Police: Toddler left in van was dead for several hours before found

A 2-year-old boy strapped inside a child seat in a minivan outside his Shelby Township home for hours Tuesday died of hyperthermia or heat stroke and was dead for several hours before he was found, township Police Chief Roland Woelkers said this afternoon.

Woelkers said a half dozen detectives are working the case involving the death of James Nelson after authorities questioned and released the boy’s mother, her female roommate, grandparents and others.

No one is custody or been charged in the toddler’s death, but Woelkers said everyone is being cooperative.

The boy’s exact time of death has not been determined, Woelkers said after an autopsy today by the Macomb County Medical Examiner’s Office. But he said James’ body temperature at the hospital was 108 degrees.

Woelkers said police are trying to determine who had care of James on Tuesday while his mother was at work from early morning; who put him in the unlocked 2007 blue Dodge Caravan with the windows rolled up, and who last saw him alive. The boy was found dead about 6 p.m., Woelkers said.

The minivan was in the sun in the driveway. James was in the right rear passenger area in a child seat. Woelkers said the unnamed roommate and friends pulled him out after the roommate saw him and went elsewhere to have 911 called.

Woelkers said the mother, Audrionna Rhoades, 21, doesn’t have an exact daily routine for her only child — sometimes the boy is taken to his grandparents, other times he is home with the roommate — while she is at her job in Oakland County. The boy’s father is out of state and not involved, Woelkers said.

The boy’s grandfather said he found the toddler dead inside the parked van after his daughter’s roommate came to his home for help.

“She’s pounding on the door. I go down there and he’s dead,” Johnny Rhoades, 53, said, breaking down into sobs. “He’s in the van, strapped in his frickin’ car seat, sopping wet, blue. My girlfriend tried CPR, but he was dead. The poor baby.”

Rhoades said his daughter’s roommate was supposed to be watching his grandson while his daughter was at work.

They all live on Marmoor in the Dequindre Estates mobile home park off Dequindre, south of Hamlin. Johnny Rhoades said he moved 11 lots away from his daughter and grandson in February to help care for the boy.

James was taken to Beaumont Hospital in Troy, where he was pronounced dead, according to a release issued by the Shelby Township Police Department.

Rhoades said his daughter left for work at her job at a Troy medical supplies company at about 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.

“That girl said my daughter must’ve put him in the van and left him there all day and she didn’t know it,” Rhoades said. “My daughter wouldn’t do that — she’d call me. I gave her two cars, so she always had a car. She (the roommate) said she (his daughter) loaded him in the van, then left in the other car, which makes no sense.”

No one was at the boy’s home today.

The temperature around the time the boy was found in the car Tuesday was 72 degrees in Pontiac, with the high for the day at 73 degrees about an hour earlier, said Dan Thompson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in White Lake Township.

Woelkers said a vehicle’s temperature can get to 130 degrees in just 15 minutes.

He said 36 children have died this year being left in vehicles. Since 1998, he said, a child dies in a locked vehicle every nine days. Nationally, over 650 have died in such a fashion, he said.

Rhoades’ cousin, Louis Sardi of Macomb Township, said the family is desperate for investigators to determine what happened.

“We don’t know what happened,” Sardi said. “Everybody has so many different stories, so many different things. We just know it’s a tragedy. We know we lost baby James – he’s dead. Babies are dying every day. It has to stop.”

Sardi held out a business card from a Macomb County Children’s Protective Services worker, who he said was at the home two weeks ago after the toddler was found roaming around the trailer park.

“If they did their job in the first place, this wouldn’t have happened,” Sardi said, saying the grandfather should have been given custody.

Woelkers said he was unaware of any custody, neglect or abuse investigations involving the boy. He said police had been to the home before, but he did not know when or if the matter involved the same family or someone who may have lived there before.

Johnny Rhoades said his daughter was questioned by police until early today, then released. He said she is staying with her mother in Auburn Hills.

“They beat her up ‘till 4 o’clock in the morning,” he said.

The family said funeral arrangements, which will be handled by Wujek-Calcaterra & Sons, Inc. in Sterling Heights, are pending.