State Charges Dropped Against Okla. Dad Whose 2 Kids Died in Hot Car — But Feds Might Prosecute
Because 4-year-old Teagan and 3-year-old Ryan were members of the Cherokee tribe, the case is now being turned over to federal prosecutors
The charges against the father of two Oklahoma children who died in his hot truck last month have been dismissed and sent to federal prosecutors after a recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.
On Friday, Dustin Dennis, 31 was charged with second-degree murder for the June 13 deaths of 4-year-old Teagan and 3-year-old Ryan after their bodies were found in the back of his hot truck.
However, on Monday morning, Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler learned he would have to dismiss state charges against Dennis because the children were Cherokee citizens and their deaths no longer fell in his jurisdiction.
"This morning the question came up as to whether or not the children were members of the Cherokee tribe," Kunzweiler tells PEOPLE. "Their mother [Cheyenne Trent] confirmed and showed me verification, including a tribal membership card, for not only herself but her oldest child, and her youngest child was in the process of obtaining one for herself. So based on that I found that the state did not have jurisdiction of the case."
Kunzweiler's decision comes days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled almost half of Oklahoma — including Tulsa— is within a Native American reservation. Now the case rests in the hands of federal authorities — the first case affected by the Supreme Court ruling.
"My concerns lie with the mother of the victims," Kunzweiler says. "In my conversation with her, it was obvious that she has been really traumatized by the loss of her children and I cannot imagine the difficulties that she’s had, to not only process that but to try and understand the nuances associated with jurisdictional issues."
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At the time of his children's deaths, Dennis told police he went to a local QuikTrip with his children around noon on Saturday, and then went home to take a nap. When he awoke, he said he found the children dead on the floorboards of his truck.
Video surveillance discovered by investigators showed the two children getting into Dennis' truck on their own. However, authorities had "sufficient evidence" to move forward on the charges, Kunzweiler says, noting that he had hoped to present the evidence in court but now has to wait and see whether federal authorities plan on taking the case.
"All [Cheyenne Trent] knows is her children are dead and she’s trying to find justice for them," Kunzweiler says. "And we are trying to do everything we can to help her along that difficult path that she’s on."
The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment Monday on whether charges would be filed. Ryan and Teagan's mother could not be reached for comment.
An attorney for Dennis could not be identified.