Medical examiner: Ethan Stacy died of burns, drugs and pneumonia

Published: Friday, March 29 2013 1:05 p.m. MDT

Defense lawyer Scott Williams questions witness in Nathan Sloop's preliminary trial in 2nd District Court in Farmington Friday March 29. Sloop is charged with the May 2010 death of his stepson, 4-year-old Ethan Stacy.

Al Hartmann

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 scalding injuries, drug toxicity and aspiration pneumonia, Utah deputy chief medical examiner Edward Leis testified Friday.

The boy suffered some obvious second- and third-degree burns, bruising to his head and legs and lacerations to his head, but Leis said those injuries did not cause his death. The lacerations were caused after he died 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 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 of time.

Ethan would not have simply stepped into scalding water and received such injuries, he said, adding that the burns he received would have required medical treatment.

The doctor's testimony came during the third day of a preliminary hearing for Nathan Sloop, 34, the boy's stepfather who is accused of killing him. One more witness, a burn expert, is scheduled to testify on April 19 and a judge will likely decide then whether he's heard enough evidence to order Sloop to stand trial for capital murder and other charges.

Leis said aspiration pneumonia 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.                                                

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.

David Andrenyak, a toxicologist from the University of Utah, listed the substances found in Ethan's system, including Xanax and substances indicative of Benadryl and Tylenol. The medications appeared to have been administered in adult doses. 

Still, Andrenyak said none of the drugs, on their own, would have caused the boy's death. 

"There was no one single drug detected in the blood samples from Ethan where the concentration was high enough to say it was a clear-cut drug overdose," Andrenyak said. 

He said the boy had other medical issues that would have played a part in the child's death. "There were other factors ... in addition to the drugs," Andrenyak said. "Those things would definitely have to be considered as we look at the whole picture of how Ethan may have died."

Prosecutor David Cole questioned whether Benadryl seemed like an appropriate medication to address Ethan's burned skin, which at some point he said was described as "falling off."

"I would suspect that if someone was seriously injured, they would take other action and not administer over-the-counter medication," Andrenyak said.    

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