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Blanco County man receives life without parole for toddler’s murder in 2016


BURNET —  A Blanco County man will spend the rest of his life in prison for the 2016 murder of a 15-month-old child.

John Lawrence, 24, pleaded guilty to capital murder of a person under 10 in State District Judge Allan Garrett’s courtroom the morning of Feb. 3, according to 33rd/424th District Attorney Wiley “Sonny” McAfee. Lawrence also pleaded guilty to four counts of assaulting a public servant.

“He agreed to life without the possibility of parole,” McAfee said. “He also waived his rights to an appeal, so he’ll spend the rest of his life in prison.”

On May 3, 2016, Blanco police officers responded to a Blanco apartment after a mother reported her child was not breathing. Officers found the child on the living room floor. According to an arrest affidavit, Lawrence, the mother’s boyfriend, was attempting CPR.

Emergency crews also noted, according to the affidavit, that the child, Sunny Dakota Slade-Bort, had bruises on the sides of her mouth. The mother, 23-year-old Jamie Petronella, told officers the child was in her crib for about 45 minutes when she stopped breathing. When officers inquired about the bruises, Petronella said one of the other kids struck the 15-month-old and caused her to fall and hit a table.

McAfee said that when officers reviewed the scene, they immediately knew something wasn’t right with the story.

“The call originated with the Blanco Police Department, and the chief called the (Texas) Rangers and my office, and I also put in a call to the Texas Rangers,” McAfee said. “And the Rangers, they responded immediately, coming in from Kerrville, Austin, and San Antonio.”

The toddler was transported to University Hospital in San Antonio.

Authorities arrested Petronella and Lawrence that day on unrelated charges, but a day later, both were charged with injury to a child.

The child died May 5, 2016. Hospital staff noted several other types of trauma to the toddler, including a spinal injury.

Officials said there were two other children in the residence, including a toddler boy who suffered from bleeding of the brain.

After further investigation, a Blanco County grand jury indicted Lawrence in June 2016 on capital murder of a person younger than 10 years old and super-aggravated sexual assault of a child as well as four counts of assault on a public servant.

The aggravated sexual assault charge came after officials found evidence that at least one of the three children in the home, all under the age of 10, showed evidence of sexual abuse.

The assault on a public servant charges stem from an altercation Lawrence had in the Blanco County Jail after his arrest.

A grand jury also indicted Petronella on two counts of injury to a child with intent to cause severe bodily injury by omission because she didn’t protect the 15-month-old and another child.

“This was a horrific crime,” McAfee said. “It’s one of the worst I’ve ever seen.”

Lawrence was eventually transferred to the Burnet County Jail in a temporary change of venue. Petronella remains in the Blanco County Jail with her charges still pending.

Because of the nature of the crime, the district attorney considered seeking the death penalty in Lawrence’s case. McAfee’s office applied to the Texas Governor’s Office for a grant to help cover the capital murder trial. In December 2016, the governor’s office awarded a $223,000 grant to be applied to those costs.

When the discussion of a possible plea agreement became more substantial, McAfee said he discussed it with those involved in the case.

“I talked to the family members of the victim, I talked to the law enforcement involved in the investigation, and I discussed it with my staff,” McAfee said. “We decided if he was willing to plead guilty to life without parole and waive his rights to an appeal, we would do it.”

The governor’s office awarding the grant to assist in the death penalty trial might have played a factor in Lawrence’s decision, McAfee added.

“This was a very difficult case from the start,” McAfee said, “but the police, Blanco County Sheriff’s Office, the (Texas) Rangers, and everyone involved did great job. It was a great team effort.”

If Petronella is convicted, she faces up to 99 years in prison.