Last Updated: 2:23 p.m.
An 18-month-old girl was killed by a single gunshot wound to the head from an automatic pistol at 2 Ranwood Lane in Palm Coast shortly before midnight Sunday. The Flagler County Sheriff’s Office and two other agencies are investigating. The victim had not handled the gun.
“We do have a person of interest,” Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly said at a midday press conference, identifying the person as C.J. Nelson Jr., 21, who was arrested this morning on an unrelated probation violation charge. He was arrested last November on a felony charge of illegally carrying a concealed weapon and a marijuana possession charge. He pleaded and was sentenced last April to six months’ probation.
“He has not been charged with this death–yet,” the sheriff said.
There were eight adults in the house, in addition to the victim, when authorities arrived (not six, as previously reported). “No one has been ruled out. The biological mother was present. The biological father was not,” Staly said.
“The gun used [is] known as an American tactical multi caliber assault pistol–not a rifle but a pistol,” the sheriff said. “At this time, we’re still determining the caliber she was actually shot with, and that will be up to forensics since this gun can fire many different caliber ammunition.”
Authorities also seized 420 grams of marijuana and 11 grams of “a white powdery substance that we believe is either cocaine or heroin,” the sheriff said, suggesting–between the presence of the gun and the quantity of drugs–that there may have been drug activity in the house. But the shooting, Staly said, was not drug-related. Authorities twice responded to the house this year, once in connection with a stolen vehicle, once on a 911 investigation.
The sheriff did not release the location of the child in the house at the time of the shooting, but he said the victim never touched the gun. “The child is an innocent victim in this case, with no actions by the child’s part, playing in to effect her death,” he said.
The case has not been ruled accidental (to the extent that the shooting of an 18-month-old child can ever be accidental) but there are various ways of qualifying a shooting: it may be “accidental” or, more accurately, unintentional, but it may also lead to charges such as manslaughter or negligent homicide. It has not yet been determined whether the weapon was legal, only that it wasn’t reported stolen, though that doesn’t mean it hadn’t been stolen, the sheriff said. Part of the difficulty of the case is the eight residents’ reluctance to cooperate with authorities, because of fears that someone would get arrested, Staly said.
“All eight people inside the house have not been totally cooperative,” the sheriff said. “So this will be based on forensics, and good police work, and continuing interviews with the eight individuals in there. That’s why we’re not ruling anyone out in that house. While we have a primary person of interest, it would be a lot easier if everybody would tell us the truth and exactly what went on in that house. But here’s what I do know: I have a phenomenal agency a phenomenal major case unit. Forensics is also very strong, and we use the [Florida Department of Law Enforcement] lab, so this case may not be solved in the next 24 or 48 hours. But we will get to the bottom of this and we will hold somebody accountable for the death of an 18 month old child.”
Palm Coast Fire Chief Kyle Berryhill said the department responded to “a report of a gunshot wound, a child,” 20 minutes before midnight. The girl was taken to AdventHealth Palm Coast (not Halifax, as originally reported). “We’d have to have been actively performing life saving measures for her to be transported,” the chief said.
Rescuers considered calling in an emergency helicopter, Berryhill said, but, “based on the condition of the patient,” determined that “going by ground immediately was the better option, in accordance with our protocols.”
“At the scene, all of Ladder 25’s crew and all of Rescue 22’s crew, five paramedics, helped with the transport,” after providing life-saving measures. The child was pronounced deceased at the hospital, a Flagler County Sheriff’s spokesperson said.
“It’s possible that it was accidental, that’s what they were reporting originally when they got the call, but not confirmed it was accidental,” the sheriff’s spokesperson said. A Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Crime Scene Investigation unit, along with investigators from the State Attorney’s Office, are assisting the sheriff’s Major Crimes Unit in the investigation.
The home is a rental in Palm Coats’s R-Section. There did not appear to have been a social event at the time, the spokesperson said. Early this morning, the Sheriff’s Office posted on its Facebook page: “There is a large law enforcement presence on Ranwood Lane in Palm Coast. There is no danger to the public.”
The same team of responders who went to the R-Section home also responded to the unrelated drowning of another child of about the same age, a boy, in Seminole Woods during the same shift.
“Not a good situation. It’s one of the hardest parts of the job,” Berryhill said.
C.J. Nelson Jr. is the son of C.J. Nelson, the father of eight who was accused of child abuse in a confrontation with a juvenile at Epic theaters in palm Coast in 2016. Nelson was exonerate of the charge at trial, and served a month in jail and two years on probation on a misdemeanor battery conviction.