Menasha man charged in child's death turns himself in

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WINNEBAGO COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - A man wanted on a charge related to a boy's death in a Menasha apartment building fire is now in custody.

Vernon L. Williams turned himself in to the Winnebago County Jail on Friday morning, according to Menasha Police.

Williams, 29, is charged with Neglecting a Child (Consequence is Death) in Winnebago County. The charge carries up to 25 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.

The 18-month-old victim was taken to a hospital Sept. 6 after a fire at an apartment building at 127 First Street in Menasha. The boy was transported to Children's Hospital of Milwaukee where he died four days later.

A criminal complaint obtained by Action 2 News says Vernon was sound asleep and drunk at the time he was watching three children ages 5, 3 and 18 months while their mother was out.

"We had some toxicology tests done, and he was a little over three times the legal limit for driving in Wisconsin, and that plus he was alleged to be sleeping on the couch and left the children alone to fend for themselves in a different room or at least a different area of the apartment," Menasha Police Officer Nick Oleszak said.

Police say the fire was started by a lighter that the 5- and 3-year-olds were playing with.

The two older children escaped when fire broke out. They told police they couldn't wake Williams up, so they knocked on the window of a neighbor, who ran up to the burning apartment and found Williams asleep. The neighbor and Williams rushed out, but Williams tried to go back in for the baby that was still in the apartment. He burned his hand on a door knob and his foot on the floor, and the smoke and flames were too intense to go any farther.

Neenah-Menasha firefighters Michael C. Novy and James E. Nabbefeld entered the apartment in attempts to save the baby. They found the infant in the southwest corner of a bedroom that was "engulfed in flames." The child was on the floor next to the crib and under a blanket.

The child had burns covering 70 percent of his body, including his face, head chest, back, and abdomen. The child suffered respiratory failure and "burn shock" in which he experienced cardiac arrest two times.

The oldest child told police that her mom had left the apartment and they were being watched by "Uncle V", who was sleeping. She said the children were "playing house" and had a blanket on top of them. One of the kids found a lighter on a counter and started playing with it under the blanket, which caught fire. The girl said she saw the baby on fire and heard him cry.

The girl said she jumped up and down and tried to wake up Vernon Williams. She grabbed her brother and ran outside. She said they were unable to pick up the baby because he was too heavy.

A neighbor told police that Williams "drinks all day, every day and wakes up drunk." The neighbor stated that Williams was drunk and fell asleep while watching the children. Another witness backed up those claims, according to the complaint.

Williams was taken to a hospital and treated for burns on his foot, forearm and hand,. A doctor noticed a "strong odor" of alcohol on Williams' breath and noticed his slurred speech.

At the hospital, a blood test revealed Williams had a blood-alcohol level of .257.

Since then, police say Williams hasn't cooperated. On Oct. 5, a warrant was issued for Vernon Williams. On Oct. 11, his photo was released to the media.

Williams turned himself in Friday morning.

Action 2 News will continue to update this developing story.

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