On Sept. 16, Dazia Lee thought that Hurricane Florence was over. She had strapped her 1-year-old son, Kaiden Lee-Welch, into his car seat and started driving toward her grandmother’s house. She told The Washington Post later that she saw cars emerging from a road that had barricades along the sides and thought it was safe. But after she drove past the barricades, a rush of water hit her car, and when she tried to escape with Kaiden, she lost her grip on him. His body was found the next day.
On Monday, Lee was charged in the toddler’s death. The Union County Sheriff’s Office charged Lee, 20, with involuntary manslaughter and driving on a closed or unopened highway.
“The evidence would support the filing of charges,” said Tony Underwood, chief communications officer for the sheriff’s office. Referring to a news conference at the New Salem Volunteer Fire Department the day Kaiden was found, he added, “The facts were pretty well laid out based on that.”
At that conference, Union County Sheriff Eddie Cathey said barricades had been put up on the road. “Whether someone else moved those barricades and she drove around ’em, I can’t say,” he said.
“This mama has suffered tragically,” Cathey said. “She lost a child. That’s all you can say. But let me say this: These were dangerous times. Driving through water where the roads are closed is dangerous for anybody.”
Lee was served with a summons to appear in court Nov. 20. The manslaughter charge, a Class F felony, carries a 13- to 16-month potential sentence, Underwood said.
Telephone messages and texts left for Lee were not answered.
To Corine Mack, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg branch of the NAACP, the decision to charge Lee smacks of racism.
“She was attempting to get her child out of the car, not to have her child die, and to charge her on top of the fact that she is in mourning for the rest of her life, that represents implicit bias, insensitivity, and even racism,” Mack said.
Noting that two sheriff’s deputies have not been charged in the drowning deaths of two mental health patients in their care during the storm, she added, “Black men and women are disproportionately arrested and charged for similar infractions of white citizens who are not arrested or charged.” (Those officers were fired last week.)
African Americans are 2½ times as likely to be arrested as white people, according to a report by the Center for American Progress. African Americans also represent 13 percent of the U.S. population yet 40 percent of those incarcerated, the report said.
It was unclear what kind of legal representation Lee has. But the single mother has already been subject to judgment in the court of Internet commentators, many of whom applauded the news that she had been charged.
Commenters on the sheriff’s office Facebook page blamed Lee for everything from not grieving in the right way to setting up a GoFundMe page asking for help with expenses to simply making the decision to drive down the wrong road.
“So glad they decided to charge her!!!” one wrote. “She should’ve known better than drive around barriers. When I heard about that, I knew something wasn’t right BUT when I saw her giving a news interview, I knew that she should be charged and then the Gofundme account, that just absolutely sickened me to my stomach!!!”
Another wrote: “She said on the news she told him to hold on to her hand and he just let it go! You don’t tell a baby to hold on you hold on to him put him inside your shirt hold on to that child with your life, but don’t tell a baby to hold on to your hand and then say he let it go. Really lady I hope you can sleep at night.”
A few were compassionate.
“Let’s not be quick to judge,” one wrote. “It only takes a second to make a wrong decision resulting in a lifetime of regret. This could have been anyone of us, your sister, cousin, friend, co-worker.”