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Man Gets Decades in Prison After Blaming Toddler’s Blunt Force Death on ‘Choking on a Piece of Chicken’

Jhonny Junior Salvatore Suarez Rivera appears in a mugshot

Jhonny Junior Salvatore Suarez Rivera

An Iowa man was sentenced to spend five decades in state prison this week over the August 2020 death of a toddler in his care.

In September 2022, Jhonny Junior Salvator Suarez Rivera, 27, entered an Alford plea on one count of child endangerment resulting in death. As part of his plea deal, one additional charge of first-degree murder was dropped by prosecutors in Franklin County.

An Alford plea allows criminal defendants to maintain their innocence on the facts of an allegation while simultaneously accepting that the state’s evidence against them would likely be enough to convince a judge or jury of their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

As Law&Crime previously reported, Rivera was the sole caretaker in charge of his then-girlfriend’s 23-month-old boy – volunteering to watch the toddler on the morning of Aug. 1, 2020.

The defendant began watching the child around 6:00 a.m. that day. Hours later, around 3:45 p.m., Rivera took the boy to Franklin General Hospital because of “a medical emergency,” according to a criminal complaint and affidavit filed in Franklin County District Court.

“Lifesaving intervention was attempted by medical staff, but was unsuccessful,” the court document says – identifying the child by his initials. “[The boy] was pronounced dead at 4:50 p.m.”

An autopsy was performed two days later. According to the Iowa State Medical Examiner’s Office, the boy’s cause of death was found to be “multiple blunt force injuries” and the manner of death was ruled a homicide.

Citing what they called the suspicious nature of the child’s injuries, hospital personnel called the City of Hampton Police Department to report the toddler’s death. An investigation ensued.

In a subsequent interview with law enforcement, Rivera said he had been the boy’s caretaker over the course of the last year and admitted that he was in charge of the victim on the day in question.

“Rivera was unable to provide any explanation for [the boy’s] injuries other than possibly choking on a piece of chicken and throwing a tantrum,” the affidavit goes on to say.

Police wrote that Rivera was charged with first-degree murder because he “had malice aforethought, and committed an assault and showed an extreme indifference to human life.”

The sentencing came after a series of delays in the case.

According to Mason City, Iowa-based CBS and MyNetworkTV affiliate KIMT, after the defense and prosecution agreed on the contours of the plea deal, Rivera’s sentencing was originally scheduled for Dec. 16, 2022.  Instead, as the Globe Gazette reported, the court merely accepted the plea in December of last year.

The defendant received the maximum punishment for the charge to which he pleaded – a class B felony. Under Iowa law, such felonies are typically subject to a maximum 25-year sentence, however, child endangerment resulting in death has a statutory carveout that allows for a maximum 50-year sentence.

Suarez Rivera must serve between 30% and 70% of his sentence before he is eligible for parole.

Law&Crime reached out to the Franklin County Attorney’s Office for comment and additional details on this story, but no response was immediately forthcoming as of time of publication.

Jerry Lambe contributed to this report.

[image via Hampton Police Department]

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