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St. Pete man accused of murdering 7-week-old; abuse was to ‘toughen’ child

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by
Jeremiah Dillard

The father of a 7-week-old girl told police he pinched her cheeks and squeezed her ribs to make her “tough.”

Instead, the St. Petersburg infant died in September after suffering a brain hemorrhage, fractured ribs, broken clavicle and split lip, according to police documents obtained by

J’Lena Dillard was taken to John’s Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in the early hours of Sept. 24, where she was pronounced dead.

According to the medical examiner who conducted the autopsy, J’Lena died of “asphyxia with contributing conditions of blunt trauma and malnutrition,” said an arrest affidavit and warrant obtained by

Jeremiah Dillard, 33, told St. Petersburg Police the injuries to her lip and an ear, which were lacerated, resulted from pinching and squeezing her cheeks and face. The injuries to her ribs and collar bone were because he was playing too hard with her, wanting to toughen her up, even though she was severely malnourished.

To explain that, he told detectives he was “slacking off” on feeding the child while her mother, Shefe Cotton, was at work.

After being read his Miranda Rights, the affidavit said, Dillard “admitted he was too tough with (J’Lena) and he was responsible for (her) death. The defendant also admitted he was the sole caregiver when the victim sustained the above injuries and (J’Lena) was in his custody when (she) died.”

A spokesman confirmed Dillard is expected to appear for an arraignment Monday on charges of first-degree murder in a Pinellas County courtroom.

Dillard also admitted he was smoking marijuana around the child the night he killed her, too.

“Pinellas-Pasco associate medical examiner Wayne Kurz ruled Jan. 26 that the baby’s death was a homicide caused by asphyxia and contributing factors were blunt trauma and malnutrition,” The Tampa Bay Times reported Wednesday. “His autopsy report noted multiple traumas to her head and scalp.”

It was roughly four and a half months later — Feb. 8, a day after investigators interviewed him again — that he volunteered he was at fault in his daughter’s death, but that it was unintentional. He was not arrested at that time, records show.

On Feb. 9, the medical examiner told police J’Lena’s body showed signs of aging, which indicated a history of abuse.

On Feb. 10, police asked Dillard to turn himself in. He was arrested in the early morning house of Feb. 11 after returning from Gainesville to see his grandmother, police documents show.

He had a previous arrest for child abuse in 2012, according to the arrest affidavit. The Tampa Bay Times reported ” Gainesville police records said Dillard beat his 14-year-old niece with a belt for talking back. The girl showed swelling and redness on her back, forearms and hands. She told police a toenail was torn off by the belt buckle.  Gainesville police said Dillard told them: ‘That’s how our daddy did it and so do we.'”

Jessica Sims, the spokesman for the Department of Children and Families (DCF), said J’Lena had never come in contact with the child welfare system and that any history relating to Dillard’s background was confidential pending an investigation. He and Cotton had another child together, which child welfare investigators took into custody, the Times reported.

DCF Secretary Mike Carroll issued a statement via email to Wednesday.

“This child’s death is disturbing, and we are heartbroken that this community lost such a young child,” he said in the statement. “The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office is conducting a child death investigation as the agency that handles all child protective investigations in Pinellas County, and remain available to assist police in any way possible.”


Les Neuhaus is an all-platform journalist, with specialties in print reporting and writing. In addition to Florida Politics, he freelances as a general-assignment and breaking-news reporter for most of the major national daily newspapers, along with a host of digital media, and a human rights group. A former foreign correspondent across Africa and Asia, including the Middle East, Les covered a multitude of high-profile events in chronically-unstable nations. He’s a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, in which he served as a Security Policeman, and graduated from the University of Tennessee with a B.A. in political science. He is a proud father to his daughter and enjoys spending time with his family.

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