Jail, probation for Miami daycare operator in toddler’s pool death

Zobeida Gonzalez weeps in court as she apologizes for her role in the drowning death of 3-year-old Jonathan Feliciano at a West Miami-Dade daycare in 2013.
Zobeida Gonzalez weeps in court as she apologizes for her role in the drowning death of 3-year-old Jonathan Feliciano at a West Miami-Dade daycare in 2013. El Nuevo Herald

More than two years after a toddler under her watch drowned in a West Miami-Dade daycare pool, Zobeida Gonzalez accepted blame for his death.

“I am at fault and I can’t dispute it,” the 64-year-old grandmother said in a letter addressed to the parents of Jonathan Feliciano. “I wish that God would give me all of your pain and suffering.”

With her public apology, Gonzalez pleaded guilty Thursday to aggravated manslaughter and will serve more than one month in jail and eight years of probation.

The case cast scrutiny on state oversight of daycare pools and spawned a federal lawsuit against the Mayling Brache Family Day Care, which had been tasked with caring for 3-year-old Jonathan.

Gonzalez won’t begin her jail term until December, the anniversary of the 2013 drowning.

“These manslaughter cases do not involve bad people,” said prosecutor Santiago Aroca. “It’s a tragedy. Nobody wins in this criminal courthouse.”

Miami-Dade police detectives arrested Gonzalez last year after the boy climbed the stairs to an above-ground pool, slipped through a fence and fell into the water.

Gonzalez initially told investigators that she left the boy alone for “only a minute or two” in an outside play area as she went inside to turn off an air-conditioning unit. But surveillance video from a neighbor's yard showed that Jonathan was actually unattended for at least 29 minutes, according to an arrest warrant.

The footage showed the toddler playing on the stairs of the above-ground pool for more than six minutes before jumping into the water.

Gonzalez helped her daughter, Mayling Brache, run the daycare at 2955 NW 99th St.

For prosecutors, a conviction at trial would not have been easy because Brache and her mother believed the pool was in compliance with state regulations.

The Florida Department of Children and Families, which regulates daycare facilities, four times inspected and approved the pool but never measured the gaps between the wooden slats.

Under state codes, the pool gate was not supposed to have gaps or openings that would allow a young child to “crawl under” or “squeeze though.”

The agency’s codes also say “any ladder or steps that are the means of access to an above-ground pool must be removed at all times while children are in care and when the pool is not being used by the children in care.” But the pool stairs were fixed and could not be removed — a fact never noted by DCF inspectors.

The department has long defended its inspector, saying he did nothing wrong.

According to Miami-Dade police, the daycare operators never obtained the proper permit from the county for the pool. The Braches also never told their insurance company about the pool. Mount Vernon Insurance Company later sued Brache, a case that has since settled.

In court on Thursday, the family of the boy did not appear but they were not thrilled with the plea deal. “They wanted prison for a long time,” prosecutor Aroca told the judge.

Gonzalez, who only speaks Spanish, stood by lawyer Scott Egleston as he read her letter aloud.

“Please know that in my heart, I would never consciously do anything to hurt Jonathan,” he read. “I loved him and still love and will always love him.”

“I bear the responsibility for his death now and for the rest of my life. He is gone because of me, because I took my eyes off of him.”