a history of child abuse incidents. In 2012 he pleaded no contest to child abuse charges in Alachua County and was sentenced to 10 months' probation. The judge withheld a formal finding of guilt.

In that case, Gainesville police records said Dillard beat his 14-year-old niece with a belt for talking back. The girl showed swelling and redness on her back, forearms and hands. She told police a toenail was torn off by the belt buckle.

Gainesville police said Dillard told them: "That's how our daddy did it and so do we."

Times staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek and Laura C. Morel contributed to this report. Contact Nathaniel Lash at nlash@tampabay.com. Follow @Nat_Lash.

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