Mum jailed for 10 years after toddler shot his brother dead
A Phoenix woman who says her two-year-old son fatally shot her nine-year-old son with a handgun that she left on a bed has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for her role in the killing, although authorities say they are unable to say for sure who pulled the trigger.
The sentence given to Wendy Lavarnia in the March 2017 shooting death of her son, Landen, marked the most lenient punishment called for under the terms of her guilty pleas to manslaughter and attempted child abuse.
While a prosecutor suggested at sentencing that Lavarnia fired the gun, authorities say they have been unable to determine definitively who shot the weapon.
At her plea hearing a month ago, Lavarnia said she caused Landen's death by recklessly leaving the gun out where the toddler could grab it while the children played. She has denied firing the gun.
Prosecutor James Seeger, who suggested Lavarnia fired the gun, said her account of the shooting wasn't credible, such as her claim that the two-year-old was still holding the gun after the shooting, given the amount of recoil such a weapon produces.
Seeger, who sought a 15-year sentence, said it's outrageous that Lavarnia cleaned up evidence at the scene after her son was shot to cover her tracks. "It shows a rather cold heart and selfish motive," Seeger said.
Lavarnia cried throughout her comments to the judge as she expressed remorse and pleaded for leniency, saying she was taking responsibility for her actions and thankful that a family has adopted her surviving children.
"I will have to live with this for the rest of my life, never seeing my son," Lavarnia said.
Before imposing the sentence, Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Fish said he doesn't know what really happened that day at Lavarnia's house.
"I do recognize there was certainly no intention to harm the children," Fish said, noting Lavarnia will be haunted by her actions for the rest of her life.
Keith Moffitt, who investigated the killing as a Phoenix police detective, raised the well-being of Lavarnia's surviving three children to the judge before the sentence was handed down, saying they are blameless.
Moffitt, who now works in child welfare investigations for the Arizona Department of Child Safety, said the then-2-year-old boy "will now suffer a life of guilt and shame that's not his to bear."
In the months after the March 2017 killing, Phoenix police expressed skepticism about Lavarnia's account and said they were having a tough time determining who shot the child.
Lavarnia had told police that she put her loaded gun on a bed at her house within reach of her children and then turned away to get something.
Police say Lavarnia's husband, Kansas Lavarnia, showed up at the house after the shooting with a crudely bandaged gunshot wound on his upper arm, which looked to have been punctured multiple times _ possibly with a screwdriver _ to camouflage the injury.
He claimed to be out shopping when the shooting happened and returned home after police arrived.
Police accused the couple of delaying medical care for their son to clean up evidence in the house, noting that a lack of visible blood implied a long time had passed before they called authorities. That charge was later dismissed.
Fourteen months after his son's death, Kansas Lavarnia killed himself, on Father's Day 2018.
Shortly before his suicide, Lavarnia told The Arizona Republic that he was at home during the shooting and had fled because he had prior criminal convictions that barred him from possessing guns.
Lavarnia told the newspaper that the shot fired by his 2-year-old son struck him in the upper part of his left arm, causing the bullet to fragment and leading police to believe the wound was made by a screwdriver. He said one of the fragments exited his arm and struck Landen in the head.
Seeger confirmed that the shot that struck Kansas Lavarnia had exited his arm and struck Landen.
Originally, the couple were each charged with murder, child abuse and hindering prosecution in their son's death. Prosecutors later dropped the murder charge against Kansas Lavarnia.
Wendy Lavarnia's plea deal reduced her first-degree murder charge to manslaughter and one of her child abuse charges to attempted child abuse. Her remaining charges were dismissed as part of the plea deal.
Attorney Clare Schum, who represents Lavarnia, said her client's drug addiction played an enormous role in the shooting. She said Lavarnia is now sober.
© AAP 2019