Mother of girl who died on I-5 returns to court

California Highway Patrol officers on an empty northbound Interstate 5 at Weldon Canyon Road after a pedestrian was struck and killed on the freeway Saturday morning. Dan Watson/The Signal

Veronda Gladney, the mother of a 7-year-old girl who was killed after falling out of a car window on Interstate 5, returned to court on Wednesday after having been charged with two counts of child abuse and one count of manslaughter.  

Gladney, 28, is now slated to return on Monday for a preliminary hearing — a procedure that involves a judge determining if there is enough evidence against the defendant for the case to be sent to trial.  

Gladney’s boyfriend, Michael Branch, 39, has also pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor charge of child abuse. Both Branch and Gladney were in the 1999 Lincoln Navigator, driving through the Newhall Pass on July 2, when Gladney’s daughter, Tanunekakah, fell out of the rear window.   

Gladney was driving the Navigator and Branch was a passenger when Tanunekakah was killed. Investigators said last week that they believed the 7-year-old girl had not been secured by a seat belt, car seat or booster, the latter of which is required by state law for any child under the age of 8.  

Free to move around, the young girl is thought to have climbed into the back of the vehicle and, just as the Navigator headed past Weldon Canyon Road, heading northbound on the I-5, Tanunekakah is believed to have fallen out of the back window due to it either being broken and/or unlocked.  

Tanunekakah was killed at approximately 3:40 a.m. after being struck by multiple vehicles, according to a CHP report. The 9-1-1 call that initially reported her death came from one of the drivers who hit her. The caller reported they had struck an unknown stationary object that was blocking the roadway, according to a CHP report.    

“The little girl fell out of the vehicle and I don’t think the parents maybe even realized it at first,” said Officer Josh Greengard, spokesman for the CHP Newhall Office. “But CHP did make contact with the mom and her boyfriend after they had returned to the scene.”   

Branch’s next court date is on July 27 at the Santa Clarita courthouse. If convicted, Gladney could face up to 16 years in prison. 

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