FARMINGTON — Ethan Stacy has been gone for nearly as long as he lived, but his death is still raw for his father and for the officers who investigated his brutal death.
"This is a horrendous case that's had a profound impact on the men and women of our police department and our community of Layton — in fact, I think our state of Utah," Layton Police Chief Terry Keefe said Tuesday after the 4-year-old's stepfather admitted to the murder.
"We wanted to be here to make sure justice was done for Ethan."
The young boy with glasses and big, blue eyes died in May 2010 after enduring more than a week of abuse. Tuesday, Nathanael Warren Sloop, 35, pleaded guilty but mentally ill to aggravated murder, a capital offense, in Ethan's death.
"There is no excuse. ... I made mistakes and because of those mistakes, Ethan Stacy is no longer with us," Sloop said in court. "That boy died on my watch and I'm horribly sorry."
Sloop was immediately sentenced to 25 years to life in prison as part of a plea agreement that 2nd District Judge Glen Dawson said he felt was "appropriate." Sloop said the characterization of Ethan's death being caused by his "reckless indifference" was "exactly what I think I was guilty of."
Joe Stacy, the child's father, flew in from Virginia to watch Sloop take responsibility for his part in Ethan's death. But he was too traumatized to comment in court or to the media, Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings said.
"He felt the need and desire and want to be here for his son, to represent his son and to do whatever he can for his son," Rawlings said. "He didn't feel he would be emotionally able to explain his thoughts. ... The trauma to him is such that it is driving his decision to be silent."
By agreeing to plead guilty, Sloop avoided a possible death sentence. But Rawlings emphasized that Sloop was pleading to the count as charged. In exchange for his plea, charges of obstruction of justice, intentionally inflicting serious injury on a child, desecration of a dead body and damaging a jail were dismissed.
Ethan died in 2010, just days after he arrived in Utah from Virginia to spend the summer with his mother and Sloop, her then-fiancé, as part of a court-ordered custody agreement. Prosecutors said the child was severely abused, scalded, beaten, overmedicated and not given the medical care that he needed between April 29 and May 8.
Nathan and Stephanie Sloop got married on May 6, but left Ethan at home alone because they didn't want anyone to notice his bruises and swelling.
After Ethan died and was buried, Stephanie Sloop reported to police that her son had slipped away from their Layton apartment in the middle of the night. After searches were conducted, officers noticed inconsistencies in their stories and later located his body buried near Powder Mountain in Weber County.
The 4-year-old's body had been disfigured with a hammer and the shallow grave had been sprinkled with dog food. Ethan had been burned over 17 percent of his body.
Rawlings said that while "no one is excited" about Tuesday's plea deal, constitutional challenges to Shelby's Law — which allows prosecutors to bring capital murder charges against someone who kills a child under 14 by abuse — as well as Sloop's mental illness at the time of the killing complicated the case. He also cited questions about Ethan's cause of death, pointing to prior testimony from a medical examiner that the death was classified a homicide due to a combination of scalding injuries, drug toxicity and aspiration pneumonia and the difficulty of dividing the blame between Nathan and Stephanie Sloop, who has also been charged in the boy's death.
"We don't think there's anything we do could do with this case to bring justice to Ethan Stacy," Rawlings said, noting that his office will ask that the Board of Pardons and Parole keep Sloop in prison for his natural life. "It is our position and hope and there is a likelihood that the defendant will never be released."
Defense attorneys have countered that Ethan didn't die of severe abuse, but of dehydration from overmedication.
"Reckless indifference describes what Mr. Sloop did in this case," defense attorney Richard Mauro said. "I don't think Mr. Sloop wanted Ethan to die or intended for him to die. Did his actions contribute to that? Yes. Was his behavior recklessly indifferent? ... Yes. He accepts responsibility for all of it.
Mauro said Sloop was once an All-American academic Lacrosse player whose mental illness "sent him off the tracks." He said his client was on a number of legally-obtained medications and was even prescribed as many as 4,000 pain pills in a nine-month span.
"The capacity of the defendant to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct was impaired as a result of a medical condition," Mauro said, adding that he felt his client's illness was "mistreated" and that what Sloop did to Ethan was discipline gone awry. "He tried to do the right thing and was unsuccessful. He made imperfect decisions about Ethan Stacy and they were bad imperfect decisions."
Sloop said he was "reckless and indifferent in my mindset at that point in my life" and never intended to harm Ethan.
"I want to apologize to all those affected by my reckless indifference to Ethan Stacy — Joe and my mom and any others, I beg for their forgiveness," he said. "I stand wholly accountable for my actions."
Stephanie Sloop is charged with aggravated murder, a first-degree felony; inflicting a serious injury on a child and obstructing justice, second-degree felonies; and abuse or desecration of a human body, a third-degree felony. Her case has been trailing Nathan Sloop's case and she has a court hearing set for Feb. 11.
Nathan Sloop faced additional charges in an unrelated case in December after he attacked a deputy at the Davis County Jail. In the Nov. 21 incident, Sloop punched the officer while trying to gouge his eyes out and biting his thumb.
Sloop also pleaded guilty in that case Tuesday to aggravated assault by a prisoner, a second-degree felony. The judge sentenced him to a term of one to 15 years in prison for that charge. Dawson ordered that sentence to be served concurrent with the aggravated murder sentence.
The courtroom was packed Tuesday, with many people standing during the proceedings. The crowd included a large law enforcement presence, including many Layton police officers and Davis County sheriff's deputies.
"We wanted to be here to support Ethan in the sentencing to make sure justice was done for Ethan," Keefe said. "This is the type of case that will live in the memories of the officers that have been involved in this case over the last four years — not only for the rest of their careers, but also the rest of their lives.
"There are some things in law enforcement that you don't forget."