Investigators found family's home in 'atrocious' condition after hot car death

After an infant died in a hot car Saturday evening on Tunnel Boulevard, investigators found the family's home in what they called "atrocious" condition.

One room in their 13th Street Court apartment was covered in feces and urine, there was only one bed and one crib and the refrigerator was "basically empty with no food for the children inside," a police report states.

The child's mother, Jessica Tollett, told investigators she and the father, Travis McCullough, had lived in the home with their three children for about a year. The children's ages and sexes have not been released.

McCullough, 30, was jailed on a $1 million bond Sunday, charged with criminal homicide and three counts of aggravated child neglect. Hamilton County Sheriff's Office records show he also was charged with child abuse/neglect in 2012, and with drug- and weapons- related charges in 2007.

Tollett, 24, was charged with three counts of aggravated child abuse/neglect. She was also charged in 2012 for child abuse and neglect.

The two surviving children, who investigators said showed signs of neglect, malnutrition and possible abuse, will be taken into Child Protective Services custody once they've been medically cleared, Chattanooga police spokeswoman Elisa Myzal said Sunday.

A "good Samaritan" driving by the Buffalo Shack hot-wings truck heard McCullough yell for help Saturday evening, according to the police affidavit. When she got out of her car, he "tossed the lifeless victim who was completely unclothed into her arms and immediately fled the scene in his vehicle," the report states.

The child was dead when EMS personnel arrived. When they took the infant's temperature, the thermometer read 106 degrees. Temperatures Saturday reached 89 degrees.

McCullough's father, Daniel Evans, owns the Buffalo Shack. He told police his son asked him for $20 gas money, and he told McCullough he could work at the shack to earn cash.

Evans said he went to sleep for more than five hours while McCullough ran the business alone. He said the car's windows were closed and he had no idea children were inside. He told police McCullough had tried to come to work before with the children in the car, but he would always send him home.

Tollett told investigators McCullough had all three children when he dropped her off at work that morning at the Walmart Neighborhood Market on North Moore Road.

Investigators aren't sure whether the two other children were in the car all the time, or how they survived if they were.

McCullough was interviewed at the Police Services Center before he was arrested.

"After answering a few questions, Dad lawyered up," said Myzal. "It was not established whether he let them out, they got out or left for a time."

Police do know McCullough took the other two children with him when he fled. Myzal said "he left, went over to the gas station, got gas in his car" and took the children to a family member, who then brought the children back to the scene.

The arrest affidavit said both children were dirty and smelled strongly of urine. One child had visible bruising to both eyes and an abrasion on his forehead.

At the hospital, medical personnel found multiple scars and healing wounds on one child's back, buttocks and legs, including a mark that appeared to be caused by a belt or similar object. The other child was still wearing pull-up diapers and was nonverbal. Results are pending for a bone scan and drug screening.

When given food, both children were "very protective" of the food, as though they had not eaten recently, the report states.

Tollett told investigators the family gets $649 per month in food stamps, but they were running low this month and would not get more money until the 17th.

She also told investigators she and McCullough used a belt to punish the children, but said she did not know where the marks on one child came from or how he got the black eyes.

She also said the other child had not been to the doctor since he was 2 years old, even though he had obvious developmental delays.

Jan Null, a research meteorologist at San Jose State University, studies the dynamics of how hot vehicles can get and tracks heatstroke deaths of children in vehicles.

"With an afternoon outside air temperature of approximately 90 degrees, the inside air temperature of the car could have been more than 140 degrees," she wrote in an email Sunday. "Objects or a person inside the car in direct sunlight would have been significantly hotter."

Null said if the infant died of heatstroke it would be the 19th pediatric vehicular heatstroke death nationwide in 2017. Last year, 39 children died in hot cars nationwide, with none in Tennessee, she said.

Sunday's charges come less than two weeks after a Soddy-Daisy couple was charged with aggravated child abuse and 15 counts of animal cruelty. Authorities said they locked three children in two separate rooms with trash and feces and hoarded malnourished animals, as well as kept dead ones in their freezer.

Not long before that, on June 13, investigators said a 5-year-old developmentally challenged boy was locked in a room and harnessed to a bolt in the floor of a home in Evansville, Tenn., for several months.

The defendants in that case were charged under the 2005 Tennessee statute known as Haley's Law. Under the law, the charge of aggravated child abuse and aggravated child neglect or endangerment becomes a Class A felony when it involves a victim 8 years old or younger or one who is "mentally defective, mentally incapacitated or suffers from a physical disability," the law states.

Class A felonies in Tennessee carry a penalty of 15 to 60 years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000, according to state law.