Brian Santana Morales, 23, pleaded as charged to aggravated child abuse with great bodily injury.
BARTOW – A Haines City man was sentenced to 10 years in prison Friday after pleading no contest to allegations that his actions left his former girlfriend’s 5-month-old daughter blind and with permanent brain damage.
Brian Santana Morales, 23, pleaded as charged to aggravated child abuse with great bodily injury. State sentencing guidelines, which take into consideration his criminal history and the gravity of the crime, called for him to receive six and a half years in prison had he been convicted by a jury, although the judge could have exceeded that after citing specific reasons justifying an enhanced sentence.
Chief Assistant State Attorney Jacob Orr said the state offered the plea deal after Circuit Judge Kevin Abdoney barred prosecutors from presenting evidence of an earlier allegation of abuse involving Santana Morales and the same child.
Santana Morales made no statements during the brief hearing, other than to respond to the judge’s questions regarding his decision to accept the plea offer. The child’s mother had planned to attend Friday’s hearing, said Assistant State Attorney Randi Daugustinis, but was called away that morning.
Rafael Figueroa, Santana Morales’ stepfather, said after the hearing that he and his family have placed their faith in God.
“We believe in God and Jesus,” he said, “and know that nothing is impossible to handle. We will continue to pray and wait for God.”
Santana Morales was arrested July 6, 2018 – two months after he and the child’s mother had taken the baby to Winter Haven Hospital. They told doctors she was unresponsive and having trouble breathing, and further examination revealed bruising on her abdomen and back, and she was diagnosed with a brain bleed.
“Staff advised this type of injury in an infant is consistent with blunt trauma to the head or the child being repeatedly shaken,” the arrest affidavit stated.
The baby was airlifted to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa, where she underwent emergency surgery, according to Winter Haven police. At that time, she wasn’t expected to survive the brain injury. She has undergone several surgeries since that time to address her injuries, including her loss of vision.
At the time of his arrest, Santana Morales told investigators he had been holding the baby in the kitchen while preparing a bottle for her. He said he lost control of her and she fell about three feet to the tile floor, landing on her head.
“Morales advised he immediately picked the child up, but she appeared unconscious,” the affidavit stated. “Morales advised he had both of his hands around the child’s midsection and was shaking her in a back-and-forth motion, but the child’s eyes would not open. Morales explained that this was an attempt to gain her attention.”
He called the child’s mother, who was running errands, and explained her condition but didn’t mention the fall, according to the police report. Officers noted he didn’t attempt to call 911 but waited for the child’s mother to return.
Santana Morales’ arrest in July marked the second time he faced criminal charges in connection with injuries to the same child.
Court records show he was arrested on allegations of negligent child abuse in February 2018 after the 1-month-old baby was treated at Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando for a broken arm. Santana Morales had told authorities the injury happened when he unintentionally set the car seat on the baby’s arm, but medical reports indicated the injury to her arm was old and had started healing. They also said her injury wasn’t consistent with having a car seat placed on her arm, according to the arrest report.
Santana Morales was arrested Feb. 5, 2018, and released three days later after posting $6,500 bail, according Polk County Jail records.
Prosecutors later dropped the child abuse charge after Santana Morales changed his explanation for the child’s injury, saying he instead had dropped her. Doctors it was unlikely, but they couldn’t say the child’s injury didn’t happen in a fall, according to Orr. Santana Morales pleaded no contest in October 2018 to giving false information to law enforcement and was sentenced to 200 days in the Polk County Jail, where he was already being held on the aggravated child abuse charge, court records show.
Suzie Schottelkotte can be reached at email@example.com or 863-533-9070. Follow her on Twitter @southpolkscene.