CASPER, Wyo. — Before Carl Gerken spends 30 days in jail for his role in the death of a 3-year-old child this year, he will sit down and write a letter. Then, a Natrona County Circuit Court judge ordered Wednesday, he must send the letter to eight publications.
“There needs to be a discussion,” Judge Stephen Brown said. “It is my hope that we will cause some discussion.”
Gerken pleaded no contest to criminally negligent homicide in August. Prosecutors charged the 29-year-old Casper man with the misdemeanor after his girlfriend's son found his 9 mm handgun and shot himself in the head, according to court documents.
The toddler's mother had picked him up from preschool on March 3, and after returning home, the boy wanted to take a nap. His mother let him lie down in her bedroom, gave him a blanket and put on a DVD of the movie “Old McDonald's Farm” for him to watch. After returning downstairs, she heard a gunshot, authorities say.
The child was pronounced dead at the scene. Police would find numerous other firearms in the home, according to court documents.
At Gerken's sentencing Wednesday, Assistant District Attorney Dan Itzen told the court how authorities believe the boy came to shoot himself with the pistol he found.
Itzen told Brown the boy had a toy gun, but his forefingers weren't strong enough to pull the toy trigger. So, when playing with the toy gun, he would turn it around in his hands and use his thumbs to pull the trigger, the prosecutor said.
“He did that with a 9 mm,” Itzen said.
The boy found the gun sticking out between the bed's mattresses. It was loaded with 18 hollow-point rounds and there was another in the chamber. A toy gun was also found in the room, Itzen said.
The prosecutor asked that Gerken be sentenced to six months in the Natrona County Detention Center.
“Everyone loses, judge,” Itzen said of the boy's death. “But what happens when you leave a loaded handgun where a 3-year-old can get ahold of it?”
The prosecutor said Gerken, who had been through a hunter's safety course, failed to respect the gun.
“The state of Wyoming is here today to protect other kids,” Itzen said of his sentencing recommendation.
Defense attorney Don Fuller, however, argued for a sentence of probation.
“There was no ill intent here,” he said vehemently. “Bad things happen. And it's a tragedy — it's a horrible tragedy.”
Fuller told the court that Wyoming is full of guns and unfortunate incidents occur. Throwing Gerken in jail, Fuller said, was not going to stop horrible tragedies from happening. It would only be an act of vengeance, he said.
He said Gerken was a man with no criminal history and no history of drug or alcohol abuse.
“He is a bright, productive, sensitive person that has been mostly destroyed by this,” Fuller said.
The boy's mother, Jill Becerra, asked the court not to sentence Gerken to jail.
“Regardless of what happens today,” she said during an emotional address, “it doesn't bring my son back.
“I need Carl to be there to help me get through every day,” she said before saying the pain she felt for her son's death “can't compare to what he has to live with for the rest of his life.”
An emotional Brown ultimately sentenced Gerken to 30 days in jail — to begin next Wednesday — and to write a 350-word letter. The letter is to address what happened, how it happened and how it could have been avoided, the judge said.
“Do your letter, do your 30 days, let it be in your head, then you're done,” Brown urged Gerken.
The publications Brown ordered Gerken to send his letter to the Star-Tribune, Field and Stream, American Handgun, American Rifleman, Oprah Magazine, Men's Health, Parenting Magazine and Better Homes and Gardens.
Given a chance to speak, Gerken declined.
He faced a maximum possible sentence of one year behind bars.
Contact William Browning at email@example.com or 307-266-0534.