Cops: Mom whose baby died in hot car was ‘picky’ about babysitters

Children are welcomed at Mahogany’s Hair Studio on Lavista Road in DeKalb County, where one of the barbers keeps a little bright-green cape and booster seat ready for young customers.

But investigators believe Dijanelle Fowler left her 1-year-old daughter, Skylar, in the parking lot while getting her hair done for six hours in mid-June, leading to the baby’s death

Tragically, the mother appears to have brought the child to the appointment in the first place because of fears about what could happen if she let someone else watch her, said Capt. Jerry A. Lewis of DeKalb police’s major crime unit.

“My understanding is she was very picky about who had access to her child, which was why the child was with her most of the time,” Lewis told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday. 

Skylar Fowler’s case marks the first hot car death of a child in Georgia in 2017. Such tragedies -- though rare -- lead to an average of 37 children dying nationwide each year, experts say.

Twenty-three kids have died in hot cars in the U.S. so far this year, many of them in the South, according to the nonprofit Kids and Cars organization, which works on preventing such catastrophes.

Temperatures in vehicles can easily soar far above 100 degrees in the brutal summer heat. 

"Sadly, all of these tragedies were 100 percent preventable," read a statement Wednesday from Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

The hospital recommends never leaving a child in an unattended car "for any amount of time."

‘A horrible, horrible mistake’

In the Atlanta case, detectives have seen no indication that the mother was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or grappling with mental illness, according to the captain.

Fowler, a 25-year-old former college basketball player and biology major, left the air conditioning running, but the car shut off at some point.

“She seemed to be a good kid,” he said. “No criminal history. Just made a mistake. A horrible, horrible mistake.”

Fowler, whose attorney didn’t respond to a request for comment, was arrested late Monday on charges of second-degree murder and child cruelty. She remained held without bond Wednesday, awaiting an Aug. 3 preliminary hearing.

At the salon, the barber spoke of his anguish at finding out he was within eyesight of the Hyundai Sonata as Skylar lay alone. The man said a somber haze has hung over the shop since the woman, who he’d never seen before, came in to have her hair braided. He declined to give his name, saying he didn’t want to be brought into the case any further.

The woman in charge of the business also declined to comment.

The shop is located in the Northlake Tower Festival shopping center, a busy complex down the street from Northlake Mall. 

A 90-degree day

Police believe Fowler arrived for an appointment at about 10 a.m. on June 14. The mother, who flooded her Facebook page with pictures of her new girl, was in DeKalb from home in South Carolina staying with relatives.

Police said she never mentioned to employees that she’d left Skylar outside.

She didn’t emerge until shortly before 4 p.m., but at some point before that, the car died and the temperature inside began to rise. The heat around metro Atlanta climbed to 90 degrees that day outside.

By the time Fowler got the car jumped and drove to an Emory University Hospital parking deck about an hour later, she too was in medical distress. Lewis of the police department said Fowler passed out in the car and called 911 when she awoke.

In the call, she said she might be having a seizure and didn’t mention the baby, police have said, but Fowler told officers Skylar was in the backseat when they arrived.

“The child was obviously deceased,” Lewis said.

Detectives didn’t think the timeline the mother gave for her day seemed possible, considering the child’s condition.

The investigators were shaken by Skylar’s fate as they worked.

“It was extremely hard on them,” Lewis said. “They turned that anxiousness, that remorse for this child, into action to make sure we bring a good case and get proper justice.” 

From manslaughter to murder

The charge Fowler faces of second-degree murder was created in Georgia in 2014.

Before that, those accused in similar crimes were likely charged with involuntary manslaughter, which allows a maximum prison sentence of 10 years on a conviction. The sentence for a second-degree murder conviction ranges from 10 to 30 years.

Rep. Christian Coomer (R-Cartersville) said he wrote the bill after seeing discrepancies in how cases were handled from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. It’s been brought only a few times since taking effect in July 2014.

The statute’s charge is different from traditional murder in that it doesn’t require malice. Instead, the charge is brought when a child dies as a result of alleged negligence, which wasn’t intended to kill them.

In DeKalb, Lewis recalled working similar cases before the second-degree murder law was created. He said it was frustrating to form a case because the accidental deaths didn’t fit into the traditional murder statute.

The decision to charge Fowler with second-degree murder followed discussions with the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office, the captain said, after investigators were satisfied that she didn’t intend to hurt the baby.

“We take no joy or pleasure in charging her with this,” Lewis said. But “she should’ve known better.”

Staff writer Alexis Stevens contributed to this report.

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