The Case of the Two Abigails

One infant dies with her head in a noose, another dies inside a toy chest. Each was in a father's care, and homicide cops want answers

Amy says nothing.

"Would you protect him?" Ballentine asks her.

"I wasn't there, so I don't know what happened," she replies, not answering the question. "Maybe she fell and hit her head and passed out, I don't know. . . . Maybe she got stuck [in the toy box] and had a temper tantrum and couldn't get out."

"I have really grave concerns," Ballentine tells her at the end of the 20-minute interview. "I don't believe him -- at all."

"My kids are more important than my husband," Amy says in response. "If he had anything to do with this . . ."

Later, Amy leaves the hospital with her parents, and goes with her father to his home in Casa Grande. Eric leaves with his own parents.


At 5:30 p.m., Detective Femenia finally gets inside the Lahnan's apartment for the first time.

"This isn't like most of the places we usually see," he observes after stepping into the sunny kitchen.

What he means is that, unlike most residences turned crime scenes, this place is spotless. Clean baby bottles are lined up on a kitchen counter, clothes are neatly folded, and everything is bright and cheerful.

Notably, photographs of a joyous Abby are visible everywhere -- on the walls, in the hallway, even in the bathrooms.

The group of five -- three detectives, a crime-scene specialist and a sergeant -- enters Abby's bedroom.

Hauntingly, the electrical cord turned noose is still hanging in her crib, just as Pat Lahnan had tried to describe it to Femenia.

And it also appears that the cord hadbeen tucked behind the bright quilt, and also behind a pillow apparently butted up against the quilt for even more security.

The there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I moment is palpable.

No one in the room believes that Pat fashioned the deadly noose, slipped his daughter into it, and murdered her.

"This could have been avoided easy," Femenia says, very quietly.

"Yeah," Detective Steve Orona adds. "Kids get into everything. Everyone knows that."

"Basically, they put the crib where it fit in the room," Pat Kotecki says. "It's just very tragic."

"I can't wait to get home to my baby," Detective Jason Schechterle says, speaking of his youngest of three children. "I'm gonna tell him, 'Listen up. You don't get to make me go through something like this.' These people were all about this baby."

Someone gestures to a framed poem tacked to a wall across from Abby's crib. It reads, in part:

It is the morning of your life and your dreams are just beginning.
May you touch fireflies and stars, dance with fairies, and talk to the man in the moon.
May you grow up with love and gracious hearts and people who care.
Welcome to the world, little one. It's been waiting for you.


Jack Ballentine knows in his bones that Eric Natzel is criminally responsible for Abbey Minor's death. But he also knows that proving it will take time.

The detective says it will come down to the science (autopsy findings, expert opinions) and to the unintentional admissions that Eric made in his interview, especially that he'd seen no injuries on Abbey before she died.

On August 27, Dr. John Hu performs an autopsy of Abbey at the county's Forensic Science Center in downtown Phoenix. Hu details the same bruises and abrasions on Abbey's body that the detectives saw at the hospital.

But he finds no evidence of internal organ injuries, bone fractures or what's known as "shaken baby syndrome." He concludes that the external injuries, while serious and extensive, didn't kill the little girl.

Hu's preliminary finding is that Abbey suffocated inside the little toy box, which had no breathing holes. He tells Ballentine that he doesn't have enough information to call the manner of death anything other than "undetermined," not a murder or accidental.

But the doctor doesn't file his official report for six months, in part because of his heavy workload at the morgue.

Jack Ballentine contacts Eric Natzel on August 28. The suspect agrees to come to the Phoenix Police Department the following day for his polygraph.

But on the 29th, a Mesa attorney tells the detective he's advised Eric not to take the test or to "cooperate" anymore with police.

Ballentine returns to the morgue later that day to oversee a disturbing, but necessary, experiment.

Another detective, Tom D'Aguanno, carries in the toy box in which Abbey died, setting it down on a stainless-steel slab. It seems incongruous, this colorful children's box in a room designed for examination of the dead.

The box is 19 inches long, 12 inches tall and 13 inches wide, and can be locked by two metal clasps attached to the lid.

Ballentine wants to see if Abbey, who was 36 inches long, could have fit into it. But even if she could fit, questions of how she wedged herself face-down into the box and then closed it on top of herself (remember, Eric told police it was shut when he found her) will remain.

As respectfully as possible, D'Aguanno and Gwen McNeil, who works at the morgue, squeeze Abbey's limp body into the toy box.

Ballentine says that the lightweight lid surely would have popped open if Abbey had tried to lift herself up, andif the latches weren't closed.

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1 comments
Ladyfree
Ladyfree

Thanks Mr. Rubin,

I just finished reading your article, and my question is what did CPS do to the mother in this case? Did they question whether she new about the bruising or what? Here you have a fatality and the mother goes on with her life, when many (thousands) of other mothers are harassed by CPS and threatened to have their rights taken from them! Some for minor to serious injuries, but not fatal! Bias, in all sense of the word! Arizona CPS needs to be investigated at how they mishandle the lives of children & families in Arizona! This is a good article Maybe next time you'll try going alongside a CPS investigator or caseworker! There's a lot there to be uncovered also!

 
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