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Babysitter found guilty in Pittsfield Township toddler death

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    Lorain County Assistant Prosecutor Laura Dezort cross examines Elizabeth Zenda during Zenda’s trial Friday in Lorain County Common Pleas Court in Elyria.

    BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE

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ELYRIA — Elizabeth Zenda was found guilty on all counts Friday afternoon in connection with the drowning death of 22-month-old Annie Flynn and the injuries sustained by then-21-month-old Jaxon Flynn.

Zenda, 49, of Pittsfield Township, was found guilty of a first-degree felony count of involuntary manslaughter and two third-degree felony counts of endangering children by Judge James Miraldi. Zenda waived her right to a jury trial and opted to have a bench trial in which Miraldi would render the verdict.

Annie and her cousin, Jaxon, were found floating in a pool about 10:20 a.m. at Zenda’s in-home daycare Oct. 5, 2016. The state said the death of Annie and the brain injuries sustained by Jaxon were the result of recklessness by Zenda, while Zenda’s defense attorney Doug Merrill said it was a tragic accident.

Testimony in the trial has said the children were in Zenda’s backyard while Zenda was inside the home talking with another woman. The children were left unsupervised for seven to eight minutes.

It is believed that Annie and Jaxon climbed the steps that led to the deck attached to the pool and then slipped underneath a locked gate that blocked access to the deck but had a 7-inch gap at the bottom. A plastic baby gate that was propped against the locked gate to block the gap was found lying on the deck, as if it had been pushed over.

While Annie drowned, Jaxon survived but suffered brain damage from the incident and struggles with his speech and balance, according to testimony.

“It gives me no pleasure in making this finding. I don’t find the defendant a horrible person,” Miraldi said. “I think she got lulled into a false sense of security, but it doesn’t change the facts. She’s guilty of endangering children under both counts, and it led to death for Annie. The greatest punishment in the world is the one we’re all living in.”

Zenda’s trial ended Friday after a whirlwind day in which she took the stand, closing arguments were held and Miraldi went directly into the verdict.

While on the stand Friday morning, Zenda described Annie as “a delightful, precocious lady” who loved to smile and interact with everyone.

“I frequently was in a position to hold and cuddle Annie when she was not feeling well,” Zenda said. “She was a very good cuddler.”

Zenda also was asked about Jaxon.

“Jaxon is a little boy, through and through,” she said. “He loved to climb. He adored the climber (a play gym outside Zenda’s home). He played on the climber almost exclusively outside. It was his favorite thing.”

Zenda testified that she and her husband had been aware of the 7-inch gap underneath the gate blocking access to the pool since June.

Dezort asked her what she’d done to address the risk.

“We had discussed changing the gate, but we hadn’t done it yet,” Zenda said. “I could see the potential for a problem.”

When Dezort asked if that potential risk had been realized, Zenda replied, “Yes.”

Merril said that Zenda had felt she had addressed the risk when she propped a plastic baby gate behind the gate with the gap.

“By her placing the gate there, it’s clear evidence that she didn’t disregard it,” Merrill said. “She may not have appreciated the risk, but she certainly didn’t disregard it.”

Miraldi disagreed.

“The solution was, in my mind, no more sufficient than putting a sign on the gate that said, ‘Stay away from this,’ if the children couldn’t read it,” he said. “It wasn’t sufficient. In this judge’s mind, that was a heedless indifference to the consequences of what could happen if somebody went under that gate.”

During her testimony, Zenda said she was putting dishes in the sink or dishwasher, cooking dinner, doing laundry, instant messaging her mother, talking with her daughter-in-law, looking at posts on social media and doing wedding planning prior to the children being found in the pool. It’s been estimated the children were left unattended outside for seven to 15 minutes.

Assistant County Prosecutor Laura Dezort questioned Zenda on her activities under cross examination.

“You were being paid to watch children. You were being paid to ensure that they were safe,” Dezort said. “You were being paid to protect them, to supervise them.”

Zenda answered “yes” at the end of each sentence.

“Were they paying you to make your dinner?” Dezort said. “Were they paying you to do your laundry? Were they paying you to discuss wedding plans? Were they paying you to go on social media and play around on Pinterest?”

Zenda answered “no” or “maybe not” to each question.

“The bottom line is it doesn’t matter,” Dezort said. “It doesn’t matter what she was doing, because it’s what she wasn’t doing that was critical. She wasn’t watching those children.”

Miraldi has ordered a presentence investigation take place before a sentencing set for July 26.

Lorain County Prosecutor Dennis Will said Zenda could face a maximum of 14 years in prison.

Contact Scott Mahoney at 329-7146 or smahoney@chroniclet.com. Follow him on Twitter @SMahoneyCT.


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