Bradley Gene McGee was tortured and beaten to death 15 years ago. Thanks to our senseless courts, one of his callous killers is free to strike again.
Bradley died at the age of 2. It?s the age when a happy boy?s life is preoccupied with Teletubbies, choo-choo trains, Cheerios, sippy cups, and Velcro-strap sneakers with tiny red lights that blink when you stomp your feet. It is also the age for potty-training, when a little boy needs loving parents or guardians with patience, devotion and good humor.
Bradley?s murderers possessed none of these traits. On a summer day in 1989, they punished him for soiling his pants by plunging him headfirst in a toilet. Again and again and again. The man who rammed Bradley?s head repeatedly into the ceramic fixture was his stepfather, Thomas Coe. The woman who covered Bradley?s mouth to stop him from screaming -- the woman who then sat by the bathtub, lit a cigarette and watched the little boy?s torment -- was the woman who gave birth to Bradley, Sheryl Hardy.
Coe and Hardy then dragged Bradley into the living room of their mobile home, where they beat him over the head with couch cushions until he fell to the floor unconscious. Bradley died of massive brain hemorrhaging at a nearby hospital the next day.
To call Sheryl Hardy a "mother" would be an unforgivable desecration of the word. When Bradley was 4 months old, she and Coe took him to a local mall. They left baby Bradley with a pretzel vendor and walked away.
It was the best thing that happened in Bradley?s cruelly short life. Child welfare officials placed him in emergency foster care in Winter Haven, Fla. He was immediately embraced by Sandra "Kip" Liles and her husband. Mrs. Liles has nurtured some 200 abused and neglected children, showering each one with much-needed attention and gentle care. On a Web site dedicated to Bradley?s memory, she posted poignant photos of the cherubic-faced baby?s first smiles and first haircut.
He was, she said, a "heavenly angel." Taken from earth too soon.
When Sheryl Hardy learned that Bradley's foster parents wanted to adopt him, she petulantly petitioned for custody. Sixty-six days after being returned to Hardy and Coe -- the same heartless couple that had abandoned him as a newborn -- Bradley was dead.
At trial, Hardy revealed the horrific abuse she and Coe administered to Bradley. She had forced him to eat his own feces. Made him stand by her bed all night as she and Coe slept. And allowed Coe to punch the little boy?s genitals. The medical examiner reported more than 90 cuts and bruises on Bradley?s battered body.
On the stand, Hardy offered excuse after excuse for Bradley?s torture and murder. She said she was abused as a child and beaten by Coe. The shameless sob stories didn?t work with the jury. She was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 30 years. Coe was convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse and sentenced to life in prison.
Due largely to Kip Liles? efforts, Bradley?s murder led to reform of Florida?s custody and child welfare laws. Parents across the country sent toys and teddy bears and childhood mementos that still adorn Bradley?s gravesite in Lakeland, Fla.
But justice has not yet been served. Sheryl Hardy was released after nine years due to prison overcrowding and moved back to her home state of Illinois. She gave birth to another little boy, now 3. Like Bradley, the child named Billy has been in foster care for most of his life. Like Bradley, Billy has now been put back in the custody of a woman who has no business being anywhere near children. Earlier this month, the Illinois Supreme Court refused to overturn a lower court ruling that there wasn?t enough evidence to prove that Hardy was a negligent or abusive parent.
Bradley's battered body and tot-sized coffin should have been proof enough.
The court put its faith in Sheryl Hardy's "rehabilitation" and completion of parenting classes. But the people most familiar with her crimes know best:
''She's an evil person, a murderess,'' Paul Schaill of the Fort Meade, Fla., police department, told the Associated Press. "[Billy] is going to end up dead, too.''
Kip Liles is doing all she can to warn the public: "There is no sound, no cry in all the world, that can be heard unless someone is listening."
Unless more concerned parents open their eyes, ears and hearts, another life may be in danger.
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