Published July 20. 2014 4:00AM
Brian Pavao sat on the front step of a Groton apartment Friday evening, gently bouncing on his knee the 7-month-old baby he put in grave danger when he left her in the car in the ShopRite parking lot in New London on the afternoon of July 1.
Laughing nervously, like he said he did after a police officer told him Sage was alive and breathing, the 33-year-old janitor and deli clerk recounted the events that led up to the terrifying moment when he realized the rescue equipment outside the grocery store was for his tiny daughter.
"The only thing that came out of my mouth was, 'No! No! No! No! No!'" he remembered.
In his distracted, daydreamy way, he had wandered around the grocery store for an estimated half an hour, he said, without the slightest clue that he had left Sage sleeping in her car seat with just one window cracked open a few inches. While the temperature inside the Honda Fit climbed, Pavao was in the air-conditioned store picking out the London broil and corn on the cob that were on sale that week, texting with his girlfriend to make sure he had the right items, and grabbing a few other things for the upcoming holiday weekend.
A New London police officer who responded to a 911 call found Sage buckled in her car seat, soaked in sweat. She was taken to Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, where those who assessed the child told police she did not appear to have suffered any serious injuries, according to the police report. Police said the temperature in the car had reached 130 degrees. It was about 76 degrees outside at the time.
Not a minute has gone by since that day that Pavao has not beaten himself up, he said.
"I've said over and over, 'I can't believe it. How could I do this?'" Pavao said.
He's also suffered some external punishment in the aftermath. Charged with risk of injury to a minor, a Class C felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison, he spent two weeks at the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center until the baby's mother, family and friends came up with the $2,000 or so needed to secure a $25,000 bond. Judge Kevin P. McMahon had commented when he set the bond that he hoped to prevent a tragedy by showing others the high cost of leaving kids in hot cars.
The incident has left Pavao unemployed and unable to support his four dependent children in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Texas. A representative from Mystic Aquarium, where he had worked as a janitor, left a message on his cellphone on July 2 - the day after the incident - saying he was being terminated for "lack of judgment," that his check would be in the mail and he should turn in his employee badge.
His boss at the Big Y, where he worked in the deli, told him he was suspended pending the outcome of his court case.
Sage's mother, 27-year-old Lynsey Coburn, said she was wild when she heard Pavao had left the baby in the car, but that she quickly realized how it had happened. Sitting on the front porch of her apartment with her mother, daughter and Pavao Friday, she played the frantic cellphone message that he left in the immediate aftermath of the incident. She said he has never cried like that during their four-year relationship.
"He wrote me a letter (from jail) and kept going over that day in his head and repeating it and wishes he could go back," she said. "Between his ADHD and the fact that he never has the kids alone, I could totally understand why he would forget."
Pavao, who tends to be easily distracted, rarely takes either Sage or Coburn's older son in the car, but he does spend a lot of time with both kids, she said. Sometimes he is even more protective than she with the children, Coburn said.
"He's such a good guy," she said. "He's such a loving father. The fact that they were making him out to be someone horrible, it broke my heart."
Coburn was working at her part-time job on July 1 and asked Pavao to drop off a friend at a medical appointment in New London. She asked him also to pick up a few items at ShopRite, a store to which he had never been.
Like most people, Pavao never thought it could happen to him. He and Coburn had talked about the disturbing phenomenon of babies left in hot cars just a few weeks ago, after seeing a public service message on Facebook about a child who died after her distracted mother left her in the car while she ran errands.
"How would you forget your kid in the car?" they said to one another. "How would you do that? It's your child."
Then it happened to Pavao, who said he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder as a child but has not been on medication since his teens. Pavao, who said he has had trouble finding full-time work because employers don't want to pay for health insurance, said he can't afford the $200 to $500 a month that just one of the drugs would cost.
Pulling into a parking space at the store, Pavao said he was listening to loud music with all the windows open because the air conditioner has not been working right. He said a woman in the car next to him gave him a dirty look, so he closed the two front windows. Earlier, he said he had opened the back window just 3 or 4 inches because he didn't want too much wind to blow onto his daughter, buckled into her car seat on the passenger side.
As he prepared to put his cellphone into his back pocket and get out of the car, the phone vibrated, Pavao said.
"It was Lynsey," he said. "She said, 'Do you know what you need to get at the store?' I said, 'No.' I chuckled, and I just continued into the store."
While his case is pending, Pavao is attending a court-ordered parenting program and a program called ASSIST in which his mental health is being evaluated. He said the one good thing that might come out of the incident is that he will get some help for his ADHD. The state Department of Children and Families is involved in the case and has said he can't be alone with Sage or Coburn's son for now.