Florida- Within weeks of dropping out of Palm Beach Lakes High School at the age of 16, Melisa Wildman found work as a topless dancer. And the late-night nether world of strip clubs, drugs and $20 lap dances has been her turf ever since.
After giving birth to her first child, however, Wildman said she attempted to leave that life behind. “I loved being a mother,” said Wildman, a tall 28-year-old with long blonde hair. “And she was a great baby.”
But, she added, “I made a mistake.”
That mistake not only cost 4-month-old Savanna Wildman her life, but sparked a wave of community anguish as details emerged suggesting several people, including a Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputy, a fire-rescue crew and staffers at a drug treatment clinic, may have had a chance to head off the child’s gruesome death.
“I’ve been doing criminal cases for over 30 years,” County Judge Nelson Bailey said when Wildman appeared before him in May, “and I’ve never seen a more disturbing probable cause statement.”
Bailey urged officials to “take a look at the various individuals who could have prevented this child’s death with a little common sense.”
Some three months after the child was found dead of heat stroke, apparently after being left unattended in the back seat of her mother’s car, Wildman is to be arraigned today in Palm Beach County Circuit Court on one count of aggravated manslaughter. If convicted, she could be sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Prosecutors and Lake Worth police reports contend that Wildman caused her daughter’s death through “reckless and negligent behavior” following a night during which she worked a shift at a Boynton Beach strip club, drank several beers, took a fistful of drugs, and had a minor traffic collision she cannot remember.
Savanna’s body temperature exceeded 106 degrees even after she had been dead for more than an hour, according to medical records.
“Now that I look back on it,” Wildman said, “there are some things I wish I’d done different.”
Others also have regrets.
“The fact that I held her safe, and then thinking about what happened afterward — that’s what haunts me,” said Debbie DiFloria, who called 911 the morning of April 4 after she saw Wildman slumped over the steering wheel of her car as Savanna cried helplessly in the backseat. “I can’t get that baby out of my head.”Savanna Denese Wildman was born Nov. 29. Although the child’s father left when she became pregnant, Wildman said, she had a steady live-in boyfriend who agreed to provide financial support so she could stay home.
But within two months, Wildman said, money woes had her back at Platinum Showgirls, an all-nude club on North Federal Highway.
“I’ve wanted to quit a bunch of times,” Wildman said in an interview in the Fort Lauderdale office of her attorney, Gary Ostrow. “But where am I going to go? Even if I go get a job somewhere, you have to wait to get a first check.
“Dancing, you get money every night.”
In more than 11 years as an exotic dancer, Wildman said, “I’ve worked everywhere, and I’ve seen it all.”
Using the stage name Sabrina, Wildman said she traveled the United States and Canada, dancing in classy big-city clubs and in hillbilly bars. And while the customers may not have looked the same, she said, they had the same thing on their minds: sex.
Academic studies show that violence, drug use and even prostitution is common among women who work in strip clubs. Wildman insisted she did not engage in prostitution, even as she competed with younger dancers more than willing to trade sexual favors for cash.Wildman said she has used drugs to cope, especially in recent years. And she drank. “You go to work, you get drunk. That’s how to deal with it,” she said of the strip club life.
“You’re not allowed to say `no’ if a customer asks to buy you a drink,” she added. “You can order one with no alcohol, but if you’re going to drink, you might as well have a real one.”
In the last hours of her daughter’s life, Wildman told police she dropped Savanna at a friend’s house, danced a few hours at Platinum Showgirls, picked up Savanna, and drove to the home of a friend in Tavares Cove, a trailer park east of Greenacres. Over the course of the night, the probable cause statement says, she drank up to five beers, snorted cocaine, smoked marijuana, took two Xanax and half a methadone pill before passing out in her car in the parking lot.
Lloyd Blatt, 46, a long-distance trucker, said he looked up from doing paperwork in his big rig’s cab to watch Wildman collapse in the driver’s seat after an unidentified man helped her get into her car. He notified DiFloria, Tavares Cove manager, who removed the crying baby from Wildman’s car while she and Blatt waited for police.
After paramedics and sheriff’s deputy Barron Miller arrived and talked to Wildman, both Blatt and DiFloria said they were astounded to see her drive off. “I couldn’t believe they let her go,” Blatt said. “When I said something to [Miller], he told me to mind my own business.”
Miller released Wildman, even though she had two outstanding misdemeanor traffic warrants, both related to driving under the influence, records show. Wildman admits her driver’s license had been suspended.
An internal affairs investigation into Miller’s conduct is continuing.
Paul Falck, a 50-year-old Tavares Cove resident Wildman had been visiting, denied he was the one who dropped her off at her car about 9 that morning. He said Wildman left his trailer hours earlier, about 2 a.m. “She was fine and the baby was happy,” he said.
In her statement to police, Wildman said she spent the night at Falck’s home, and took drugs there. Falck, who also gave a statement to police, denied that.
Leaving the trailer park, Wildman drove to the West Palm Beach Treatment Center, where shortly before 10 a.m. she was given her regular daily dose of methadone, a synthetic drug used to combat addiction. Clinic official Ilona Dallow told police Wildman brought Savanna into the clinic with her.
Wildman then drove to her Lake Worth apartment, where she apparently again passed out. Awaking to find Savanna not breathing, Wildman called 911. Police arrived at 2:13 p.m. But the baby was dead.
Growing up, Melisa Wildman was a regular kid, according to her mother, Jackie. She took ballet and tap dance lessons.
Jackie Wildman said she and her husband, Danny, were “heartbroken, crushed” over the lifestyle Melisa chose. “It’s against everything she was brought up to be,” said Jackie Wildman, an accountant for the city of Lake Worth.
Still, she said, her daughter was doing well as a mother, “until right before the accident.”
Bettyanne Hutton, an expert in child welfare who teaches at Florida Atlantic University, said it is rare to find a mother who does not love her child. “But the child’s needs may not be predominant, especially in the mind of someone who is involved with drugs.”
Added Hutton: “There are probably not a lot of people out there who have sympathy for this mother.”
Indeed, Ostrow, a veteran defense lawyer, admitted that Wildman’s is a tough case. “But after 500 jury trials,” he said, “I have learned that regardless of the facts, any case can be won.”
Wildman said she is through with dancing in strip clubs. Free on $50,000 bond, Wildman said she continues to take methadone. She is living with her parents and looking for a job — “anything that pays.”
But with a GED degree and limited experience as a cashier and in telephone sales, her prospects are dim.
Yet Wildman harbors hopes of having another child.
“Not anytime soon,” she said, “but of course I want to be a mom again, when I get my life straightened out. I’ll be a very over-protective mom.”