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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Gutierrez gets 5-10 in son’s drowning death; pleads guilty to negligent homicide

NASHUA – The floor was covered in Fruit Loops. Melissa Gutierrez’s youngest son, 8-month-old Christian Ntapalis, had just messed his diaper. She had to figure out what she was going to throw together for lunch for him and her older son, 2-year-old James.

So she put them both in the bathtub and turned on the water without plugging the drain, and gave them some toys. She started to clean up and look for some food, something she’d done dozens of times. ...

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NASHUA – The floor was covered in Fruit Loops. Melissa Gutierrez’s youngest son, 8-month-old Christian Ntapalis, had just messed his diaper. She had to figure out what she was going to throw together for lunch for him and her older son, 2-year-old James.

So she put them both in the bathtub and turned on the water without plugging the drain, and gave them some toys. She started to clean up and look for some food, something she’d done dozens of times.

When her older son asked for a towel, she had to get one from the basement.

That’s when she saw water pouring through the basement ceiling. By the time she ran upstairs, it was too late.

“JJ was in the back of the tub and Christian was floating in the water,” Gutierrez wailed from the witness stand at Hillsborough County Superior Court in Nashua on Monday afternoon.

Judge Diane Nicolosi sentenced Gutierrez to five to 10 years in prison for the Aug. 25, 2011, negligent homicide death of her son. Gutierrez can petition the court to suspend the final year of the minimum five years if she completes a series of parenting, life skills and mental health courses. With the 226 days she’s already spent in jail, she could be paroled in a little over three years.

In an unusual move, Gutierrez took the stand at her sentencing hearing and spoke extensively, prompted by questions from her public defender Anthony Sculimbrene, about her past and the day her son died.

She talked about her mostly-absentee father who dealt drugs, her oldest daughter being taken away by the Department for Children, Youth & Families, turning to a life of taking, selling and stealing drugs, and, at one point, working as an escort.

She talked about a boyfriend, James Blackington, who gave her a home and showed her a new way to live, dying in her arms in 2007, during a trip to Florida.

Dr. Albert Drukteinis, an expert in forensic psychology, testified previously that Gutierrez suffered from acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Gutierrez also spoke about the day her son died.

She was home alone and trying to take care of both boys. They had just finished having a food fight and she put them in the tub. Like she had hundreds of times before, she turned water and made sure the drain was cleared. But this time, somehow, the drain became plugged by a washcloth.

Frequently interrupting her own testimony with tears and loud sobs, Gutierrez haltingly told the story of what happened.

“I get so angry. I get so mad because what happened wasn’t supposed to happen like that,” she said. “There’s not a day that goes by, I wouldn’t change that day.”

Sculimbrene asked Nicolosi to suspend up to three years of Gutierrez’s minimum sentence, one for each of the prison rehabilitation programs she will be taking. He characterized the baby’s death as a tragic accident, not a murder. That and her “incredibly difficult life” should mitigate some of what happened.

“Whatever punishment the state can ask for … will not scar her psychically the way this death has,” he said. “These children were an anchor or tether to a normal life. Before her children, her life was incredibly, incredibly desolate.”

Assistant Hillsborough County Attorney David Tencza said none of that changed the fact that Gutierrez left her baby in the bathtub and he died.

“Her son, Christian, is ultimately the one who pays the price for that,” Tencza said.

Sculimbrene said Gutierrez has been working “extremely hard” while in prison to become a better person. Gutierrez said she knew she had to take responsibility for what happened.

“It’s something I have to carry. It’s something that eats me alive every minute of every single day. If I hadn’t walked away, my son would still be alive and that’s something I have to face,” she said. “I personally can’t help feeling like God wanted him, maybe more than I did. Maybe God needed him. Maybe it was to save my life. Maybe Christian had to die to save my life.”

Gutierrez already is serving sentences out of district and superior courts in Manchester and another charge in Rockingham County should be adjudicated within a week, Sculimbrene said.

Nicolosi said part of her consideration Monday was that she was arrested twice while out on bail on the negligent homicide charge, including once while under house arrest.

Several other charges, including manslaughter and child endangerment, were dropped.

Joseph G. Cote can be reached at 594-6415 or jcote@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Cote on Twitter (@Telegraph_JoeC).