West Richland man pleads innocent to scalding 2-year-old son

Kristin M. Kraemer, Tri-City HeraldNovember 30, 2012 

A 24-year-old West Richland man is accused of causing first- and second-degree burns to his 2-year-old son by holding the toddler down in a bathtub of extremely hot water.

Gabriel Saul Orona claims he left his son alone in the tub for a few minutes and that's when the boy "turned the tub faucet as far to the hot side as possible," court documents said.

However, a doctor at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle called the father's story "implausible" and said the child's injuries to his buttocks, genitals and feet show evidence that someone pushed down on the boy so he couldn't escape the scalding water.

Documents said the toddler had first- and second-degree burns to 17 percent of his body.

Orona pleaded innocent Thursday in Benton County Superior Court to one count of third-degree assault of a child with a domestic violence allegation.

According to court documents, Orona was caring for his son Oct. 5 when the boy vomited while eating at the table.

Orona told a social worker at Harborview that he began cleaning the boy and started a bath, "turning the water to a normal, comfortable temperature" before placing his naked son in the tub, documents said.

Orona said he left the water running with the boy in the tub and was in the dining room area of the house when he heard his son crying and screaming. When he lifted the boy out, the father said he noticed the faucet had been turned all the way to hot.

Orona realized the toddler was badly burned so he called his father, who picked them up and drove them to Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland. The boy -- identified in court documents by his initials -- then was taken to Harborview because of the severity of his injuries.

Richland police were contacted by social worker Fabian Norman.

Norman reported that the toddler was examined by Dr. Kenneth Feldman from the child protection unit.

"Dr. Feldman believed based on the pattern of burns and other indicators that the defendant's story was suspicious," Deputy Prosecutor Emily Sullivan wrote in court documents.

Feldman said a 2-year-old boy is "physically capable" of getting out of the tub on his own if the water becomes too hot.

Police spoke to Feldman, who noted that there are lines around the child's legs and buttocks area which are typical for child immersion cases, and other lines just above his ankles "which are uniform to each other and also along his buttocks," documents said.

The burns show the water was only about one to two inches deep, Feldman said. The doctor added that a comfortable bath water temperature for children is about 101 degrees.

"He explained that if (Orona) had placed (his son) in shallow bath water around that temperature, that even if (the toddler) had turned the water to the full hot setting, the amount of water which would have been needed to raise the temperature to a degree hot enough to cause these burns would have been too deep than the burn injuries present," court documents said.

The child reportedly had "doughnut hole sparing" on his buttocks, caused by being held down against the bottom of the tub. "The actual tub is cooler than the water and the pressure displaces the water between the skin and the tub, thus preventing a burn and resulting in a void," documents said.

If the child had been free to move around, the water could have come in contact with his entire buttocks and thus wouldn't have spared an area from being burned, the doctor told officers.

The boy's injuries include deep second-degree burns from just above his ankles down, shallow second-degree burns to his bottom and a little bruising under the eyes, which can be caused by excessive crying. His treatment was expected to take at least two weeks.

Richland Detective Roy Shepherd used a search warrant to get Cascade Natural Gas records of billing and service for Orona's home. He also spoke to a technician who serviced the home Oct. 3 and was told the water heater had been set to the factory standard, court documents said.

Shepherd then conducted a series of tests Oct. 15, including videotaping Orona's re-enactment of what he said happened.

Orona showed the detective how he filled the tub and at what point he left his son alone. The faucet then was moved to "hot" like Orona said he found it, and about 31/2 minutes later the water was turned off when the father said he returned to find his son injured.

Shepherd recorded the water at 126 degrees and 4 inches deep, noting that Dr. Feldman said the water couldn't have been more than 2 inches deep.

Orona met with investigators at the police department Oct. 17 and maintained his version of what happened.

His trial is scheduled Feb. 11.

-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; kkraemer@tricityherald.com

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