Family wants justice in toddler death
BROOKSVILLE - Travis Fleming was mortified. He lived in an RV in rural Nobleton and was close friends with David Alan McBurnett Jr. McBurnett visited and introduced him to his new girlfriend, Breanna Underwood. The couple brought along Underwood's 11-month old baby.After a few more visits, Fleming would never want to see Underwood again. His friend, McBurnett, would be arrested a month later on a charge of first-degree murder in connection with the killing of Underwood's son, Hunter Lee Morris. Fleming, his former girlfriend and another friend, told McBurnett's attorney, Ellis Faught Jr., that it was Underwood who abused the child. They saw it with their own eyes. Based on testimony Fleming gave during a deposition with Faught, he said he saw Underwood a total of five times at his place. Four of those times the woman had struck Hunter. It made him uncomfortable at first. It made him furious later. "Breanna would hit the baby on top of the head with a bottle of milk," he told Faught. "Was it an empty bottle or ...?" Faught asked. "It was about almost full," Fleming said. He said Hunter looked up at his mother and then looked around and saw McBurnett. He crawled over to his mother's boyfriend and he picked him up. "OK, and how did you feel about that?" Faught asked Fleming. "I just, I didn't feel it was right the way she was treating that baby," he said. On other occasions, he said he saw Underwood push Hunter when he tried to get her to pick him up. He said he also saw her hit the child with a box of baby wipes while he sat near her feet. When he saw Underwood hit her child with a remote control during her fifth visit, he had had enough. McBurnett was outside the RV at the time. Fleming walked out and confronted him. "She needs to go," Fleming told him. "She needs to leave my house." McBurnett understood and the couple left with the baby. "It upset me so bad I went up to my mom's house and told them about it," Fleming said to Faught. "And it tore me up for about two days." After news of Hunter's death, Fleming told his story to the Florida Department of Children and Families. Parents think son wrongly accused McBurnett was indicted in October by a grand jury on charges of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse. In June, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter by culpable negligence. He received a two-year sentence, with much of that credited for time already served. He was a youthful offender with no criminal history, which made him eligible for the two-year sentence, according to the state attorney's office. McBurnett admitted to knowing the abuse was happening and not trying to stop it, his attorney said. McBurnett's parents didn't watch the news for a while after Sept. 12. "Man, it was every day," said his father, David Alan Sr. "They said he beat the child for crying too much." The elder McBurnett works in demolition. He often travels. His wife, Regina, is a homemaker. They live off Geronimo Road near the Citrus County line. One of Underwood's relatives called them soon after the arrest and taunted them. They called their son a "baby killer." Earlier that year, they let Underwood's mother stay with them because she was destitute. Sometime later, their son met her daughter, who was ready to move down from Gainesville, they said. The two quickly began dating. Not long after Underwood's mother moved out, she moved in to be with her new boyfriend. Hunter was in tow. McBurnett Jr., 19, and Underwood lived in the same room. They didn't have a crib. Hunter slept in their room on a makeshift bed made of quilts and blankets. That was the living arrangement for less than six weeks. Hunter would be dead, McBurnett Jr. would be in jail and Underwood would move out. Regina McBurnett said she has only an eighth-grade education, but her mother has money. The family hired Faught, a Brandon criminal attorney, to defend their son. They feel lucky about that. They credit Faught with keeping their son from possibly facing the death penalty. "Breanna should be in jail," McBurnett Sr. said. "When my son comes home ... They're going to put her ass away. This is not over." The two said they didn't see abuse on the part of Underwood, but they saw neglect. She used dirty bottles to feed Hunter. He wasn't walking yet and she did nothing to help him. The baby always suffered from diaper rash. Following Hunter's death and McBurnett's arrest, Underwood promptly moved out of the house. She left all of Hunter's belongings behind. "She didn't want none of it," said Regina McBurnett. "You'd think a momma would want stuff like that." At the hospital, Underwood didn't cry. They learned later she didn't cry during Hunter's funeral. They said they saw her pretend to cry at their son's sentencing hearing in June. "She's never shed a tear," McBurnett said. The couple came across Underwood's MySpace page sometime after Hunter's death. Single and back on the market; she explicitly wrote "no kids" when she listed what she wanted in a man, they said. It made them sick. McBurnett Sr. suspected something was wrong early during the investigation when deputies, detectives and forensic specialists came to the house to serve a search warrant. It seemed they wanted to find something to support the notion his son was bad, he said. They photographed a burlap sack with marijuana memorabilia on it. It was hanging on a wall in the back of the house. Another had a Confederate flag. They took photos of that, too. "I've got about 100 pictures of Jesus and they didn't take pictures of any of that stuff," he said. The subject again turned to Underwood's lack of emotion. "When it's your own blood, you cry," her ex-boyfriend's father said. "From the first day, this girl wasn't crying," said Regina McBurnett. "She was doing nothing and showing nothing. You woulda had to put me in a padded room." Attempts to contact Underwood for this story were unsuccessful. A phone number listed in court records was disconnected. A number for a person who was known share a house with her and her live-in companion also was disconnected. Assistant State Attorney Pete Magrino prosecuted David Alan McBurnett Jr. He accepted the plea deal. He said the case remains open. A troubled and ashamed mother Antoinette Underwood thinks her daughter is a liar. "I hate to say it about my own daughter, but it's true," she said during a sworn deposition with Faught. "I am not going to go to jail for lying for her." Breanna Underwood, David McBurnett Jr. and the baby lived in her house at Neff Lake Road last summer for a short time. It was after Antoinette Underwood lived with the McBurnetts at Geronimo Road and before the couple moved there with Hunter. Underwood had asked her daughter whether she could look after the baby on her own. She knew her daughter was unfit and not interested in being a mother, she said. Breanna Underwood talked about giving up Hunter for adoption, but refused to give it to her mother. Both of them abused drugs, according to case transcripts. Antoinette Underwood was the one who looked after the child. Whenever her daughter neglected Hunter, which was often, she would try to put her in line, she said. "I think that's one of the reasons why my daughter wanted to move out because I would make her feed him," she said during her deposition. "I would make her change his diaper. I would make her bathe him. I was on her butt and she didn't like it." Her daughter would leave her child on the sofa unattended. The living room had a concrete floor. "He'd fall off the couch and I'd raise cain," Underwood said to Faught. She guessed it happened three or four times. She said McBurnett also would tell her not to leave her son on the couch. When Underwood found a knot on the boy's head behind his ear, she asked her daughter how it happened. She didn't know, she said. She also told Faught she found out about the news of Hunter's death when she was at the grocery store. It was on the front page of the newspaper. Underwood attended the funeral and confronted her daughter. She said she gave her a story about how she was in the shower when Hunter had his seizure. "What was I going to do mom?" Underwood said, recalling her explanation. "I was in the shower. What was I going to do, get out and go out there naked? I have respect for people." Her daughter's cavalier attitude enraged her. "She was not a good mother," Underwood told Faught during her testimony. "I hate to say that about my daughter." Editor's note: More on this story, including the findings from the investigation conducted by the Florida Department of Children and Families, will be published Wednesday.
Reporter Tony Holt can be reached at 352-544-5283 or [email protected]