The man whose toddler granddaughter slipped from his grasp and fell to her death out of a cruise ship window last July says he’s pleading guilty to help end the “nightmare” he and his family have endured since the tragedy.
Eighteen-month-old Chloe Wiegand fell more than 10 stories from a window in a children’s play area of Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas ship. Her grandfather, Salvatore Anello, 51, who was holding her up on a railing adjacent to the large open window before she fell, will plead guilty to negligent homicide charges filed by authorities in Puerto Rico, where the tragedy took place.
“I took a plea deal today to try to help end part of this nightmare for my family, if possible,” Anello said in a statement posted on the website of his family’s attorney, Michael Winkleman.
Prosecutors had said Anello “negligently exposed the child to the abyss through a window on the 11th floor” of the cruise ship while it was docked in San Juan.
But Anello and Chloe’s parents have always maintained the tragedy was an accident and not a crime.
The family’s lawyer, Michael Winkleman, previously told PEOPLE Anello put Chloe up on a wood railing beside what he thought was a wall of closed windows, unaware that a sliding window was open. Winkleman said Chloe liked to bang on glass panels at her older brother’s hockey games, and when she went to bang on what appeared to be closed windows, she fell.
In agreeing to a plea deal, Anello will avoid any jail time and doesn’t admit the facts presented against him by prosecutors, Winkleman says.
In his statement, Anello said, “I wasn’t drinking and I wasn’t dangling her out of a window. I just wanted to knock on the glass with her as we did together so many times before. I was just so horribly wrong about our surroundings. I was placed in charge of keeping my beautiful granddaughter safe and I failed. It will always be a constant nightmare every day and every night for the rest of my life.”
PEOPLE’s request for comment from Anello’s criminal attorney, Jose Perez, was not immediately returned.
Family’s Wrongful Death Suit Will Proceed: Lawyer
The family has filed a wrongful death civil suit against Royal Caribbean, which will proceed despite Anello’s plea.
The plea deal “has little to no effect on the civil case,” which was filed by Chloe’s parents, Winkleman says. “[Anello] is not a party to the civil case, so this plea is irrelevant.”
Winkleman previously told PEOPLE that all windows comprising the wall of windows were closed except for the one Chloe fell out of.
“The windows were not compliant with window-fall prevention codes, designed to prevent children from falling out of windows,” Winkleman told PEOPLE.
In a motion to dismiss the suit filed Jan. 8 and obtained by PEOPLE, Royal Caribbean, citing a closed-circuit video taken of the accident, claimed Anello knew the window was open.
“Because Mr. Anello had himself leaned out the window, he was well aware that the window was open,” the motion said. “In addition, the windows in question consist of greenish-tinted glass making it open and obvious where a window is open versus closed.”
In a statement to PEOPLE responding to the cruise line’s motion, Winkleman said, “Royal Caribbean has premised its defense in this case and its blame on Chloe’s grandfather by supplying two deceptive views from its CCTV cameras to the court and the Puerto Rico authorities.”
Grandfather Misses Girl ‘Beyond Measure’
In his statement, Anello recounted the “horrible day” of Chloe’s death and said he was “focused on Chloe the whole time I was with her.
“As walked with her I also saw that the ship deck was surrounded by a wall of glass. In my experience, any elevated public place I’ve been with that much glass has always been a protective barrier. Whether it’s the hockey rink at Notre Dame where the glass not only provides a barrier between the fans and a hockey puck but also provides a barrier between their two rinks for which fans can lean in and view the Olympic rink below. Or the 15-story building I work in where the glass is firmly affixed preventing accidents like this.
“From my point of view, at the moment the accident happened, it was as if this wall of protective glass disappeared. I was in complete disbelief. It was a nightmare of the likes I could never have imagined before.”
The statement added, “Going forward, justice for Chloe must include attention being given to provide the safety measures so very needed on Freedom of the Sea. We need to make sure nothing like this will ever happen to another precious baby, or anyone else for that matter, ever again. There are clear safety measures that the cruise line has demonstrated they know are necessary by implementing them on other ships but have neglected on this one.
The statement added, “I love you and miss you, Chloe, beyond measure.”