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‘Irresponsible and Reckless’ Father Pleads Guilty in Hot Car Deaths of His Children


Dustin Lee Dennis

An Oklahoma man has pleaded guilty in the hot car deaths of his son and daughter. As part of his plea agreement, Dustin Lee Dennis, 32, admitted that he spent most of the night playing video games and getting high. He fell asleep, leaving his 3-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter unattended. The children entered the garage, and got into his truck, he said.

“The temperature was over 90 degrees and the children died from exposure to extremely high temperatures while being trapped in my truck for over four hours,” he wrote in a signed statement included in court documents.

The children were identified by prosecutors as Ryan and Tegan.

As part of the agreement, Dennis will be sentenced to between 3 and 6 years in prison, followed by five years of supervised release, according to the Department of Justice.

“Dustin Dennis was irresponsible and reckless,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Clint Johnson of the Northern District of Oklahoma. “He prioritized using cocaine while his young children, Ryan and Tegan, were in his home and failed to protect them from harm. My office remains committed to prosecuting perpetrators of child neglect and abuse.”

Dennis had brought his children over to his brother’s residence on June 12, 2020, and returned home with the children just before 1 a.m. the following day, according to the timeline from Assistant U.S. Attorney Gina Gilmore. From the DOJ:

Surveillance video showed Dennis and the children returning home just before 1 am on June 13. At 1:03 am, Dennis indicated in a text to his brother that he was turning his game on and later texted that he did a couple of lines and that he hated chopping up cocaine when it’s moist. He indicated he was about to do some more.

Surveillance video later showed Dennis leaving his residence alone at approximately noon for 11 minutes during which time Dennis stated he drove to a QuikTrip. When Dennis returned home from the convenience store, he fell asleep. Surveillance footage showed the two children trying to get into Dennis’ truck at 1:22 p.m. when the vehicle’s alarm went off. They attempted a second time at 1:29 p.m. and successfully gained access to the truck. The video later captured Dennis exiting his apartment and searching for his children approximately four hours later, at 5:32 p.m. Within minutes he discovered the children deceased in the truck.

Dennis pleaded guilty to two counts of child neglect in Indian Country.

“He understands that he played a role in what happened, and he took responsibility for it,” Dennis’s attorney Stephen W. Lee told Law&Crime in a brief phone interview.

Sentencing is scheduled for November 10, prosecutors said.

This ends his somewhat winding case. He was originally charged with two counts of second-degree murder in Tulsa County, Oklahoma, but an U.S. Supreme Court stopped that case. Justices held 5-4 in McGirt v. Oklahoma that the eastern half of the state is a Native American reservation. Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler (R) passed the case to federal authorities. Ryan and Tegan were citizens of the Cherokee Nation, and the crime happened inside the Muscogee Nation reservation, the DOJ said.

The associated drug case against Dennis’ brother Michael Scott Dennis remains ongoing. His attorney of record did not immediately respond to a Law&Crime request for comment.

[Mugshot via Tulsa County Jail]

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