LAKELAND, Fla. -- The truth is that 2-year-old Bradley McGee was almost potty trained. At his grandma's, relatives clapped for him. "Yeah Braddie," they cheered.
But at home July 27, the little boy had an accident. His mother and stepfather murdered him for it, police say.
His stepfather grabbed Bradley by the ankles and plunged him head first into a toilet. The wailing toddler staggered to the living room, where both parents hit him in the head with pillows.
The child's ghastly death is riveting public attention here in Central Florida on how the courts and the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services protect neglected and abused children.
HRS first took responsibility for Bradley when he was abandoned and neglected as a baby.
"Who controls HRS when HRS is out of control?" asked Pam Kirkland, the dead boy's foster mother. The state made her give the child back to his biological mother.
Bradley's death is not an isolated case. Within the past eight months, three other small children have died in the Tampa area. HRS admits it should have protected them.
It also admits serious mistakes in Bradley's case. But it refused to make its records public.
"Confidentiality follows a child from cradle to grave," said HRS spokesman Tony Edwards.
The foster mother, who stood at Bradley's graveside Thursday, said, "HRS hides behind this confidentiality. We want the story told so another Brad won't die."
Bradley's story can be told. In an unusual order, Polk County Juvenile Judge Carolyn Fulmer opened the court file. She felt the public should know the facts.
This account of the boy's short life is based on those documents, as well as police records and interviews.
The boy's stepfather and mother, Thomas and Sheryl Coe, ages 22 and 20, declined to talk. They are being held without bond at the Polk County Jail, charged with first-degree murder.
Bradley Gene McGee was born June 6, 1987. He was four months old when his mother, Sheryl McGee, then unmarried, abandoned him.
It was a chilly day in October. Bradley was wearing only a wet diaper. The baby, his mother and her boyfriend, Thomas Coe, were living in Coe's truck. They were out of work and out of money.
The mother gave the baby to a woman who sold pretzels at Lakeland Mall. The woman, Loretta Baker, wasn't a total stranger. She had noticed the Coes before, and once gave them a meal at the pretzel stand.
"I couldn't say no," Baker told a reporter. "They were living in a car with no clothes. I had a home with electricity."
The next day, a friend of Baker's took the boy to the hospital because he was wheezing and congested.
HRS was brought in. A caseworker made some calls and talked to Sheryl's brother, Bill McGee. He told the caseworker Sheryl had been doing drugs and living off him. She was not bathing the baby or caring for him, he said.
The brother said his sister messed around with different men and got engaged at the drop of a hat. She was planning to marry Coe. She'd known him less than a month.
The boy's biological father lived in Illinois. Sheryl alleged he had raped her.
A Polk County juvenile judge ruled that Sheryl had neglected her son and made Bradley a ward of the state.
On Oct. 23, 1987, HRS placed Bradley with his Uncle Bill. But in March, Bill McGee said he could no longer care for the baby.
"Mother not present," court records noted at the time. "Whereabouts unknown."
Even so, Bradley's HRS caseworker, Margaret Barber, wrote a plan for the baby, approved by the court, which set Bradley's return to Sheryl as its goal.
The judge sent Bradley to the foster home of Pam and Jim Kirkland. They live in a roomy, cedar house, built in the shape of a barn. An upright grandfather clock stands in the living room. A basketball hoop hangs in the driveway. They had reared other foster children.
They quickly fell in love with blond, blue-eyed Bradley. He called them Mommy and Daddy.
Jim Kirkland, a high school shop teacher, said, "He was a clown. He loved to entertain people -- do somersaults and dance around on the tips of his toes like a ballet dancer. . . . He was happy, joyous, lovable and smart."
The little boy was eager to please. He'd run to get things the Kirklands asked for. He wept broken-heartedly when scolded even gently, Pam Kirkland said.
"When it was time to change him, he would run get the diaper, the powder, the wipes and bring it all to Mamma and lie down for her to change him," Jim Kirkland said.
On Sept. 20, 1988, after six months in foster care, a judge held a required hearing on the boy's case. No one had heard from the mother. She had never called HRS to find out about her son.
The caseworker told the judge parental rights should be severed and Bradley put up for adoption.
But the very next day, the mother telephoned HRS. She said she wanted Bradley back. She had married Tom Coe and they were already parents of a new baby girl.
HRS then had the couple sign a contract. It set out what they had to do to regain the boy. They began attending classes to learn about parenthood. And they started seeing Bradley for short visits every two weeks.
He was then about a year and a half old. HRS caseworker Barber monitored the visits: "Bradley has had a very tough time as he clings to his foster mother and cries loudly when she leaves the room."
In May 1989, Barber recommended to Judge Fulmer that the Coes get the boy back, with regular supervision from HRS. They had "substantially complied" with the contract, she said. Tom had a job; Sheryl was home, pregnant once again.
Barber did not tell the court that a child protection team recommended that Bradley not be returned home. The team, a group of medical and social work professionals, evaluates cases for the state. HRS spokesman Steve Konicki now calls Barber's omission "a major oversight."
The judge had other facts before her that raised questions. As a condition of Bradley's return, HRS required the Coes to get drug and alcohol abuse counseling. Sheryl's mother had been an alcoholic who died of cirrhosis of the liver.
But the Coes had angrily broken off with a drug and alcohol abuse agency. "The Coes are both in need of intensive mental health counseling. They have failed to satisfactorily complete their treatment recommendations," two counselors wrote. HRS gave the letter to Judge Fulmer.
Perhaps more troubling was a letter from the Kirklands, pleading with the judge not to give Sheryl Coe her son. They told Fulmer:
* Bradley was frantic upon return from visits with his mother. He went on crying jags. He panicked when his foster parents left the room.
* Bradley returned once from the Coes with suspicious abrasions on his fingers and a red swollen inner ear -- injuries observed by HRS caseworker Shirley DuBoise.
* The Coes' home was unclean. Pam Kirkland got lice there. Flies swarmed over garbage on the screened porch. Glass bottles containing moldy Coke stood on the edge of a table, within easy reach of a child.
* The Coes had abandoned Bradley before. Now they had a baby girl and a third on the way. "Will Bradley become the target child as an outlet for stress?" the Kirklands asked.
On May 23, 1989, Judge Fulmer considered the evidence. She decided Bradley should be returned to the Coes so long as HRS monitored the home.
The Kirklands never saw Bradley alive again.
The boy's move back to his mother left Mary Coe uneasy. Her son Tom Coe was the boy's stepfather. Mary Coe considered herself Bradley's grandmother.
Her son, she said, has been in constant pain all his life because of a congenitally crippled hip and hereditary kidney disease. She described him as an angry young man.
"His dream was to have a camp in the mountains where he could play war games," his mother said.
Mary Coe intensely disliked her daughter-in-law. She called her vicious and manipulative.
This past June, Coe said, Sheryl complained she was having trouble potty-training Bradley. She punished him by putting his underpants on his head and rubbing his face in the mess, Coe said.
Upset about the potty training, Joe Anders, a drug store manager who is engaged to Mary Coe, said he called the HRS child abuse hot line.
The hot line is a highly publicized toll-free number that is supposed to ensure that all abuse complaints are investigated.
HRS spokesman Konicki said the agency has no record of a June hot line call about Bradley.
On July 4, Mary Coe took Brad for the day. She said she found more than 30 bruises on his legs, arms, back, buttocks and genitalia. She said she asked Sheryl what happened. Sheryl told her the toilet lid fell on Bradley's privates. Sheryl also told her the boy was clumsy and fell on his toys.
Mary Coe took Brad to her friend Reba Woodard's house.
"Do these look like normal bruises?" Woodard remembers Coe asking. "I said no. . . . When he left his foster home, he was your normal two year old -- happy and talkative. That day, he was real lethargic. He wasn't the same little child."
When time came for Mary Coe to take Bradley back to his parents the evening of July 4, the little boy pleaded, "Brad stay Grandma's," Mary Coe recalled.
Anders, Coe's fiance, said he called the hot line again. HRS spokesman Konicki said the agency received only one call to its hot line, on July 3. The complaint was investigated and deemed unfounded, Konicki said.
Mary Coe, who sells medical equipment, said she called the HRS office in Lakeland a day or two later. She said an investigator told her to quit harassing the family.
"HRS blew this one royally," said Coe.
Mary Coe said she later stopped by her son's mobile home. Her daughter-in-law told her the child was asleep, she said.
"I'd hear him in his room crying. I'd say, 'How's Gammy's little boy?' And he'd tap on the paneling of the trailer," Coe said.
Coe now feels guilty she didn't just take Bradley. "I wish I'd had more guts."
During June and July, HRS caseworker Barber and counselor Judy Broesder made regular visits to the home. Neither reported any signs of physical abuse.
On July 21, Broesder, who worked for a private mental health center under HRS contract, wrote Judge Fulmer that Brad was adjusting well, though she also noted "his lack of bonding with his parents."
In reports to the court, both Broesder and Barber said Brad should stay with Sheryl and Tom Coe. The couple had missed two mental health appointments but had maintained a stable home and generally been cooperative.
Tom, who had been out of work, had just found a job selling newspaper subscriptions door to door for The Ledger. Sheryl was due to give birth in August and was having a painful, difficult pregnancy. They were low on money. And they were not getting along with each other.
"Right now, the family is at a very stressful time," Broesder wrote.
On July 25, Judge Fulmer ruled that Bradley would stay with his mother and stepfather. Fulmer says now that there were never allegations of physical abuse or excessive discipline in the home. "Everything I know about the case is in that file," she says.
Two days later, a neighbor of the Coes called the sheriff's office at 1 p.m. A little boy was unconscious, she said. Please hurry.
Sheryl and Tom Coe confessed to the killing. This is the police account of what they said:
They were having trouble potty training Bradley. When he had an accident, they made him lie in it or rubbed his face in it. Sometimes, they made him stand in a corner with one hand on top of his head and the other hand holding his privates.
Bradley "poo-poo'd" in his diaper the day of the fatal injuries. Sheryl took him into the yard and hosed him down. Tom took him to the bathroom.
There, Tom raised the toilet seat, grabbed the boy by the ankles and dunked him headfirst into the bottom of the commode.
"Plunger style," wrote Det. Paul Schaill III. Coe couldn't remember how many times.
Then, Bradley was roughly put in the shower under cold water to make him stop screaming. He staggered into the living room "with Thomas and Sheryl prodding him along," the detective wrote.
Both hit the boy repeatedly in the head with a pillow. Then Bradley, just two-feet-eight inches tall and 24 pounds, stood up straight and taut, fell stiffly backward and curled up in a fetal position, "spasming out."
Coe tried to revive the boy with CPR. It was too late.
That's when a neighbor called the sheriff. Paramedics rushed Bradley to Lakeland Regional Medical Center, where doctors put him on life support for a while.
The autopsy, performed July 29, found Bradley had multiple bruises, inflicted at different times, on his face, abdomen, buttocks and groin. He also had small abrasions on the backs of his hands and the tips of his fingers.
But it was the plunging in the toilet that killed him. "The child died of head trauma," said Associate Medical Examiner Alexander Melamud.
Sheryl and Tom Coe were arrested for the murder of their child.
"I hope he fries," said Tom's sister Tanya, 19. "He lost the right to be my brother when he killed that little boy."
Five investigators from the HRS inspector general's office are now in Polk County, reviewing the case.
Margaret Barber, the HRS caseworker, her supervisor, Judy Ross, and HRS sub-district administrator Tom McFadyen, were placed on paid leave Thursday. HRS caseworker Shirley DuBoise, who saw Bradley's injured hands at the Kirklands', resigned.
Because of the death, HRS Secretary Gregory Coler, the state's social services chief, is renewing his call for changes in Florida law. Legally, HRS' top priority is reunification of families. Coler believes protection of children must come first instead.
At 2 p.m. Thursday, Bradley Gene McGee was buried with a simple service by the foster parents who loved him.
HRS had offered to pay for the funeral. Pam Kirkland refused to take the money. "I don't want HRS having anything to do with Brad anymore," she said bitterly.
For his funeral, she bought him a white shirt, blue bow tie, red jacket and baseball cap. "Little Slugger," it said.
His small white coffin rested in front of the pulpit at Parkview Baptist Church.
Rev. Jerry Sawyers spoke. "Bradley's silent cry is being heard in this county and this state and this nation, louder than all our voices put together."