Woman pleads guilty to 2009 death of son in Bradenton

ejohnson@bradenton.comJanuary 19, 2013 

Ryan Gerken Jr. died in 2009 after his mother, Jessica Barnes, left him unattended in a bathtub at their Bradenton home. Barnes took a plea bargain in the case Friday.PHOTO PROVIDED

MANATEE -- A 22-year-old woman took a plea bargain Friday morning in the 2009 death of her 11-month-old son in Bradenton.

Jessica Marie Barnes received two years of community control and three years of probation after pleading guilty to aggravated manslaughter of a child.

Barnes left her son, Ryan Gerken Jr., unattended in a bathtub on May 31 at their home in the 3600 block of 19th Street West. Ryan died a few days later at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. He would have turned 1 on June 8, 2009.

"We have fought for three-and-a-half years for this day, and we finally got a guilty verdict, even if it was a plea deal," said Laura Mullen, Ryan's paternal grandmother. "She's being held accountable for her actions. She left him in the bathtub and walked away."

Barnes was charged with manslaughter through aggravated child neglect in November 2009. According to her arrest report from the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, Barnes put the child in a bathtub and inserted a drain plug as she began to fill the tub with water. Detectives believe Barnes left Ryan unattended for five to 10 minutes according to her statements, medical opinion and other evidence.

Barnes told detectives she may have "lost track of time and became concerned when she didn't hear Ryan playing and splashing."

When Barnes went to check on her son, he was submerged face-down in the bathtub that was holding about a foot of water, a report states.

Barnes called 911 and was instructed how to give CPR, which she did until EMS arrived.

Mullen, who gave a victim impact statement in court, described the past few years as "pure torture." The family has held signs on the street, passed out fliers and started a Facebook page to educate people about Ryan's story.

"He was silenced and we were his voice," Mullen said. "We spoke for him and got him some justice."

About a month before Ryan died, Mullen said she had become concerned for the child's safety and called the Department of Children and Families.

"I said something bad will happen to my baby if he's not out of that house," Mullen said. "I didn't realize how much danger he was in. We could see signs of neglect, but weren't quite sure about abuse. I called them and I can't fault them. They went out and investigated and couldn't come up with a lot."

Mullen believes Barnes intentionally killed her grandson because she was upset with Ryan's father.

"She was angry with my son and we think that's why it happened," Mullen said. "He didn't deserve this from his mother."

Now that justice hasbeen served, Mullen took the opportunity to remember Ryan -- her son's first child and her first grandchild.

"He was the little king," Mullen said.

"He was so alive. He had just started taking a few steps. He loved scrambled eggs. He loved 'Baby Einstein.' He was the best little baby, a happy baby. He was very loving and liked to give hugs and kisses. He was just so sweet."

Judge Thomas Krug presided over the case, which was prosecuted by Assistant State Attorney Bruce Lee. Barnes was represented by Jennifer Fury.

Elizabeth Johnson, Herald crime reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041. Follow her on Twitter @EJohnsonBHcrime.

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