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Father Jailed for Manslaughter in Shooting Death of Son, 2

April 3, 2017

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Matthew D. Weintraub, 215.340.8159, mdweintraub@buckscounty.org

Wyllie Benjamin
         Nicholas Wyllie                     Benjamin Smith

The father of a 2-year-old boy who fatally shot himself last year with the father’s loaded, unsecured handgun was sent to prison today.

Nicholas Aaron Wyllie, 27, of Milford Township, pleaded guilty in Bucks County Common Pleas Court to involuntary manslaughter, endangering the welfare of a child and recklessly endangering another person in the Sept. 12 death of Benjamin Smith.

Judge C. Theodore Fritsch Jr. accepted a plea agreement calling for Wyllie to serve one day less than one year to one day less than two years in the Bucks County Correctional Facility. It was the maximum county prison sentence he could have received.

Benjamin Smith, who would have turned 3 this month, died of a bullet wound to the thorax from a .45 caliber semiautomatic handgun belonging to his father. The child apparently had been playing with the gun when it discharged.

Wyllie and his son had been watching TV in their family room when the toddler announced he was going up to his room to watch Winnie the Pooh. Shortly afterward, Wyllie told police, he heard a bang.

The boy had gone into his father’s bedroom and discovered the unattended handgun. Wylllie found him, still conscious, bleeding face-up on the floor. He carried the child downstairs, called 911 and performed chest compressions until first responders arrived.

Benjamin was taken to St. Luke’s Hospital in Quakertown, where he was pronounced dead at 11:40 a.m.

“There hasn’t been a day that’s gone by that I haven’t seen and relived that morning … every single thing that played out that morning,” Wyllie told Fritsch. “This is absolutely heartbreaking. That was my boy.”

Defense attorney John Fioravanti, calling his client “a nice young man who made a mistake,” said Wyllie is an Army veteran who works fulltime, has no criminal record, and cared deeply for his son.

District Attorney Matthew D. Weintraub did not dispute that description. But he emphasized that Wyllie’s recklessness and negligence – elements that define involuntary manslaughter – directly led to Benjamin’s death.

“This is a terrible tragedy, but it is also a crime,” Weintraub said. “This was a case that was 100 percent preventable. For the cost of a $3 trigger lock, Benjamin would still be here.”

The child’s survivors told police that the toddler was fascinated with guns, and had several toy guns of his own.

Not long before the shooting, Wyllie’s grandfather had warned him to put his weapons away “because Ben loves guns.” Wyllie assured him he would do so.

“You failed to protect your son … and the worst possible result occurred,” Fritsch told Wyllie. “You were a caring and loving father who tragically failed his son on this one occasion.”

In addition to the prison time, Fritsch sentenced Wyllie to three consecutive years of probation, during which he cannot own or possess firearms. He also must perform 30 hours of community service related to gun safety or parenting safety.

Wyllie said he already has been volunteering with a Philadelphia organization that distributes gun locks in the city. Since his son’s death, he said, he has distributed about 500 of the safety devices to others through that initiative.

Several relatives, including three grandparents and the child’s mother, Courtney Hotaling, remembered Benjamin emotionally in court. They told of a smart, happy boy who loved baseball, soccer, animals, Batman, Winnie the Pooh, Thomas the Tank Engine and ice cream; who brought smiles and energy to every day; who was kind even to children who were mean to him; and who sensed when adults were unhappy and tried to comfort them.

“Ben was so much for so many…” said Hotaling, who lived out of state when the shooting occurred. “His life was joyful through everything. That is simply the kind of person I wanted to bring up in this world.”

Of Wyllie, Hotaling told Fritsch: “I don’t think Nick is a bad person. It was an accident that should have been prevented, but wasn’t.”

Benjamin’s maternal grandmother, Janice Smith, said her life “has been destroyed” by the toddler’s death. “I see a boy of 2 or 3 playing and I end up crying all night,” she said. “I miss family functions because there are children Ben’s age there. I want Ben here; Ben should be here.”

Hotaling and Wyllie had been sorting through custody issues in court, and a hearing had been scheduled for the week that Benjamin was killed.

Hotaling “thought she was going to pick up her baby and bring him home,” Smith said. “But instead, on that exact day, she got his ashes.”

The case was investigated by the Pennsylvania State Police and the Bucks County Detectives, and prosecuted by Weintraub and Deputy District Attorney Lindsay E. Vaughan.

Approved for release by Thomas C. Gannon, Deputy District Attorney.

Office of the District Attorney
Bucks County Justice Center
100 N. Main Street
Doylestown, PA 18901 
Phone: 215-348-6344 
Fax: 215-348-6299

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