Jazmine Rondon is escorted to a Polk County Sheriff's vehicle after questioning at the PCSO's main building. | Courtesy PCSO

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said Joel and Jazmine Rondon celebrated the Fourth of July at a party in a home near downtown Lakeland, eating, smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol — with Joel adding methamphetamine to the mix.

The couple, both 33, took their three children to the party, returning home after 2 a.m. on July 5. Jazmine fed the the older children — ages 6 and 8 — and put them to bed.  She asked her husband to bring their 18-month-old daughter in from the car.

Judd said Joel was bringing in food from their Hyundai Elantra and saw an open back door to the car.  When he returned to the Elantra, he noticed that the door was now closed, so he thought his wife had gotten the toddler out of the car.

She had not.

Jazmine went to bed, with Joel joining her shortly afterwards in their Winchester Estates Circle home. Judd said neither one asked the other about getting the toddler, who was buckled into a car seat, out of the vehicle.

“Joel woke up around 10 a.m. and spent about an hour getting ready for work. Around 11 a.m. he asked one of the kids to go ‘check on the baby’ in the bedroom. The child told Joel that the baby was not in the bedroom, at which time Joel began looking around the house for her,” a press release from the sheriff’s office says.

When Joel found the girl in the car, she was unresponsive.

He pulled the car seat with his daughter out of the car and ran into the house with her, screaming for his wife, Judd said, adding that Jazmine, who told investigators she had some medical training, looked at her daughter and knew she was dead.

Judd said the couple raced the toddler to Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center, but despite efforts to cool her body down, she could not be revived.

“This rips your heart out — there’s no other way to explain it,” said Judd, who has two sons and 13 grandchildren. “We all have had children or grandchildren … nieces or nephews that have been 18 months old and we know how vibrant they are, how active they are and how fragile they are. And this child, from three o’clock in the morning until she was discovered, was harnessed and could not get away from this.”

The planet had the hottest average global temperature ever recorded this week.

By 11 a.m. Wednesday, when Joel found his daughter, the ambient temperature in Lakeland was between 88 and 93 degrees. Judd said the interior temperature of the car, which was parked in full sun, was between 130 and 170 degrees.

The sheriff added that nearly four hours after the girl was removed from the car, after Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center doctors and nurses tried to perform life saving measures — including plunging her in an ice bath — her core temperature was still 104.4 degrees.

“This child is 18 months old. She’s not old enough to let herself out of the harness,” Judd said. “But she is certainly old enough to realize that she is suffering a torturous death at the negligence of Joel and Jazmine.”

At about 8 p.m., investigators gave the couple what’s known as a quick test — both tested positive for marijuana and alcohol, with Joel testing positive for meth.

Courtesy PCSO

The National Safety Council counted the little girl as the 950th child to die in a hot car in the U.S. since 1998. On average, 38 children die of “vehicular heatstroke” nationally each year — with Florida and Texas at greatest risk.

The Children’s Trust website offers five ways to remember removing children from vehicles:

  • Always leave your purse, bag, suitcase or phone next to your child’s car seat;
  • Invest in technology that reminds you that your child is in the car;
  • Buy a car with backseat reminder technology: Models like the GMC Acadia, Kia Telluride and Hyundai Santa Fe have motion sensors reminding drivers that someone is in backseat when the car is turned off;
  • Get an App: Try the free Kars 4 Kids Safety App which sounds a customizable “Don’t Forget Your Kid” alarm when the car turns off (vehicle must have Bluetooth technology) or find another app.
  • And take your time.

“We know life can get crazy for everyone, but whenever possible and especially when you are stressed and in a hurry, remember to take a breath and slow down,” the website states. “Nothing is as important as your kids.”

In 2019, Car and Driver reported that The Association of Global Automakers and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, two groups that include nearly every carmaker that serves the U.S. market, agreed to put rear-seat occupant alerts into their entire passenger-car fleets as standard. The alert system is already in models like the GMC Acadia, Kia Telluride and Hyundai Santa Fe. All U.S. manufacturers will make it standard in the 2025 model year or sooner.

Judd said the Rondons are remorseful.

“But I think the real remorse will be tonight, when they’re sitting in the county jail, in an air-conditioned environment, by themselves, thinking that it’s nice and cool in here when my baby baked to death because of my negligence and my use of drugs.”

Judd said the Rondons will have to be held accountable.

“This is not an accident,” Judd said. “This is pure negligence. And I suggest to you the core of the negligence is the abuse of drugs. So don’t ever tell me that drugs are low-level and non-violent, because they’re at the core of why this child is dead.”

The Rondons were taken into custody Thursday and booked into the Polk County Jail. Both are charged with aggravated manslaughter of a child, a first-degree felony.

Joel Rondon’s criminal history includes a 2008 arrest by the Plant City Police Department for attempted murder, for which the state attorney’s office did not prosecute.  In 2005, Plant City Police also charged him with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and possession of drug paraphernalia. A judge withheld adjudication.

Judd said Rondon has been labeled in the past as a gang member. Other charges dating back to 2003 include criminal mischief and resisting arrest.

In February, a Polk County Sheriff’s deputy arrested him on a Lakeland Police warrant for carrying a concealed firearm, possession of meth, and possession of drug paraphernalia.

Jazmine Rondon did not have a criminal history.

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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