Sloop defense claims Utah boy died from medications, not child abuse
Detective testifies about interviewing Nathan and Stephanie Sloop and finding the boy's body.
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Farmington • "I'm having fun with Nathan," 4-year-old Ethan Stacy says to the video camera in a small scratchy voice. "He's not scary anymore."

The cellphone video message — taken by Ethan's stepfather Nathan Sloop and intended for his mother, Stephanie Sloop — was taken a week before the young boy's beaten body was found in a shallow grave near Powder Mountain Ski Resort on May 11, 2010.

In the video — shown Tuesday during a preliminary hearing for Nathan Sloop, charged with murder in the boy's death — shows the blond-haired boy in Spiderman pajamas. His cheeks and lips appear red and possibly swollen.

At the end of Nathan Sloop's three-day preliminary hearing, which began Wednesday, 2nd District Judge Glen Dawson will decide if there is enough evidence to proceed to trial.

During opening statements Wednesday, defense attorney Richard Mauro said the medical examiner's office found that Ethan died from an overdose of over-the-counter medications — including Benadryl, children's Tylenol and a decongestant — not child abuse.

Mauro said outside the courtroom that the ME's finding "helps our client because it shows he didn't intend to kill Ethan Stacy."

Mauro told the judge that Nathan Sloop, 34, and Stephanie Sloop, 30, were concerned with their ability to care for Ethan, whom Mauro said had "behavioral problems," and had sought help before Ethan came to them for the summer as part of a visitation agreement with Ethan's father. Mauro also said Nathan Sloop had been receiving mental health treatment for 12 years and was taking a large number of prescribed medications at the time of Ethan's death.

Layton police Sgt. Jeff Roderick was the only witness called to testify Wednesday. His testimony centered around interviews with Nathan Sloop and the gravesite where Ethan's body was found wrapped in eight black garbage bags.

Roderick detailed the search and rescue efforts by his department after Stephanie Sloop called 911 on May 10 to say that her son had wandered from their Layton apartment.

While officers searched for the young boy, detectives interviewed the couple and asked them questions that are routine when a child is missing: What was he wearing? What does he like to play?

Neither of the two parents were helpful, Roderick said, and Nathan Sloop referred to Ethan in past tense —"To me, he enjoyed life," he told an investigator in a taped interview.

It wasn't until Stephanie Sloop made mention of a body, Roderick said, that the investigation turned from reverse 911 calls and checking sex offenders' homes to focusing instead on the newly married couple.

Roderick said detectives told Nathan Sloop that his wife had told them about a body and that it could be found near 12th Street in Ogden. Nathan Sloop told them he would lead them to the grave.

"I know where to dig the body out," Nathan Sloop told the investigators. "I'll dig the body out as soon as I hear Stephanie say it … I'll tell you exactly where the f—-ing body is."

Nathan Sloop was then loaded into a patrol car, Roderick said, and was brought to a remote area in Weber County where Ethan was buried.

With his hands cuffed and shackled to his waist, Nathan Sloop led investigators to the grave, Roderick said — a site marked with sticks and sprinkled with dog food.

Roderick said that when investigators began digging, they found more than just the boy's body.

"Basically, [the grave site] was in layers," he said. "Starting at the bottom you had the plastic tote that Ethan was carried up in, and then different things layered with items that had been used to take care of Ethan" after his death.

Items found in the gravesite included a curtain, a broken hammer with blood on it, a lighter fluid bottle, an ammonia bottle, a burned glove, a shovel head, a duct tape roll and Ethan's sweatshirt with "Florida" printed on it.

Nathan Sloop told investigators that the Florida sweatshirt was Ethan's favorite, and Stephanie Sloop requested that it be buried with him.

Both Stephanie and Nathan Sloop have been charged with aggravated murder, intentionally inflicting serious physical injury on a child, obstructing justice and abuse or desecration of a human body. Nathan Sloop is also charged with damaging a jail cell for kicking the holding cell at Layton Police Department while he was waiting to be questioned about Ethan's body.

Seven aggravating factors are listed in charging documents connected to the murder charge, including child abuse, desecration of a human body, that the victim was under the age of 14, and the crime was committed in an "especially heinous, atrocious, cruel or exceptionally depraved manner."

Prosecutors have filed their intent to seek the death penalty for Nathan Sloop.

On Wednesday, several clips of interviews with police investigators and Nathan Sloop were played.

Nathan Sloop, stuttering during many of his responses, admits that he had slapped Ethan multiple times, claims Stephanie Sloop slapped her son as well, and admits putting feces in the boy's mouth to discipline him.

Nathan Sloop also admitted to scalding the boy in the bathtub once. Initially, he told investigators that he didn't think the water was too hot, but eventually admitted that it was scalding.

"Honestly, yes, it was scalding," he told investigators. "Yes, he was screaming and crying. But the boy didn't stop crying since he came home [to Utah.]"

According to the medical examiner's report, nearly 18 percent of Ethan's body had second- and third-degree burns, mostly on his legs and buttocks.

Roderick said the Sloops sought medical advice from their chiropractor, rather than going to an emergency room for treatment.

Some of Wednesday's testimony focused on how Nathan Sloop felt towards his stepson. In a taped conversation between Nathan Sloop and his ex-wife, the woman referred to a previous conversation where Nathan Sloop called Ethan "a poltergeist."

In a taped jail visit with his mother, Nathan Sloop described Ethan as "so sweet-looking, but so damn disobedient."

He also told his mother he didn't want Ethan in his and his new wife's lives because he wanted "to get laid more."

Sloop's initial preliminary hearing was scheduled for February 2011, but was delayed after prosecutors and defense attorneys asked for more time to sort through tens of thousands of pages of documents and hundreds of discs containing evidence.

The hearing was scheduled and canceled two more times before Sloop conditionally waived the hearing altogether in March 2012. However, Sloop changed his mind after prosecutors indicated they would seek the death penalty, and asked for a preliminary hearing.

Stephanie Sloop is scheduled to appear in court next on April 12. A preliminary hearing for her has not been set.

Charging documents allege the Layton couple engaged in multiple acts of "severe abuse" between April 29 and May 8 in 2010, which led to Ethan's death, including "beatings, burning, drugging, isolating, malnourishing, leaving the child alone and unattended while suffering, and refusing to seek vital life-sustaining medical attention."

According to police probable cause statements, Stephanie Sloop said she knew Ethan needed medical attention after an initial May 5 disciplinary beating by Nathan Sloop, but that she was afraid Sloop would harm her, too, if she acted.

She told police that Ethan became "extremely ill," would not eat and was given Benadryl to keep him quiet. She also told police that on May 7, Nathan Sloop told her Ethan had burned himself in the bathtub on his feet, legs and buttocks by turning up the hot water when Nathan Sloop left the bathroom.

The couple — who said they left the injured boy in a locked bedroom while they got married on May 6 — reported Ethan missing to police on Mother's Day, May 10, after discovering the boy was dead and burying him near Powder Mountain Ski Resort in Weber County

But after a 12-hour search, police say the couple confessed to burying the boy near Powder Mountain Ski Resort.

Nathan Sloop told investigators that he used a hammer to disfigure the boy's face and teeth after Stephanie Sloop told him she was worried about dental records being used to identify her son's body.

jmiller@sltrib.com

Twitter: @jm_miller