Norfolk man convicted in 2-year-old girl’s scalding death sentenced to 35 years

A Norfolk man was sentenced Friday to 35 years in prison for severely scalding his girlfriend’s 2-year-old daughter, then failing to seek medical help for her — until shortly before she died — because he feared going back to prison.

The term issued to John Tucker Hardee by Circuit Judge Jack Doyle was six years longer than the maximum recommended by state sentencing guidelines for Hardee’s role in the 2018 death of Harley Williams. The guidelines suggest a punishment range based on the circumstances of a crime and the defendant’s background.

Hardee, 38, was convicted of second-degree murder, felony child neglect and malicious wounding at the end of a two-day trial last summer in Norfolk Circuit Court. Harley’s mother, Shelby Love, pleaded guilty in 2020 to felony homicide and child neglect for her involvement in the girl’s death, and is scheduled to be sentenced next month.

“The defendant blames everyone else for this child’s death other than himself,” Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Cynthia Collard said while asking for a sentence above the guidelines. “He did admit to one thing — that he has a history of anger issues and that much is clear.”

Love testified during Hardee’s trial that, at the time of the incident, she and Hardee had been living together for about two months and that she frequently left her daughter with him while she was at work.

On the afternoon of April 23, Love said she was leaving work when she got a text from Hardee that said, “I’m going to prison.” She responded by sending a text with three question marks, then tried to call Hardee, but he didn’t answer.

When she arrived at their Ocean View apartment, she said Harley was lying on Hardee and shaking. The girl had deep red burns over a large portion of her body, and her skin was blistered and starting to slough off.

Hardee told Love he was preparing to bathe Harley when he stepped out of the bathroom to make a call. He said Harley turned the water on while he was out of the room. Love said she wanted to call 911, but Hardee wouldn’t let her because he was concerned he’d go to prison. She also said he threatened to kill her, and had been abusive to her ever since she and Harley moved in.

Fearing what he might do, she said she agreed not to call for help and the two began trying to treat Harley on their own with petroleum jelly, a pain-relieving cream that contained lidocaine, gauze bandages, children’s Tylenol and apple cider vinegar. Eleven hours after Harley was first injured — and she began to have seizures — Hardee finally called 911. The girl was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters.

The pathologist who performed the autopsy determined Harley died from complications of scalding. The pathologist also found several bruises on the girl and two large abrasions on her scalp. A forensic toxicologist testified she had a toxic amount of lidocaine that could have contributed to her death.

A pediatric abuse specialist determined the burns, which covered more than 40% of Harley’s body, were the result of her lying in scalding hot water. The expert also said there was a strong likelihood the girl would have survived if treatment had been sought sooner.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t wish we didn’t made different decisions,” Hardee told the judge before the sentence was handed down, while also blaming a faulty hot water heater for the girl’s burns. “If I’m guilty of anything, it’s for taking my eyes off of her.”

Doyle said one of the most tragic aspects of the case is that Harley could have survived if she’d been taken to a hospital sooner, and blamed Hardee’s “extreme selfish motivations” for the girl’s death.

Hardee was previously convicted of child abuse in 2013 in Virginia Beach. He pleaded guilty to felony child neglect for severely beating his 14-month-old son, was sentenced to three years in prison, 12 years of probation and was ordered to have no unsupervised contact with children.

Jane Harper, jane.harper@pilotonline.com