Jennifer and Michael Thedford held hands as they walked into the Collin County courthouse in McKinney, north of Dallas. Jennifer, a 34-year-old veterinarian, was dressed in black pants and a blousy black sleeveless shirt, her blond hair pulled behind her ears. Michael, a 35-year-old high school science teacher, was wearing a dark suit, a gray shirt, and a dark tie.
A newspaper photographer headed their way and got off a few quick shots of the couple. Other people in the courthouse hallway turned to gawk. I was sitting on a bench in the hallway next to two women.
“I’m sorry, but how can she hold his hand?” one of them said.
The other woman could not take her eyes off Jennifer’s midsection. “Wait a second,” she said. “She’s got a baby bump? She’s pregnant?”
Almost exactly two years earlier, on the morning of June 21, 2016, Jennifer went to her job at a veterinary clinic while Michael took their children—Corbin, who was then ten years old, Hazel, who was three, and Fern, who was six months—to Mudpies and Lullabies, a popular day care a couple of miles away from their home. Teachers at the day care loved Jennifer and Michael. They were doting parents who, in the words of one teacher, “made the best sack lunches for their children.” Jennifer was an especially conscientious mother. When she and Michael decided to have children, she was determined—“maybe the word to use is dogged,” she later told me—to keep them out of harm’s way. She safety-proofed the house, putting plastic covers over electrical outlets, making sure the toilet seats were always down, keeping the cat food bowls out of reach, and getting rid of furniture that easily could be pulled over. After reading a newspaper story about young children who had died of heatstroke after accidentally being left in the back seats of cars on summer days, she came up with a plan to make sure such a thing never happened to her family. Whenever she or Michael drove a child somewhere, she declared, they had to put the child’s diaper bag, backpack, or even a stuffed animal in the front passenger seat to remind them that they were not alone in the car.
AT AROUND 1:20, HE WAS AWAKENED BY THE BUZZ OF HIS CELL PHONE. JENNIFER WAS CALLING FROM HER OFFICE TO CHECK ON FERN. MICHAEL SUDDENLY BEGAN SCREAMING.
That morning, Michael was driving the family’s Honda Odyssey minivan. When he got to Mudpies and Lullabies a little after 8 a.m., he appeared to the teachers to be tired, as if he hadn’t slept well. But the teachers were not even slightly concerned. Michael was always quiet. He didn’t engage in chitchat like other parents did. One teacher said he was like a character out of The Big Bang Theory, the CBS sitcom about a group of nerdy intellectuals. “He was very smart,” the teacher said. “Instead of making small talk with his children, he talked to them about animals or science or the way the world worked.”
Michael dropped off Corbin and Hazel, but he kept Fern in the minivan. Sick with an ear infection, she was just along for the ride. Michael returned home with Fern. Because he knew she wasn’t going to school, he hadn’t carried her diaper bag to the minivan and placed it in the front seat. He parked the minivan in front of their house, went inside, checked some emails, then laid down on the bed to take a nap.
At around 1:20, he was awakened by the buzz of his cell phone. Jennifer was calling from her office to check on Fern. Michael suddenly began screaming. He raced for the minivan. Inside the van, with the windows shut, the temperature was at least 110 degrees, maybe 120. Fern, who had been strapped into her car seat for more than five hours, was not moving. Her lips were purple and black. Skin was peeling off of her body. Although she was already stiff from rigor mortis, Michael raced Fern back inside the house and put her in the refrigerator, hoping to cool her off. He called 911 and begged for help. “She’s hot, hot, hot,” Michael shouted.
Investigators from the sheriff’s department arrived, and Michael told them a lie, saying that Fern had been in the bassinet beside the bed and unexpectedly had developed a high fever. But within minutes, he admitted that he had left Fern in the minivan, exactly as he and Jennifer had trained themselves not to do. He had gone to sleep thinking she was at Mudpies and Lullabies, he said.
The investigators were sickened at the sight of the dead baby. No child, they said to one another, should spend her last minutes alone, without a parent, baking to death in a hot car. They were also disgusted with Michael. He really wanted them to believe that he had forgotten where Fern was?
After consulting with the Collin County District Attorney’s office, the investigators arrested Michael on manslaughter charges, accusing him of “recklessly causing the death of an individual.” If convicted, he would face a sentence of two to twenty years in prison.
The story of Fern’s death and Michael’s arrest made newspapers throughout Texas and around the country, including USA Today and the Washington Post. (It was even reported in England’s Daily Mail.) What seemed to shock reporters and readers was the scene of Michael desperately pushing Fern into the refrigerator.
Like a lot of people, I had no idea what to think about Fern’s death. Was the whole thing a terrible accident, due to one lapse of memory by Michael? Or was it more than an accident? By leaving his daughter in that sweltering minivan, had Michael truly committed a crime? And if he had, what punishment did he deserve?
That’s why I was at the Collin County courthouse this past July. As Michael and Jennifer approached the courtroom, she squeezed his hand and headed for a side room reserved for the defense lawyers and their witnesses. Michael walked inside the courtroom, where prosecutors had flashed a photo of Fern on a screen.
Fern was smiling, her blue eyes staring straight at the camera. Michael’s face froze. He took his seat at the defense table and stared at the floor, unable to look up at his beautiful daughter.
Prior to 1990, there were only a handful of children each year who died from heatstroke in cars. At that time, children strapped to car seats were kept mostly in the front seats. But in the early nineties, laws were passed that required airbags to be installed in new cars. When experts soon discovered that the airbags could kill children, more laws were passed requiring children to be moved to the back seats.
As a result, the number of “hot-car deaths” soared. Between 1990 and 2017, 836 children, the vast majority of them three years old and younger, were found in automobiles in the United States, dead from heatstroke. (The state with the most hot-car deaths during that time span was Texas, with 120. Florida was second, with 89, and California third, with 45.) Although there were occasions when a child would die after locking himself accidentally in a car or trunk, and other occasions in which a child was intentionally left in a car by an adult, the biggest cause of the deaths, by far, was due to a simple scenario: a parent parked his car, got out, and walked away, completely forgetting that his or her child was in the back seat.
The parents who have forgotten their children come from all walks of life. Wealthy businessmen, blue-collar workers, lawyers, salesmen, and single moms have made the panicked dash back to their cars, realizing too late what they have done. “I remember reading an article about parents who had left their children in cars,” Jennifer told me, “and I said to Michael, ‘That is never going to be us. Never.’”
Jennifer and Michael met when they were teenagers attending the Texas Academy for Math and Science in Denton—a high school for gifted students. They married in 2004 when they were in their early twenties and moved to College Station, where Jennifer studied veterinary medicine at Texas A&M. After she received her doctorate in 2007, they moved to Collin County. Jennifer got a job at a small animal clinic and Michael finished up his degree in mechanical engineering at the University of North Texas. He also obtained a teaching certificate.
Jennifer is a warm, outgoing young woman. When I asked her to describe her husband (who on the advice of his lawyers would not be interviewed), she said, “He is always interesting and he’s completely brilliant, able to solve complicated physics equations in his head. He’s funny. He can do puns all day long. But I admit, he’s like the absent-minded professor.”
For a few years, Michael did some part-time work at a materials lab. When they decided to have children, he became a stay-at-home dad. Just before Corbin’s birth in 2010, Michael was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which required him to take a variety of medications, but Jennifer insisted that his disorder did not significantly affect his personality. “He was such a good father,” she said. “He did crafts with Corbin and Hazel, everything from science experiments to Home Depot’s craft days. They gardened and cooked. They did origami. He even wrote a children’s book for them.” (Titled Lorelei Has a Dream, the book is about a family’s pet hedgehog that reads books and daydreams.)
Jennifer admitted that she and Michael did endure some “communication problems” and “day-to-day stress,” and in early 2015, he suddenly filed for divorce. But he dropped the petition before the first court hearing took place. “It was a wake-up call for both of us,” Jennifer said. “We talked for a long time, realized how much we loved each other, decided to go to counseling, and never looked back.”
In fact, in the spring of 2015, they decided to have another child, and Jennifer became pregnant with Fern. That fall, Michael took a job as a science teacher at a high school in the town of Celina, near McKinney, and he received positive reviews from his faculty supervisor. In November, Fern was born, perfectly healthy. Everything seemed to be just fine—until the morning of June 21, 2016.
The defense lawyer told the jury that the whole episode “was one of those tragic mistakes that can make you say, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’”
Although it’s not unusual for parents who leave their children in cars to be arrested, their cases rarely go to trial. Concluding that the parents’ own torment is punishment enough, prosecutors either drop the charges or accept plea bargain agreements for short probated sentences or a period of community service.
But the Collin County District Attorney’s office had no plans to cut any deals with Michael’s lawyers. When the trial began, Crystal Levonius, the lead prosecutor in the case, made it clear to the jury that Michael’s conduct should not be excused. “As a parent, you make a promise to take care of a baby who can’t take care of herself,” she angrily said, striding across the courtroom and pointing at Michael. “But this defendant broke his promise. He let his baby die, and there must be some accountability from the community.”
Levonius called sheriff’s investigators to the stand who testified that Michael had admitted to them that on the night before Fern’s death, he had taken one of his bipolar medications around midnight, much later than usual. When he woke the next morning, he was still drowsy—a side effect of the medication—which no doubt was the reason he fell asleep so quickly after returning home from Mudpies and Lullabies.
The investigators also described how Michael had initially covered up the cause of Fern’s death, trying to get them to believe that she had been with him in the bedroom when he fell asleep. They suggested that he put Fern’s body in the refrigerator in hopes of lowering her temperature so that his story would sound more plausible. Levonius’s co-prosecutor, Luke Calhoun, told the jury that by his count, Michael lied sixteen times to investigators before finally confessing.
Michael’s attorneys, Bruce Anton and Joey Mongaras, responded that Michael was an “A-plus father” and that he should not be prosecuted for taking his children to school when he wasn’t at his most alert. Lots of parents are tired when they drive their kids to school, they said. And most importantly, Michael did not remember he had left Fern in the car seat. “Michael had no intent to commit a crime,” said Anton. “He simply forgot the little girl was there.”
The defense attorneys claimed that when Michael was awakened by his wife’s phone call, he did what any good father would do. He tried to save Fern’s life, racing his overheated daughter to the refrigerator and sticking her inside. Yes, Mongaras said, Michael “panicked” and lied to the paramedics and cops about the cause of Fern’s death. But he didn’t keep up the lies for longer than a few minutes. Mongaras told the jury that the whole episode “was one of those tragic mistakes that can make you say, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’”
The trial pivoted around the testimony of a defense witness named Dr. David Diamond, a University of South Florida professor who studies the phenomenon of children unintentionally left in vehicles. He testified that there are two types of memory in the human brain. One part of the brain, known as the basal ganglia, stores basic facts, such as the ability to ride a bicycle or remember a phone number. Another part of the brain, the hippocampus, handles what Diamond described as “prospective memory”: the ability to remember to carry out some particular future task, whether it’s grabbing a cup of Starbucks coffee that you put on top of the car while unlocking the doors, or, yes, taking your child out of the back seat once you get home.
Diamond told the jury that prospective memory is more vulnerable to stress, lack of sleep, and, especially, to someone’s habits. On the morning of June 21, 2016, he said, Michael was definitely sleepy. What’s more, Michael had never taken Fern back to the house in the morning from day care. That wasn’t his habit. Because Fern was quiet and out of sight, Diamond continued, and because there was no diaper bag in the front seat, “Michael lost awareness that she was in the car. Habitual memory overrode prospective memory.”
Diamond then said that almost all parents who lose their children in hot-car deaths have similar stories. “Their brains are on autopilot. They have a lapse in their prospective memories.” He paused and stared at the jurors. “This can happen to anyone. It’s just part of being human.”
Furious, Calhoun told the jurors that Diamond had crafted his testimony “to try to scare you into thinking you could do it too.” Levonius told the jurors Diamond was trying to persuade them to believe that forgetting a child was normal. “That’s not acceptable!” she thundered. “Fern should have been a priority on June 21. Instead of taking a nap, Michael Thedford should have been saying, ‘Where is Fern?’ He should have been saying, ‘Where is my baby girl?’”
Throughout the trial, I (and just about everyone else in the packed courtroom) would glance over at Michael. His face remained frozen. On occasion, he’d rub his hand through his mop of brown hair, but mostly he sat very still, bent slightly forward, like a crane on a perch, absently pulling at his tie and staring at a distant spot on the floor. His attorneys decided not to have him testify, which made him more of a mystery.
Before the one-week trial came to an end, he did get one piece of good news. Judge Barnett Walker threw out the manslaughter charges against him, claiming prosecutors had not proven that Michael had acted with “conscious disregard” of Fern’s condition. Still, Walker did inform jurors that they could convict Michael on a lesser charge of criminally negligent homicide—which, after an afternoon’s deliberation, is exactly what they did. The prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed to allow Walker to impose the punishment, and he gave Michael five years of probation, a $1,000 fine, and 120 hours of community service, including two hours each year (on or around Fern’s birthday) with any nonprofit organization that tries to prevent hot-car deaths.
Before Walker gaveled the proceedings to a close, he looked at Michael and said he found his lack of emotion to be “horrifically disturbing.” Now it was Michael’s lawyers who were outraged. They declared that he was devastated by the testimony about Fern’s death and shocked at the district attorney’s office’s attempt to criminalize his mistake. They also said they had ordered Michael to keep his emotions in check during the trial. As the attorneys continued to talk, Michael shut his eyes. Then he walked out of the courtroom and gave Jennifer a solemn hug.
Jennifer did indeed have a baby bump. She had gotten pregnant in February, at a time when she had no idea whether Michael would be going to prison. “I know our hearts will never heal,” she told me. “I know we will never replace Fern. But getting pregnant was my way of saying, ‘We are not going to keep our lives on hold forever. We are going to pick up the broken bits of our hearts and piece them back together again as best we can.”
“So you’re able to forgive Michael?” I asked.
HE PAUSED AND STARED AT THE JURORS. “THIS CAN HAPPEN TO ANYONE. IT’S JUST PART OF BEING HUMAN.”
There was a silence. “You know, on the day Fern died, I was going to call Michael between nine and ten that morning so I could check on her. I was about to hit ‘send’ when an animal came into the clinic on an emergency call, and I put my phone in my pocket.” Jennifer seemed to be choking back tears. “So maybe I’m the one who needs to be forgiven. I’ll never know if that undialed call would have saved my baby’s life.”
Since the trial, the Thedford family, looking for some anonymity, has moved to another part of Collin County. Yet even there, when they go out, people sometimes stare curiously at them, wondering if they are that family. They stare at Michael, perhaps wondering how he lives with the shame. “He’s struggling,” Jennifer said. “He’s consumed with sorrow. Sometimes, he gets very quiet and goes off by himself. It’s a kind of hell that you wouldn’t wish on anyone.”
Yet Jennifer told me that for all the pain they’ve endured, she and Michael hope that the public attention over Fern’s death might do some good—that other parents will read about Fern and become more diligent about making sure their own children are not left in cars.
Something needs to happen, because hot-car deaths are not decreasing. So far in 2018, 31 children in the United States have died in sweltering automobiles, including one child in Houston who died while Michael’s trial was taking place. In 2017, there were 42 deaths. (The record is 48, which occurred in 2010.)
Although legislation has been introduced in Congress that would require automakers to install back-seat sensors in new cars that sound an alarm if the ignition is turned off and a child’s weight remains the same in the seat, the bills haven’t gotten out of committee due to the efforts of the auto lobby, which argues that the back-seat sensors would only increase an automobile’s cost while doing little to solve the problem. (“The proposed mandate for notification technology in cars misses the targeted population, because so few parents of young children buy new cars,” the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said in a statement.)
“A lot of people are still in denial about all of this,” Dr. Diamond of the University of South Florida told me. “There’s still this idea that if we only had better parents, then there wouldn’t be this problem.”
Preparing for the September arrival of their new baby boy, Jennifer and Michael have not only purchased a new car seat with a sensor that would sound an alarm if the baby were left in its seat, they’ve bought a new Honda minivan that comes with a video camera mounted to the ceiling. (On the front dashboard’s monitor, Jennifer and Michael can watch what’s happening in the back seat.) They are also planning to put their new son’s diaper bag and backpack on the front seat, just as they did with their other children.
“It’s the least we can do,” Jennifer said. “We are not bad parents. We’re not.”