A third-degree felony charge of knowingly and willingly failing to report known or suspected child abuse, abandonment, or neglect has been dropped against Fort Myers police officer Tyler Williams.
On June 9, 25-year-old Williams was arrested and charged amidst an Internal Affairs Investigation spurred by the February 17 death of three-year-old Serenity Robinson in Fort Myers, Florida.
Serenity died after being ejected from her mother’s minivan, in which the little girl was unrestrained. Her mother, 30-year-old Leslie Joe Zeagler, who was “impaired by various multiple controlled substances” at the time of the accident, was charged with aggravated manslaughter of a child by culpable negligence, DUI manslaughter, and driving with a suspended license.
Serenity’s death was one of the most preventable I’ve ever covered, and I will never not be enraged by her mother’s negligence.
The charge against Williams stemmed from a traffic stop he made during the early morning hours of January 18, 2020, in which he pulled over Leslie’s 2005 minivan for speeding. The driver at that time was 30-year-old Carly Hartnett, a friend of Leslie’s who happened to be the passenger in the February accident that killed Serenity. During the January stop, Leslie was riding in the passenger seat while little Serenity slept in the backseat. Also on the seat, as captured by Williams’ bodycam, were a plastic bag containing crystal meth and syringes that later tested positive for heroin.
According to the January 18 bodycam footage, Williams asked the women about the drugs, which they denied owning, saying someone else had recently used the vehicle. Williams said he didn’t believe them, but he also told them they weren’t being arrested. Instead, he said, “I am going to put this in reality for you, and hopefully we can change our habits in the future… I didn’t say I was taking you to jail, because we are going to have a whole come-to-Jesus step, and we are going to change our lifestyle, because I don’t need this in front of a child.”
Saying he didn’t want the women arrested, their van towed, and Serenity taken into state custody, he added, “That is a beautiful little girl. She doesn’t deserve that.”
Williams let the women go, saying he was “feeling gracious for some reason. I don’t know why. Ultimately, I really don’t feel like dealing with DCF at 6:00 in the morning.”
After Serenity’s death, Williams spoke with Serenity’s father, Randy Robinson, telling him he couldn’t arrest the women because it was unclear who owned the drugs and that he reported the traffic stop to DCF, which DCF debunked, saying it has no record of Tyler Williams requesting the agency’s involvement in January.
Had he contacted DCF, he would have discovered that the agency had previous involvement with Leslie, beginning in August of 2016 when Serenity was born with opiates in her system and showing symptoms of opiate withdrawal.
In his motion to dismiss, Williams stated that Serenity’s death was unrelated to the January traffic stop, saying that at the time, the little girl was clean, healthy, and not in distress, which gave him no reason to suspect abuse.
The state rightfully argued that the drugs and paraphernalia scattered around the van could construe neglect. I would have to agree on that point, especially considering Leslie was high on controlled substances when she drove her minivan off the road a month later, killing her baby girl.
Nonetheless, Judge Nicholas Thompson granted the dismissal of the charge against Williams, saying there was nothing in the material facts of the traffic stop that would give anyone reasonable cause to suspect child abuse and that there was no evidence of drug use in the car in front of the child or evidence that Serenity was at risk of injury or harm.
Just a reminder: a baggie of crystal meth and syringes with heroin residue were found in the vehicle.
In his motions order, Judge Thompson wrote, “Certainly the subsequent death of the child is a tragedy, but there is no nexus between the traffic stop conducted by Defendant and the accident that resulted in that death.”
No. I cannot and do not agree with that statement. Anyone looking at this case from an objective viewpoint can clearly see the “nexus” between a traffic stop in which drugs are found in a vehicle also carrying a child and the death of the same child a month later in an accident caused by her mother’s drug intoxication. That “nexus” is further highlighted by the previous involvement of DCF and the fact that the same child was born with drugs in her system.
At this point, I’m not even trying to keep my emotions out of this post. I am beyond pissed off. Williams was recorded flat-out admitting he wasn’t arresting Leslie and Carly because he didn’t feel like dealing with DCF that early in the morning. His laziness and negligence allowed Leslie Joe Zeagler to remain on the road, to continue obtaining drugs at whim, and to cause the death of her own daughter as a result.
Leslie Joe Zeagler is scheduled for a case management conference at 9:00 AM on December 8, 2020 in front of the same Judge Nicholas Thompson. We can only hope he doesn’t decide to be as lenient with her as he was with “Officer” Williams (and I use those quotation marks around “Officer” as sarcastically as possible).
The day after his phone call with Serenity’s grieving father, Williams was placed on paid administrative leave from the Fort Myers Police Department. Upon his arrest in June, he was placed on unpaid leave, but now that his charge has been dismissed, he has been returned to paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an Internal Affairs investigation.
Click here for my ongoing coverage of Serenity’s story.
Sources: News-Press, Lee County Clerk of Courts website