FARMINGTON — The obvious injuries to 4-year-old Ethan Stacy did not cause his death.
Instead his death was classified a homicide due to a combination of drug toxicity, scalding injuries and aspiration pneumonia, Utah deputy chief medical examiner Edward Leis testified Friday. The doctor's testimony came during the third and likely final day of a hearing on the evidence against Nathan Sloop, 34, the boy's stepfather, who is facing capital murder and other charges in the boy's death.
Leis said the boy had some obvious second- and third-degree burns, bruising to his head and legs and lacerations to his head, but said those injuries did not cause his death, as the lacerations were caused after death and the bruises were not serious.
The burns, however, could have led to dehydration, of which the boy showed signs. Leis said the burns were on the boy's feet and thighs, as though he had been crouching in the scalding water. The burns would have been caused by either exposure to temperatures of 150 degrees or more or lower temperatures for a longer period.
Leis said the boy would not have simply stepped into scalding water and received such injuries. The burns he received would have required medical treatment.
Aspiration pneumonia, he said, is caused by an inhalation of foreign materials into the lungs, potentially vomit, or as prosecutors suggested, fecal matter that the boy allegedly was forced to eat, according to prior police testimony.
Prosecutor David Cole said Ethan was scalded, beaten, overmedicated and not given the medical care that he needed.
That also may have caused dehydration, Leis said, which was exacerbated by a lack of food in the boy's stomach. Defense attorney Scott Williams argued that the lack of food could have been caused by vomiting, as Nathan and Stephanie Sloop contended that they thought Ethan was ill.
Williams also questioned Leis about the drugs found in the boy's system, most of which, Leis said, could be found in over-the-counter children's medications. However, there was also evidence of alprazolam, or the drug found in Xanax, in the boy's body.
Williams pointed out that there was no way of knowing how the drug got into the boy's system, simply that it was ingested at some point. He also questioned whether the drugs would appear to have their desired effects, externally, while causing problems internally, which Leis said was possible.
Sloop has contended that he and his wife, the child's mother, Stephanie Sloop, found the boy dead the morning of May 8 and, afraid of going to prison, decided to disfigure and bury the boy's body. Days later, they called and reported the boy missing, before Nathan Sloop ultimately led police to where the boy was buried in the Powder Mountain area of Weber County.
Prosecutors believe the boy was abused shortly after he came to Utah to visit his mother on April 28, 2010, until his death on May 8, 2010. Prosecutor David Cole said Ethan was scalded, beaten, overmedicated and not given the medical care that he needed.
Defense attorneys argue that the boy's death was an accident caused by an overmedication of over-the-counter drugs.
The boy was sent to visit his mother in 2010 for the summer as part of a custody agreement.
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In phone calls with his mother and ex-wife played in court Thursday, Nathan Sloop said he believed Ethan's father had taught the child to misbehave in an effort to hurt Stephanie Sloop. He told police that Stephanie Sloop thought that her ex-husband, Joe Stacy, "destroyed my boy" and told Nathan Sloop to "teach him to be a man" by beating him or "whatever it took to get her boy back."
Sloop told police he would discipline the boy, usually by slapping or spanking him, but didn't think it amounted to abuse. He also told police in transcripts read in court that Ethan's death was an accident.
But prosecutors have pointed to conversations in which Nathan Sloop called the boy "poison" and said that, after Ethan's arrival, the couple's relationship went down "like a battleship." Sloop told his mother in one recorded phone call from jail that he destroyed two women's lives, apparently referring to his mother and Stephanie Sloop, "because I wanted to get laid more."
Prosecutors also pointed to a timeline — shown in text messages, surveillance videos and other evidence — that showed that the couple buried the child on May 8, then sent each other messages about their sex life, visited their favorite restaurants and cleaned up their apartment. Stephanie Sloop called to report that her son was missing May 11.
Prosecutors have indicated their intention to seek the death penalty against Nathan Sloop, who is also facing charges of obstructing justice and intentionally inflicting serious injury on a child, second-degree felonies; desecration of a dead body and damaging a jail, third-degree felonies.
They have not stated whether they will also seek the death penalty against the boy's mother. Stephanie Sloop, 30, is facing similar charges to Nathan Sloop except for the damaging a jail charge. Her next court appearance is scheduled for April.