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Mother cited for leaving toddler inside 110-degree car

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SALT LAKE CITY — Dixie Smith doesn't know for certain what prompted the five girls, two of them her own, to crawl into the trunk of her car on that hot August day in 1998.

But she knows it took only a second for them to go missing and for her to become a parent who lost two children. Every year, she hears about others.

"It is very frustrating, very heartbreaking," Smith said. "Every time I hear of it, my heart just goes out to those families and to those children. … I almost can't look at them anymore because it's so heartbreaking and so heart-wrenching and so very preventable."

A potentially deadly situation was prevented by a diligent bystander Friday, when an Orem woman was cited after police said she left her 3-year-old girl alone inside a car that was 110 degrees.

The incident happened about 2:15 p.m. in the parking lot of TJ Maxx, 268 W. University Ave. in Orem.

Gail Belliston exited the store and was walking through the parking lot when she heard the child screaming, Orem Police Sgt. Craig Martinez said.

"She looked in the car and saw a 3-year-old girl in a car seat," Martinez said. "The baby was crying and sweating profusely."

Belliston waited a few minutes to see if anyone was coming back to the car. When no one showed up, she reached inside the open window and pulled the toddler out. She then called 911.

Another patron of the store was walking through the parking lot and heard a child screaming. She looked in the car and saw a 3- year-old girl in a car seat. The baby was crying and sweating profusely.

–Sgt. Craig Martinez

"I was angry. I was just so mad," Belliston said. "(The girl) was upset and screaming."

Paramedics checked out the young girl, who was OK, while police searched the nearby stores for her parents.

Belliston said police told her the girl likely would have died if she had not been pulled out of the car.

"Twenty minutes after we got there, the mom came out," Martinez said.

The 39-year-old woman told investigators she had to use the restroom inside the store. Her daughter was sleeping, and she said she thought she would only be a few minutes.

"It was obvious to us that she was sorry," Martinez said. "She understood the errors of her ways, but that's not going to keep her from getting a ticket."

Belliston said she believes the punishment should have been more severe.

"That little girl shouldn't have gone home with her mother, in my opinion," she said.

In addition to the heat, Belliston said it was easy for her to take the girl out of the vehicle.

"Anyone could have taken this little girl and been long gone before the mother or police even had a clue," she said.

The woman was issued a citation for leaving her child alone in the car, a class C misdemeanor. Police estimated the toddler was alone in the car for five to eight minutes. But the mother was away for almost 30 minutes.

Vehicular health stroke deaths
  • 2012: 4
  • 2011: 33
  • 2010: 49
  • 2009: 33
  • 1996-2008: 10 fatal
  • 2000-2011: 13 non-fatal


"If that baby was left in there for 25 minutes and no one had stopped, we might be talking about a different story," Martinez said. "I'm glad someone had the sense to do what (Belliston) did."

When the fire department measured the inside temperature of the mother's car, it was 110 degrees, even though the window was rolled down and the temperature outside was only 80 degrees.

"One thing I hear (people who leave their children unattended in the car) say, they're asleep and they don't want to bother them. It's a lot more hassle to deal with a charge than it is to take your kid into a store. If you're going into a store, don't leave them," Martinez said.

Unfortunately, Orem has seen a "very, very bad trend" recently with a half-dozen cases of babies and toddlers left alone in vehicles being reported over the past two to three weeks, the sergeant said.

In Orem, it is illegal to leave anyone under 6 alone in a vehicle. If a sibling is left in a car with someone under 6, that person has to be at least 12 years old.

Nationally, there have been four deaths in the United States this year, as of June 12, of children who died of hyperthermia after being left in a car, according to Jan Null, with San Francisco State University's Department of Geosciences. Null has done extensive research on hyperthermia deaths of children in vehicles.

In 2011, 33 children died as a result of hyperthermia from being left in vehicles. Since 1998, the U.S. has averaged 38 deaths per year, according to Null.

In 52 percent of those cases since 1998, the child was left in the car after being "forgotten" by the caregiver. More than half of the deaths involved infants under the age of 2, with infants less than 1 year old making up 30 percent of those deaths, according to statistics compiled by Null.

Utah had eight such fatalities between 1998 and 2011.

The last two children in Utah who died from hyperthermia as a result of being left in a vehicle were in 2008 in separate incidents. Prior to that, it had been at least five years since Utah had had a fatality.

Heatstroke can occur when a person's body temperature exceeds 104 degrees, according to Null. Children's thermoregulatory systems warm three to five times faster than an adult’s.

According to Null's studies, in just 10 minutes the temperature inside a vehicle can rise an average of 19 degrees, 29 degrees in 20 minutes and 34 degrees in 30 minutes. "Cracking a window" has little effect, she said.

The dog days of summer haven't even started, but Utah is experiencing high temperatures. Temperatures are expected to hover near 100 degrees by the end of the week, leading officials to sound the warning about the dangers of the summer sun.

"I think it's parents not being aware of the effects that could occur. They don't realize how hot their car could get," said Christi Fisher of Safe Kids Utah. "It's 80 degrees outside, nice day, but they don't realize how much that can heat up inside in just a matter of minutes."

Smith understands that. She lost two daughters when they were found dead with two of their cousins and a friend in the trunk of her car. The girls' ages ranged from 2 to 5.

"(It was) 45 minutes from the time we realized they were missing until the time they were found," she said of Audrey Cleo Smith, 2; Jaesha Lynn Smith, 4; Alisha Richardson, 6; Ashley Marie Richardson, 3; and McKell Shae Ann Hedden, 5.

"It's a very short time and it's mostly because their little bodies can't take the heat and their core body temperatures rise very rapidly," Smith said.

Every year, similar stories start being told and, every year, she speaks out about them. She has pushed for cars with interior trunk releases and hopes parents will come to understand how quickly things like this can happen.

"It always happened to somebody else," she said. "When you're somebody else, it's not a fun thing to go through at all. Just be mindful of the dangers of cars. Always lock your cars, make sure your trunk is locked. Keep your keys away from kids.

"It's much easier to take the five extra minutes to get the kids in and out of the car than it is to go through a lifetime without them."

More than the heat, kids and cars are just a bad combination, Fisher said. Kids can pass in front or behind cars or crawl through them and bump the vehicles into gear. Kids left unattended are also targets for kidnapping.

"It's not just the heat," Fisher said. "We just don't want those kids being left in the car for any amount of time, for any reason, any time of the year."

Contributing: Sandra Yi

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Pat Reavy and Emiley Morgan


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