Hardin woman denies charge in death of child

Lavonna Bird is arraigned in Big Horn County District Court on Thursday.

HARDIN — A woman charged with negligent homicide for the death of a 3-year-old boy found locked in a hot car was arraigned Thursday in Big Horn County District Court.

Lavonna Bird, 50, appeared before Judge Blair Jones more than three weeks after the Aug. 17 death of Jaren Wayne Blacksmith, one of three foster children in Bird’s care.

Bird pleaded not guilty to the charge, and Jones maintained bond at $100,000 after rejecting a request form Bird’s attorney for a lesser amount.

Bozeman attorney John Hud represented Bird at the arraignment and told the judge that Bird has no prior criminal record. Bird is not a flight risk, Hud said, and she is charged with a crime of negligence, not a deliberate act. Hud asked the judge to set bond at $25,000 or $50,000.

Hud also suggested that conditions such as GPS monitoring and a curfew could be imposed to ensure Bird’s compliance with pre-trial release conditions.

Jones said he was concerned that Bird could flee to the Crow Reservation beyond state jurisdiction before her case can be resolved.

The judge suggested that he would consider reducing Bird’s bond later if she signs a waiver of extradition, which would allow authorities to return her to state jurisdiction from the reservation.

The judge also ordered that Bird have no contact with children outside the presence of another adult while her case is pending. Hud told Jones that Bird had three foster children in her care at the time of the boy’s death. She also has several grandchildren, the attorney said.

Bird and her husband, who is listed as a witness in the criminal case, also ran a day care for many years, Hud told the judge.

A trial date will be set later. At the conclusion of the court hearing Thursday, Bird was returned to the Big Horn County jail where she has been held in solitary confinement since her arrest.

Prosecutors allege in court records that Jaren died from hyperthermia — or elevated body temperature — after being locked in a car at Bird’s residence for several hours on a day where the outside temperature reached 93 degrees.

The Big Horn County Sheriff’s Office responded to a 911 call from the residence at about 6 p.m. Blacksmith was pronounced dead about an hour later.

Bird initially told authorities that she left the boy in the back of the car because he was sleeping and he was a fussy child when he woke up, according to charging documents filed by Chief Deputy County Attorney David Sibley.

“The timelines of when she had left the child in the vehicle changed multiple times, but each time (Bird) admitted that she had left the child in the vehicle,” court records state.

Bird also told investigators that she left the windows of the vehicle down, but Sibley alleges in court records that the investigation determined that the windows were up when the child was in the vehicle.

“Evidence was found in the back of the vehicle which indicated that there was likely someone in the back of the vehicle, attempting to escape and unable to do so,” Sibley said in court records.

Child locks on the vehicle doors were engaged, Sibley said.

The case is also being investigated by federal authorities, according to a search warrant request filed by FBI agents.

According to that document, Bird allegedly assaulted the boy while the vehicle was parked outside a dental clinic in Crow Agency.

While Jaren’s death was determined to be caused by prolonged heat exposure, an autopsy also showed fresh bruising to the boy’s scalp, forehead, right cheek, middle shoulder and upper back, according to the search warrant.

Another child told authorities that Jaren was sleeping in the vehicle on the way to the clinic and awoke when they arrived. Bird became upset with him, the child witness said, and she assaulted the boy by slamming his head on the floor board and against a car window.

The child said Jaren appeared to go back to sleep, and he was left in the vehicle wrapped in blanket outside the clinic.

When they returned to Hardin, Jaren was again left in the vehicle, the child said. The child said she went to check on Blacksmith at about 2:30 p.m. and saw him flailing in the vehicle.

It was unclear Thursday if federal authorities, who have jurisdiction in major crimes against Indians on reservations, intend to file charges in the case.

A senior FBI agent in Billings said recently that the investigation was ongoing and that federal and state prosecutors would decide whether the case would proceed in state or federal court.