TAMPA — At first, the death of 3-year-old Yanelli Vasquez in the bathtub of her Port Tampa home appeared to be only a tragic accident.
Investigative documents released this week, though, showed that holes quickly appeared in the account the girl’s paternal grandmother, Carida Lissettes Cobb, gave to authorities.
Cobb, 41, told investigators that she told Yanelli on Dec. 13 to wash and rinse her hair. She said she had gone to the kitchen to prepare dinner when she heard a strange noise. She said she went to the bathroom and saw Yanelli floating face up in the bathtub, gasping for air.
Cobb, who is confined to a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis, said she reached for her granddaughter and fell into the bathtub, on top of the toddler. Cobb slapped Yanelli’s face in an attempt to rouse her and started CPR, she said.
Paramedics arrived at the 7213 S. Juanita St. home to find Cobb frantically shaking the child. Yanelli had no pulse and was not breathing. She was flown by helicopter to Tampa General Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
It was a horrible accident, Cobb said.
But almost immediately, doctors noticed things that didn’t fit with what what the grandmother was telling them.
“At the hospital, Yanelli was observed with multiple bruises on her back that were in various stages of healing, which, according to the attending physician, were concerning,” said a report generated by the child protective unit of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, released this week by the Florida Department of Children and Families.
The report said physicians also documented a “noticeable” contusion on the child’s forehead that was not consistent with Cobb’s version of what happened.
Cobb’s 17-year-old daughter told investigators Cobb had physically disciplined Yanelli on prior occasions, causing the toddler to scream and cry. The teenager said she noticed a bruise on Yanelli’s lower back two months ago.
Child protection investigators had been called to the home in April 2012 for a complaint that Cobb had beaten Yanelli’s younger brother because he was crying. She denied the allegations, saying she had only “popped” the child three times on his bottom with an open hand for misbehaving.
Investigators found no bruises on the child and the case was closed.
Cobb’s in-laws live next door.
“She can be vile,” said Lillie Cobb, whose son, Michael, is married to Carida.
Relations between Michael’s family and his wife have been strained for years, and Lillie Cobb said she had suspected the children were being abused. Over the summer, she confronted Carida Cobb.
“I heard her screaming and the baby yell and scream,” she said. “I went over there and I asked her why she was screaming at the kid. I saw the little girl and she looked at me like I was going to be her savior.”
Lillie Cobb, 75, said her daughter-in-law told her she was trying to potty train the child. She told her daughter-in-law: “ ‘If I hear you screaming at those kids again, I’ll call the police on you.’ ”
Carida Cobb was named the legal guardian for Yanelli and her 2-year-old brother in 2011 when their mother was charged with numerous drug offenses and child neglect.
An autopsy showed Yanelli was beaten and drowned, according to the arrest affidavit for Carida Cobb. The medical examiner’s report said the injuries were caused by blunt force and ruled the death a homicide.
A day after Yanelli died, Cobb attempted suicide by taking a large amount of pills, police said. She was admitted to a hospital and was arrested upon her release, charged with first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse. She remained in the Hillsborough County jail Thursday. Bail had not been set.
The 2-year-old boy was removed from the home after Cobb’s arrest and was turned over to foster care.
Michael Cobb’s sister, Janice, said the children never should have been placed with her sister-in-law.
“I’ve always had questions about that,” she said. “Why did the state place those children with somebody in a wheelchair? It seemed irresponsible of the state and I have a problem with that.
“They were better off where they were,” she said. “At least they ain’t dead.”
Department of Children & Families spokeswoman Michelle Glady on Thursday declined to comment about the case, saying the reports were generated by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, which conducts such investigations through its child protection unit. She said the state will look into the homicide and the prior complaints against Cobb and Vasquez to see if DCF workers made any mistakes in handling the case.