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‘Irresponsible and Reckless’ Father Sentenced to 4 years in Federal Prison for His Children’s Hot Car Deaths


Dustin Lee Dennis

A 33-year-old Oklahoma man is set to spend four years behind bars for the 2020 hot car deaths of his two young children. Dustin Lee Dennis will also serve five years of supervised release, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Dennis pleaded guilty in July, admitting he spent most of the night paying video games and getting high. He feel asleep, leaving his son and daughter, Ryan, 3, and Tegan, 4, unattended in a pickup truck. The children entered the garage and got into the 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,” Dennis wrote in a signed statement included in court documents.

Attorney Kevin Duane Adams told Law&Crime that his client, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq, suffered from combat-induced post-traumatic stress disorder. Dennis self-medicated with alcohol and drugs, he said.

In the timeline from authorities, Dennis brought his kids over to his brother’s residence on June 12, 2020. They returned home the following day at 1 a.m.

“Surveillance video showed Dennis and the children returning home just before 1 am on June 13,” the DOJ said. “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 footage showed Dennis leaving home at approximately noon on June 13 for 11 minutes. He said he drove to a QuikTrip and fell asleep after returning home, authorities said.

From the DOJ:

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 was originally charged in Tulsa County, Oklahoma with two counts of second-degree murder, but local prosecutors passed the case to federal authorities after the Supreme Court of the United States ruled 5-4 in McGirt v. Oklahoma that the eastern half of the state is a Native American reservation. Ryan and Tegan were citizens of the Cherokee Nation, and the crime happened inside the Muscogee Nation reservation, the DOJ said.

“Dustin Dennis was irresponsible and reckless,” Acting U.S. Attorney Clint Johnson of the Northern District of Oklahoma said at the time of the guilty plea. “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 ultimately 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,” attorney Stephen W. Lee told Law&Crime in a brief phone interview in July.

“We’re pleased with the judge’s decision to accept the plea and resolve the case,” attorney Adams told Law&Crime in a phone interview on Wednesday.

Dennis, he said, was seeking counseling before his children’s deaths for his substance use and PTSD. Adams said that like many people who experience PTSD, Dennis experienced sleep problems from nightmares. Adams maintained that this was a significant factor in what led to the child neglect.

Prosecutors said Dustin’s brother Michael Dennis pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance on July 29. He was sentenced on Monday to 18 months of probation. His attorney did not immediately respond to a Law&Crime request for comment.

[Booking photo via Tulsa County Jail]

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