Ciambrone pleads no contest in death; She agrees to 55 years in prison in the death of her beaten, starved, adopted son Lucas

Date: 2001-01-01


Byline: HOWARD M. UNGER howard.unger@herald-trib.com

BRADENTON -- It took six years for justice to catch up to Heather Ciambrone.

That's a year less than her adopted son, Lucas, saw in his short, sad life, much of it spent inside a locked bathroom.

In a hastily called hearing Tuesday at the Manatee County Courthouse, Ciambrone pleaded no contest to second-degree murder for Lucas' tragic death in 1995.

The 32-year-old agreed to a 55-year prison sentence in exchange for her years of beating and starving the boy, whose scar-covered body weighed 27 pounds when he died.

By accepting a plea agreement offered by prosecutors, Ciambrone avoided the possibility of spending life in prison had she been convicted by a jury of first-degree murder. Because her son's death predates a change in the state's sentencing laws, Ciambrone could be eligible for release in 28 years.

Her husband, Joseph, is serving a life sentence, no parole, for his 1997 conviction of first-degree murder, the same charge his wife originally faced.

Two months before the couple was to have been tried together, a judge found Heather Ciambrone unfit to stand trial. But last March, after 31/2 years in a state psychiatric hospital, the defendant was declared ready.

On Tuesday, she appeared alert, playing with her handcuffs as Circuit Judge Paul Logan began the hearing.

Her appearance contrasted with last week, at pretrial hearings, when she seemed sedated, apparently from her regimen of anti-psychotic drugs. She squeezed a stress ball and rocked in her chair.

But on Tuesday, as prosecutor Bruce Lee spent more than 10 minutes reading a checklist of the tortures Lucas Ciambrone endured, one of Manatee County's most well-known murder suspects appeared ready to cry.

Lee said that if there had been a trial, prosecutors would have relied on testimony from Lucas' sister, Brenda, now 15 and living in Ohio.

Brenda, he said, would have described how Heather Ciambrone locked Lucas in a bathroom for hours at time. It was a room, detectives said, that locked from the outside and where Lucas ate oatmeal from a plastic bucket left beside the toilet.

Ciambrone's trial was scheduled to begin Aug. 6.

"I've spoken with the family and they're all relieved that it's over," Lee said after the hearing. "But it still doesn't change anything. Just like Joe's life sentence didn't change anything."

After he returned to his office, piled high with black binders marked for the Ciambrone case, public defender Jim Slater called Tuesday "a combination of relief and disappointment."

"Part of our goal, if we went to trial, was not only to defend Heather, but to educate the public on HRS and what they did," he said.

"I really wanted to show what HRS did, but I couldn't. Not at the risk of my client going away for the rest of her life," he said.

Lucas' death led to sweeping changes at the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. It was dismantled and its child welfare responsibilities given to the new Department of Children and Families.

"HRS created the situation that caused the death of Lucas Ciambrone," Slater said. "They had a young, immature woman overburdened by the number of kids placed in her home and the severity of their condition."

When the Ciambrones were first authorized to be foster parents, he said, HRS agreed to place one child with them. But six months later, six severely disturbed children, including Lucas, were staying in the Ciambrone house.

Slater said he took the deal offered Thursday by prosecutors because it gives his client a chance to eventually be released from prison. She could be freed in her 60s.

Lee and Slater guessed that she will serve 28 to 36 years. Judge Logan left the final decision up to the state Department of Corrections.

According to a DOC spokeswoman, as incentive for good behavior, Ciambrone could be eligible for a reduction of her sentence of up to 20 days for every month she serves.

Unlike most new inmates, Ciambrone does not have to serve at least 85 percent of her sentence -- 47 years in her case -- because Lucas died before October 1995, when the Legislature revamped the state's sentencing laws.

Lee, who joined the Ciambrone prosecution two years ago, said his office waited to make a plea offer because he wanted to investigate every detail of the murder.

According to records, the prosecution and defense spent more than $500,000 preparing the case.

"I felt more confident knowing the totality of the case and what we could fire back with," Lee said.

He conceded that his office had one problem with its case: The doctor who administered the autopsy was unavailable.

Joan Wood, who was blamed for bungling reports, left the Pasco and Pinellas county medical examiner's office amid scandal in October.

Though Heather and Joe Ciambrone drove an unconscious Lucas to Manatee Memorial Hospital, the 7-year-old was transferred to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, where he died two days later.

"Wood had her hands on the body," Lee said. "And it's not the same to bring in a doctor reading reports and looking at photos."

Prosecutor Jeff Quisenberry, who has been on the case since December 1995, said Tuesday's hearing was akin to the final chapter of a Greek tragedy.

"I bet I've read more than 15,000 pages for this case and I've read them more than once," he said.

It was strange, he said, that the case ended with a hearing for which he was given an hour's notice.

"I've worked on this case for years and it's nice that there's some finality, but I've got mixed feelings: You've done all this work and you're ready to try the case."

Time line

A short history of the Lucas Ciambrone murder case, a tragedy that led to sweeping changes in the Florida foster care system:

1988

* Pedro Garcia is born to a 17-year-old mother living in foster care.

1991

* Pedro witnesses the murder of his mother. He is placed in the home of recently approved foster parents Joseph and Heather Ciambrone.

1993

* The couple adopt Pedro and his sister. Pedro is renamed Lucas Ciambrone.

* Allegations of abuse are reported to foster care officials.

1995

* May 11 -- The Ciambrones drive Lucas to a Bradenton hospital. They say he injured himself by banging around the bathroom in a rage. Lucas, 7, has 200 injuries and weighs 27 pounds.

* May 13 -- Lucas is taken off life support and dies.

* July 7 -- The Ciambrones are arrested on murder charges.

1997

* Nov. 24 -- Heather Ciambrone is declared unfit to stand trial and placed in a state psychiatric hospital.

* Dec. 12 -- Joseph Ciambrone is convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

2000

* March 10 -- Judge declares Heather Ciambrone ready to stand trial.

2001

* July 18-19 -- Pretrial motions are argued. The judge rules battered-spouse syndrome can't be used with an insanity defense.

* July 24 -- Heather Ciambrone pleads no contest to second- degree murder and agrees to a 55-year prison sentence.

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