By Mike Maslanik, staff writer
For 10 months, Shari Cotroneo lived under the suspicion of one of the most heinous crimes imaginable, killing a young child.
Awaiting trial for the death of a child in her care, Cotroneo was forced away from her own children and lived with the real possibility of going to prison for up to 15 years.
Last month, a Yates County jury found Cotroneo not guilty of second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in the 2009 death of Garren Smith, a child she had been babysitting.
“I feel relieved, definitely relieved,” Cotroneo, 32, said this week. “It’s kind of scary when you’re looking at five to 15 years behind bars.”
With her name now cleared, Cotroneo looks forward to getting on with her life, but the ordeal left her angry and frustrated. And while she feels for Garren Smith’s family, she said that her life is forever changed.
“I can’t ever get back that time I lost,” she said.
‘I’d never called 911 before’
Last February, Cotroneo had just about everything she wanted in life. While her husband, Chad, worked at Crosman Corporation, she stayed at home to raise their two daughters, Felicia and Natalie. Plus, she had another baby on the way.
In order to pick up some extra cash, Cotroneo would watch other people’s children during the day. It was a good arrangement, she said. Cotroneo had been watching kids since she was in high school, and she liked having other children around the house for her daughters to play with.
One of the children she watched was Garren Smith, a “wonderful” 1-year-old boy. Cotroneo said she met with Garren’s parents, Christopher and Sara, and agreed that she would watch the boy, at her home, four days out of the week.
Cotroneo watched Garren for six months, until the unthinkable happened on Feb. 5.
She said Garren seemed to be suffering from a cold when he was dropped off that day. After he took a short nap, though, Garren woke up crying. And then he started having a seizure.
“I’d never called 911 before,” Cotroneo said, adding that it took an agonizing several minutes for the ambulance to arrive.
Grabbing Garren’s favorite stuffed animal, “Fred,” she first went to Thompson Hospital in Canandaigua and then to Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, where doctors learned that Garren’s brain was swollen.
She stayed there with Garren’s parents and family until the child was pronounced dead.
‘It came as a total shock’
Cotroneo was interviewed by Yates County Sheriff’s Office investigators for the first time at Strong on the day Garren died, she said. A week later, they interviewed her again.
Then, three months later she was under arrest, charged with second-degree manslaughter.
“Even though they were interviewing me, it was never pointed at me,” Cotroneo said of the earlier interviews with police. “So it came as a total shock when they arrested me.”
Investigators told her they “knew” that she did something to Garren, she said — and suggested that, because she was seven months pregnant at the time, her hormones might have caused her to act out against the child.
At her arraignment, the judge also issued an order of protection, ordering her to stay away from her children. Her youngest, Whitney, was two months old at the time and was still nursing.
“That first week, I couldn’t have any contact with them at all,” she said. “I’ve never not tucked them in at night.”
Until the trial, Cotroneo lived with her parents in East Bloomfield and could only see her girls for six hours a day, three days a week. Even then, she had to be in the presence of Department of Social Services-approved supervisors.
Karen Lewis, her aunt, was one of the supervisors and told of the heart-wrenching scenes of Cotroneo saying goodbye to her girls after a visit.
“When she had to leave, her oldest kids would grab on to each of her legs and cry,” Lewis said. “But Shari was diplomatic enough to get out of there before she broke down herself.”
While the family spent holidays and birthdays together, Cotroneo said she missed the day-to-day of being with her kids, like Felicia losing her first tooth and Natalie getting something stuck up her nose. She also missed out on bonding with Whitney during the earliest, most crucial stages of her development.
“We said that when we had our third child, that would be our last and we’d remember everything,” Cotroneo said. “I missed it all.”
‘I just lost it’
As her trial date approached, Cotroneo remained confident that the jury would see her innocence, but she couldn’t be sure.
“I’m a forever optimist, so I’m always thinking positive,” she said. “But the fact is that there are 12 strangers who don’t know you.”
Shortly before the trial, she said the Yates County District Attorney’s Office approached her with a deal: plead guilty to a lesser charge and receive six months in jail. She also said she was told that if she did not take the deal, the case would go back to the grand jury and she would be charged with murder.
Cotroneo asked her father for advice, and her told her not to take the deal.
“He said that I’d have to admit to something I didn’t do,” she said.
Finally, after an emotional seven-day trial, Cotroneo was found not guilty of second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, a charge added after her arrest by a grand jury. The jury deliberated for just two hours, she said.
Cotroneo said she couldn’t even hear the jury foreman announce the verdict.
“I was so strong throughout it all, I hadn’t cried, but I just lost it,” she said.
‘I’ll never watch kids again’
Cotroneo said she is angry and frustrated with the way the case was handled.
“If Yates County had done the investigating, this never would have happened, this never should have happened,” she said.
During the trial, medical experts testified that the skull fracture that killed Garren Smith occurred about a week before his death. Thomas Splain, Cotroneo’s attorney, argued that the child’s death was caused by this previous injury and not by Cotroneo’s actions.
She also criticized Yates County District Attorney Jason Cook for repeatedly using what she felt was the loaded term “shaken baby syndrome” when talking about Garren’s death.
Cook did not return several calls seeking comment.
Yates County Sheriff Ron Spike said he stands behind the investigation.
“The senior investigator spent a lot of time on this case; a lot of time was spent with the medical examiner and the crime lab,” Spike said. “There was certainly reasonable cause as far as the grand jury was concerned.”
Now that the ordeal is finally over, Cotroneo looks forward to life getting back to normal. While she was away, Felicia and Natalie, now 6 and 4, made lists of what they wanted to do once they got their mom back. Plans include trips to the Seneca Park Zoo, Chuck E. Cheese’s and going swimming at the YMCA.
The family is also struggling to pay off all the legal costs associated with the trial, she said, and they only have Chad’s job to rely on.
“I’ll never watch kids again,” Cotroneo said. “That was such a big part of my life before, but I just don’t think I can do it anymore.”