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Ethan didn't have to die

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
  • Bob Greene: Ethan, 4, died on custody visit to mother and her boyfriend
  • Father said Ethan did not want to go; father did not want to send him, Greene writes
  • Boy's disfigured body found, police say mother and boyfriend's story fell apart

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose book "Late Edition: A Love Story" will be published in a new paperback edition this week.

(CNN) -- When 4-year-old Ethan Stacy was reluctantly sent off to spend the summer with his mother late last month, he was in effect being given a death sentence.

The child never had a chance. He was dead within two weeks of arriving at the apartment in Layton, Utah, where his mother lived with her fiancé.

What could have been done to save him?

"I don't have a good answer for you," Layton police Lt. Garret Atkin, one of many law enforcement officers in Davis County, Utah, who are grieving for the boy who lived among them so briefly, told me.

The facts of what happened to Ethan speak for themselves:

He was living with his father, Joe G. Stacy, in Richlands, Virginia. Stacy and his estranged wife, Stephanie, were involved in divorce proceedings. The divorce was being adjudicated in Florida, where they had lived before she moved west.

Joe Stacy, in a divorce court filing last November, warned of his fears.

His estranged wife was "unstable," he wrote to the court: "The mother has abandoned the child and I'm afraid the mother will come and take him and I'll never see him again."

But the judge in the divorce case, Maura T. Smith, told The Associated Press that she never read the filing. Judge Smith said that Ethan's parents had worked out a settlement, including shared custody, and that the finalization of their divorce last month was "cut and dried."

Part of the decree was that Ethan would live with his dad during the school year, and with his mother during the summer.

The child reportedly did not want to go to Utah with her. "I did not want him to go, and he didn't want to go at all," Joe Stacy told the Salt Lake Tribune. "He kept telling me he didn't want to go."

But in late April, the divorce agreement newly in effect, the boy was put on a plane to fly to Utah with his mother.

What allegedly happened next is described in affidavits prepared by the Layton Police Department:

Ethan, his mother and her fiancé, Nathan Sloop, began living in their Layton home.

On May 5, Nathan Sloop, 31, took the 4-year-old child into a bedroom and began slapping and hitting him on the face and head, police said. Ethan's face began to swell. Police said his mother did not alert anyone or seek medical attention for her son.

On May 6, the couple went to the county courthouse in Farmington, Utah, to get married. They did not bring Ethan with them. The reason, according to police, was that they were "afraid to take him out in public with the swelling and bruising to his face," because they thought that if anyone saw Ethan's injuries, they would call authorities.

So, police detectives said, they removed the inside doorknob of the bedroom where they left Ethan, so he could not get out.

For the next three days, police said, Ethan was vomiting, was lethargic, had a fever, and was not able to eat. His symptoms were consistent with a possible brain injury. Instead of trying to help the child, Nathan Sloop engaged in "a systematic and progressively more violent pattern of abuse."

But no one knew. Joe Stacy had called his son every day after the child had been sent to Utah, but he told the Salt Lake Tribune that beginning on May 5, his former wife began to make excuses on the phone for why the boy could not talk to him. "I never did get a call back," Stacy told the paper.

On May 7, police said, Stephanie Sloop returned home from shopping to find that Ethan had been scalded on his feet, legs and buttocks. Nathan Sloop said the boy had burned himself in the bathtub.

Joe Stacy continued to try to call his son, but to no avail.

On May 9 -- Mother's Day -- Ethan was found dead in his bed.

Police said that Nathan and Stephanie Sloop did not notify anyone, but instead began "to formulate a plan to dispose of the body and deceive law enforcement."

The couple, according to police, wrapped garbage bags around the child's body and drove to Powder Mountain.

Police said Nathan Sloop took a hammer to Ethan's face and teeth, in an effort to make him unrecognizable should anyone ever find him. The boy was then buried.

Late the next night, Stephanie Sloop reported the child missing. She told the Layton police that Ethan had walked away from home. Some 40 officers, in foul weather, searched for the child. But before long the Sloops' story began to fall apart. Late on the afternoon of May 11, officers digging in the mud recovered his body.

Nathan and Stephanie Sloop are being held in the Davis County Jail. He is being held on suspicion of aggravated murder, felony child abuse, obstruction of justice and desecration of a corpse. She is being held on suspicion of felony child abuse, obstruction of justice and desecration of a corpse.

The Davis County prosecutor, Troy Rawlings, told me that he will file formal charges by next Friday, when the Sloops are scheduled to appear in court.

The body of Ethan Stacy, who had never wanted to leave his father in the first place, was flown back to Virginia last week. That is where, with summer coming, he was buried, this time with dignity and with love.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.