Editor's note: This story was originally published May 23, 2010.
Richlands, Va. » When Joe Stacy received a call from his ex-wife's new husband on Mother's Day, he knew something was wrong.
For a fifth straight day, Nathan Sloop wouldn't allow 4-year-old Ethan to talk to his father, but Stacy and fiancée, Becky Elswick, sensed something else was off as well.
"His whole tone had changed. He just didn't seem the same. We even made comments about it," Elswick said during a Thursday interview at the apartment she and Stacy share above a gas station in Richlands, Va.
The day after Ethan's funeral, the pair described their interactions with Nathan and Stephanie Sloop, Ethan's mother, in the days leading up to the May 11 discovery of the boy's battered body in a shallow grave near Powder Mountain ski resort. The Sloops are in the Davis County jail on suspicion of child abuse and aggravated murder in Ethan's death.
The morning after the troubling May 9 call, Elswick said she opened the mail to find a Mother's Day card signed "From your son, Ethan" in Stephanie Sloop's handwriting.
"She hated me, so that was completely out of character for Stephanie," Elswick said.
Then on May 11, what Joe and Becky viewed as odd behavior came together in one nightmarish phone call.
Nathan Sloop telephoned in the middle of the night to say Ethan was missing.
The boy had been wandering away from their apartment, he said, and Sloop told Stacy he had stacked items near the door so they would make noise if the door opened. When Sloop heard the noise, he woke up, threw on a pair of pants and ran to the door within 45 seconds, he told Stacy.
"I did not believe him whatsoever," Stacy said, standing in the doorway of his son's bedroom, where photos, flowers and other gifts sent from around the country in Ethan's memory are piled on a blue bedspread depicting the Disney movie, "Cars." "A little boy just doesn't disappear, nowhere to be seen, in 45 seconds."
During the call, Sloop handed the phone to a Layton police officer who confirmed Ethan was missing. But because Stacy said Sloop had lied to him before, he immediately called the police station to confirm the story.
Later that evening, the nightmare turned to hell when Layton police informed Stacy his son's body had been found buried near a trail.
Stacy said police realized there may be a problem after Stacy told them Stephanie Sloop had told him Ethan's jaw was "a mess" due to an allergic reaction to grapefruit. Nathan Sloop, in contrast, had told police Ethan had reacted to a peanut allergy.
Stephanie Sloop had told Stacy and Elswick she had to clip Ethan's nails because he had scratched his jaw so much.
"He had no allergy problems before. He was allergic to nothing. He ate a variety of foods," Stacy said, adding that Ethan was particularly fond of bone-shaped graham crackers called Scooby Snacks, a box of which is still in Stacy's cupboard.
The reality that Stacy won't hear his son noisily sucking on his fingers while sleeping or that the boy won't come bounding out of his bedroom with a blanket to curl up on Elswick's lap as the couple watch the morning news still hasn't hit.
And the outrage and sadness felt by the people of Grundy the town near Richlands where Stacy grew up hasn't subsided either.
At the Food City where Stacy's mother, Peggy Akers, worked for years, a table sits at the front entrance with a picture of Ethan climbing in a tree and a white bucket for donations to help the Stacy family with funeral costs. In a week, the townspeople had donated $1,000.
"That's mostly in nickels, dimes and quarters, though one gentleman put in a $50 bill," said Phyllis Scott, store manager and a longtime friend of Akers'.
Residents of Grundy and Richlands on Sunday were set to walk nearly five miles and release blue balloons in Ethan's memory. A similar walk with blue balloons took place Sunday morning in Layton.
It follows a Saturday walk in which as many as 800 paid tribute to Ethan by marching from the Layton apartment complex where the Sloops lived to the jail where they're now confined.
"I just hope that people continue to remember what happened, and be more aware of what's going on around them, possibly prevent this from happening to another child," said the organizer of Saturday's walk Lucinda Martin of Harrisville.
In Grundy, Scott said she last saw Ethan in the spring. He wore a bright yellow shirt and sat in a shopping cart as he and his grandmother shopped for groceries.
"They were just as happy as could be," she said.
She added Ethan may have inadvertently saved his grandmother's life.
Last October, Ethan reached up and gave his grandmother a big hug around the neck. For the next couple of days, Akers was in significant pain. She went to the doctor and learned Ethan's hug had repositioned a fish bone stuck in her throat. She had surgery to remove it.
"If little Ethan hadn't hugged her, I don't know what would have happened to Peggy," Scott said.
"I've used the PA system a lot to get people to donate. If one of us is in trouble, we're all in trouble," she said. "It's going to take a long time for all of us to heal."
Tribune Reporter Lindsay Whitehurst contributed to this report.