Gun owner pleads guilty in boy’s shooting death

SAN DIEGO — A Scripps Ranch resident whose gun killed a neighbor boy as the fourth-grader and the defendant’s 9-year-old daughter played with it, pleaded guilty Monday to child endangerment charges.

Todd Francis, 56, faces up to four years in prison, with sentencing scheduled for April 8. Before reaching a plea deal with prosecutors, Francis faced more than  seven years in prison on charges of involuntary manslaughter and child abuse charges.

Todd Francis

Todd Francis weeps in court

The question of whether Francis’ firearm was loaded when the children found it is in dispute, said defense attorney Danna Cotman.

Cotman said Francis wanted to plead guilty to accept responsibility for his actions and spare everyone involved the trauma of a trial.

The attorney said her client also wanted a message to go out in connection with his plea.

“No matter how well you think you might have hidden your weapon or stored your ammunition, please never underestimate children, they will find things, and we really want to make sure that no one else gets harmed,” Cotman said. “So my client really wants to get the word out there, please secure all weapons in a locked, safe place, so that children can’t get them.”

San Diego police said  a 10-year-old boy was handling a 9 mm pistol in the defendant’s garage at a condominium complex in the 10900 block of Ivy Hill Drive last June 4, along with Francis’ 9-year-old daughter when the gun went off.

The Dingeman Elementary School student suffered a chest wound and died at Rady Children’s Hospital shortly afterward.

Deputy District Attorney Matthew Dix said prosecutors believe Francis’ gun was loaded when the children found it.

“She said, every time, that gun was loaded — they found it on the couch, loaded,” said Dix, referring to investigative interviews with Francis’ daughter.  “They began touching it and playing with it…and it went off.  There’s also DNA evidence that negates any argument that the kids had touched inside the gun – the magazine or the bullets.”

Francis’ wife, Susan, testified during a preliminary hearing last year that she got home about 3:30 p.m. and asked her 15-year-old son, Chad, to watch his younger sister while she ran an errand.

About 20 minutes later, she said she got a call from the teen, telling her to come back home because police were there and someone had been hurt.

Chad Francis testified he was upstairs using a computer and unaware that Eric had come over to play. The teenager testified that he had seen a gun case in the garage but never seen a gun.

Mark Jones testified that he was fixing a neighbor’s garage door about 4:15 p.m. when he heard a shot and saw the young girl running out of the Francis’ garage, screaming.

Jones said he saw the boy on the ground motionless and started CPR.

“There was a gun on a sofa,” Jones testified.

Jones said a 911 operator told him to remove the gun, which he did.

“I was concerned when I moved it, because it was cocked,” Jones testified.

A San Diego police officer testified that Todd Francis told him that the gun was hidden and was sure it wasn’t loaded. Francis told the officer that he should have secured the gun better.

“He said, ‘If that kid dies, I don’t want to live anymore,”’ the officer testified.

Detective Brett Burkett testified that the girl told him she “might have” fired the gun. The next day, Burkett said he heard the girl tell a social worker she found the gun on a couch in the garage.

“She said, ‘We were touching it and it shot. It shot him,”’ Burkett said.

Francis’ daughter said she had never seen the gun before and wasn’t sure if it was real. She said she didn’t put bullets in the gun, according to Burkett.