Karey Jaeger didn't take her son, Tyler, to day care Friday because she worried that other children might play too rough while he was recovering from a serious head injury.
Instead, the single mother left the 22-month-old boy in the care of her boyfriend at her Newport Beach home, and went to her job as a special-education teacher, neighbors said. That was the last time Jaeger saw Tyler alive.
Police arrested Jaeger's boyfriend after the toddler was pronounced dead Friday at Hoag Hospital, just eight days after the boy was admitted to the same hospital with a fractured skull.
Brian Laudenback, a 32-year-old house painter who lived with Jaeger, was arrested on suspicion of corporal punishment or injury to a child, and released Saturday after posting $10,000 bail, police said. A police spokesman said Friday that more serious charges may be filed after an autopsy report.
"How could this happen to a perfect mother?" asked Jaeger's next-door neighbor and friend, Carole Delbrook. "She lived her whole life for Tyler. Everything she did, she did for him. We're just devastated."
Leonard Laudenback, Brian's father, said his son was arrested because he had spanked Tyler on Thursday, the day before the boy died. Tyler's death, he surmised, likely was due to complications from the previous head injury.
The Orange County coroner's office conducted an autopsy early Saturday, but the cause of Tyler's death was not released.
"Brian's the baby-sitter for everyone," said the elder Laudenback, a dentist. "He loved the boy and the lady, and she loved him."
On Saturday morning, Jaeger's small, white house stood empty, just a few blocks from the beach. The front yard was bare of Tyler's toys; Delbrook's husband had stored them in a garage for safekeeping.
Next door, Delbrook talked about Friday's events as her own 14-month-old daughter, Camille, happily splashed water in a blue inflatable pool.
Laudenback had gone to Jaeger's house and put Tyler down for a nap Friday morning, she said. Jaeger had left for work in the San Gabriel Valley city of Glendora, where she teaches youths with disabilities. Later, Laudenback walked next door and asked to borrow the Delbrooks' car, she said.
"He said: 'Tyler's acting kind of funny, I've got to take him to the doctor.' " She offered to drive. When Delbrook saw the toddler's yellow, jaundiced skin, she said she knew something was wrong. She sped through traffic to get Tyler and Laudenback to the hospital, but physicians could not revive the child.
Earlier, on March 18, Tyler had to be taken to the hospital for a large bump on his head that turned out to be a fractured skull. He got the injury while Jaeger was at work and Laudenback was baby-sitting, neighbors said. They said Laudenback reported that Tyler had slipped off a plastic table, hitting his head.
Police said the injuries were consistent with such a fall, so the hospital released the boy to his mother March 20.
Tyler had bruises on his face from that fall, Carole Delbrook said.
Police said that on Friday he had additional bruises on his backside.
Neighbors described Laudenback, a former bartender at Newport Beach and Balboa nightspots, as someone who seemed to like children and was liked by children in return. It is a tightknit neighborhood, they said, with many young families who often look after each other's children.
Jaeger had made several friends in the area since moving there in November, and they described her as a dedicated mother. She began dating Laudenback in late December, they added.
Marcie Madsen, a neighbor, said Tyler could often be heard crying and was sometimes fussy, but she never heard the couple argue or yell at the boy. Often, Jaeger would play catch with Tyler outside.
"I never saw her without him," Madsen said.
John Delbrook, Carole's husband, remembered Tyler fondly. "When I came home every day, he would stand at the front gate and say 'Hi John. Hi John. Bye John. Bye John,' " he said.
His daughter and Tyler used to play together, and Jaeger often joined her neighbors to take the children to zoos and parks. On Saturday, Carole Delbrook held a photograph, in which Tyler wore red high-top shoes and laughed as his light-brown hair poked out from under a Mickey Mouse baseball cap turned backward.
Tyler likely will be buried at sea, Carole Delbrook said sadly, citing a talk she had with Jaeger earlier in the morning. "He just loved the ocean."