FARMINGTON — Nathan Sloop and his new wife, Stephanie, believed they needed to "break" her 4-year-old son, Ethan Stacy.
The discussion was part of a series of disturbing text messages between the couple that was read in 2nd District Court Wednesday during the first day of a three-day preliminary hearing for Nathan Sloop, 34. Both face capital murder and other charges in the boy's death.
"I told you we had a pit bull on our hands, but they learn," Nathan Sloop messaged Stephanie Sloop on May 3, 2010.
"Just like Mommy LOL," she replied.
"I told you we had to break his ego," Nathan Sloop said.
Later, on May 5: "He is broke that's for sure," Nathan Sloop wrote. "We got to figure out how to keep him in his room."
Six days later, the boy's body was found buried in the mountains of Weber County.
Prosecutor David Cole said it was Sloops' "reckless indifference to human life" that caused the boy's death. He said Ethan was scalded, beaten, overmedicated and not given the medical care that he needed.
But defense attorneys told 2nd District Judge Glen Dawson for the first time on Wednesday that Ethan didn't die of severe abuse, but because of dehydration from overmedication.
The 4-year-old Layton boy was given too much Benadryl, Tylenol and decongestant, attorney Richard Mauro said.
Nathan Sloop wasn't on the stand Wednesday, but his own words were read and played in court from recorded phone calls, taped police interviews and transcripts of interviews.
In phone calls with his mother and ex-wife played in court, Nathan Sloop claimed that 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."
"Stephanie didn't want to discipline him," Sloop said in one police interview. "She would go out and smoke a cigarette and say, 'You take care of him.'"
Nathan Sloop told police he would slap the child, make him stand with his nose against the wall and once pushed him into scalding water. The boy's mother, he said, would also yell and hit him.
"Stephanie, she has a very, very nasty, angry side," Sloop told officers in one video.
Sloop described an incident involving both him and Stephanie putting feces into Ethan's mouth after the boy smeared it on Nathan Sloop. He also said he never took the child to the emergency room, intervened in any of Stephanie Sloop's alleged beatings or reported the beatings.
"(Ethan) had seen things and heard things that a 4-year-old, 5-year-old boy should never see or hear," Nathan Sloop said.
Just a week before his death in May of 2010, Ethan arrived in Utah from Virginia to spend the summer with his mother and her then-fiance as the terms of her divorce required. Ethan's father, Joe Stacy, had expressed concerns about sending him to Utah, saying in court documents that the boy's mother was "unstable" and he feared she would "take him and I'll never see him again."
In one recorded phone conversation, Sloop's ex-wife reminded Sloop that he had described Ethan as "a poltergeist." He also told his mother in a jail phone call that the child was "poison" that sunk his relationship with Stephanie Sloop "like a battleship."
He said the boy was disobedient and misbehaved, often sneaking from his room and turning on video games or going to the refrigerator.
Photos of the boy en route to Utah showed no obvious injuries, but photos taken once he was in Utah showed redness and swelling, said Layton Police Sgt. Jeff Roderick. He said there were also traces of blood found on the wall of Ethan's room, believed to be from the boy's nose rubbing against the wall.
In one short video, Ethan is seen with his hair mussed and in his pajamas. "I'm having fun with Nathan," he said. "He's not scary anymore."
Prosecutors zoomed in on the boy's face, where there was some redness on one of his cheeks.
In an audio recording played in court, Nathan Sloop can be heard asking Ethan numerous times whether he wanted to stay in Utah or return to live with his father in Virginia. He repeatedly asked the boy if his father was mean or hurt him.
"Where do you want to live?" Sloop asked again.
The boy's voice came through his tears, a croaking wheeze: "My mom, my mom, my mom."
Police and prosecutors list "severe abuse" as the cause of the boy's death and say he was abused between April 29 and May 8, 2010.
Stephanie Sloop initially reported to police on May 11 that her child had gone missing. In a 911 call that was played in court, Sloop said she had woken up in the middle of the night to find both the front door and Ethan's bedroom door open. She told the dispatcher it was the fifth time Ethan had gotten out of bed during the night and the third time he had left their Layton apartment.
Roderick said he was among those who responded in the early morning hours that day and interviewed the couple. Stephanie Sloop mostly talked about an abusive ex-husband.
"She had a hard time staying on track about Ethan," Roderick testified.
The couple was taken to the police department for additional interviews and Stephanie Sloop "started to give indications that there was a body," the sergeant said. Nathan Sloop said that once he heard the words directly from Stephanie, he would tell police where the body was, Roderick said.
Nathan Sloop led investigators to a trailhead near Powder Mountain in Weber County and took them to a burial site off of the trail that had been sprinkled with dog food. He was then taken back to the police station.
Roderick said the burial site was "in layers" and he identified a number of items that were found in the dirt, including a curtain, lighter fluid, a shovel head, a broken hammer, melted ammonia packaging, a burned glove, Ethan's "Florida" sweatshirt and his body, wrapped in black plastic garbage bags.
Roderick said the medical examiner determined that Ethan was burned over 17 percent of his body from the scalding incident. Water temperatures in the apartment could reach around 152 degrees, the sergeant said.
The Sloops took the boy to a chiropractor, who apparently recommended honey for the boy's wounds, according to court testimony.
The autopsy report also listed bruising injuries to the child's privates, which Nathan Sloop initially said, in a police video, were caused by scratching. He then said the injuries were there when the boy arrived before saying they were a result of the way the child sat on the toilet.
Sloop also told police he didn't discipline the boy any more harshly than his own father had disciplined him.
"(I was) certainly not intending to hurt or abuse the child," he said.
Before Ethan was buried, prosecutors said his face had been disfigured. Nathan Sloop told police he used the hammer to do so and then packaged up the boy's body. Both were the ideas of the boy's mother, he told police.
"Stephanie was worried about his dental records," Nathan Sloop explained.
The couple was married May 6 and Sloop told police that they didn't take the boy to the ceremony because of his injuries. He said they should have gone to the emergency room, but they were "afraid I was going to go to prison."
He later said they awoke and found the boy had died in his sleep and did not go to police for the same reason.
"We chose one way or the other," Sloop told officers. "There was no going back at that point in time. … But who's going to believe us? … We made a bad decision, you know, but at the same time, what if we call 911 and we get charged with homicide?"
Although Ethan's body was discovered May 11, police and prosecutors believe the boy was actually buried on May 8. Early that morning, his mother went to a Walgreen's to develop photographs, according to a statement read from a witness at the store.
"Stephanie Sloop came into store to develop pictures around 1 a.m.," Roderick read from the statement, "She said, 'That's my son and he died this morning.' She didn't seem very disheveled for having lost her son."
Surveillance video from May 8 showed Stephanie Sloop buying lighter fluid and two ice drinks from a gas station. She and her husband planned a dinner date at a Salt Lake City sushi restaurant, but instead went to Tepanyaki restaurant on May 10.
That same day, she and her husband bought a vacuum and other cleaning supplies and cleaned their apartment, police said.
Defense attorneys also said Wednesday that Sloop had been undergoing "therapeutic treatment" for his mental health issues for 12 years and was on a prescription regimen involving more than 4,000 pills in 11 months. They also said Sloop and his wife had health care concerns about the boy before he arrived and had contacted health care providers when the child was burned in the bathtub and when he escaped from the couple's apartment.
In addition to capital murder, Sloop is charged with obstructing justice and intentionally inflicting serious injury on a child, second-degree felonies; and desecration of a dead body, a third-degree felony. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges, although Mauro said Wednesday they will not dispute the obstruction or desecration charges, as well as a charge of damaging a jail, a third-degree felony.
Stephanie Sloop faces identical charges, except for damaging a jail. A preliminary hearing in her case has not occurred.
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