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

His working theory is that Eric Natzel forced Abbey down into the box after she'd interrupted his video game. He suspects Eric then beat his daughter, accounting for the many bruises on her back. The abrasions on her face likely came from her rubbing against the inside of the box.

"This case is tearing me up inside," Ballentine says as he walks back to the police station afterward.

The detective conducts many interviews over the next days, including one with Amy Natzel's supervisor at the pharmacy. The supervisor once had interviewed Eric for a job. But he says Eric cost himself any chance at getting hired when he claimed he saw nothing wrong with an employee stealing from an employer.

The supervisor refers to Amy as a longtime victim of "battered woman syndrome."

Ballentine also interviews one of Amy's best friends, who'd been married to Eric's brother and had experienced Eric's ill temper firsthand.

The friend claims she'd seen him hit Amy many times over the years.

Amy is blaming herself for Abbey's death and is depressed, the friend tells the detective.

On September 1, a judge grants Amy's petition for an order of protection against her husband, after she writes that "Eric is suspected of beating my daughter and I am afraid for myself."

Also on September 1, Eric Natzel's parents meet with Ballentine at the Phoenix police station. The Payson residents try to paint a picture of a loving son and father who never would hurt his little daughter.

Ballentine lets them prattle on a while before asking them about Eric's "attitude, his temper, that sort of thing." He tells them Eric has told him about his volatile temper and how he self-medicates with marijuana.

Alan Natzel says he doesn't know what the detective is talking about.

"Do you recognize he has an anger problem?" Ballentine asks.

The couple peeks at each other before Alan Natzel replies.

"He's had anger problems," Eric's father concedes, before adding that anger-management classes have helped their son.

Almost casually, Ballentine mentions a July 2000 Phoenix police report in which the Natzels accused Eric of threatening to kill them and torch their home.

Alan Natzel folds his arms.

"Don't get mad at me," Ballentine tells him. "Eric says he has anger problems and that he was abused by you."

"You know everything, don't you?" Margaret Natzel snarls at the detective, who remains impassive.

"All the fingers are pointing to him," Ballentine says, reviewing some of the circumstantial evidence against Eric.

"Sounds like you want to put him in jail right now," Alan Natzel says.

"I could have put him in jail a couple of days ago," Ballentine replies.

On September 8, Amy Natzel gives birth to a healthy baby boy. Eric isn't around for the birth. He and Amy haven't seen or spoken to each other since they left the hospital on the night Abbey died.

Detective Ballentine re-interviews Amy at the police station five days later. This time, she's far more revealing about her relationship with Eric than she'd been in their previous interaction at the hospital.

Weeping throughout, she recalls the awful phone call during which Eric found Abbey in the toy box.

Amy corroborates Eric's earlier statement that she'd asked Eric to look for Abbey in the toy box. And she repeats that she'd never seen Eric physically abuse Abbey.

"But he was verbally abusive with us all the time," Amy tells the detective. "He makes us feel like crap. He'd tell Abbey, 'I wish I never had you. You're such a pain in the ass.' It was his way or no way."

Ballentine asks Amy if Eric had ever hit her. She nods yes, and describes an incident at their apartment a few days before Abbey died.

"He was being an asshole, and I kicked him out of the house," Amy says. "He broke the door to get back in and grabbed me by the neck and hit me in the face. He told me he didn't need a job."

She says Eric told her at the hospital that Abbey had kept interrupting his video-game playing.

"He's very serious about his games," Amy says. "If he doesn't win, he gets very pissed off."

She says the last thing Eric said to her that night was, "'Don't let your parents convince you I did it.'"

Two days later, Amy returns to the police department for her polygraph test. One key question is, "Did you physically hurt Abigail on or about August 26th?"

Amy says she didn't.

The polygraph operator -- an employee of the Phoenix Police Department -- finds deception in that answer.

Shaken by the result, Amy vows later to Detective Ballentine that she'd never done more than spank Abbey. She says she can't recall if she'd even done that on August 26.

The test result doesn't seem to bother Ballentine, who's never held great stock in the machine's reliability. He wonders if the powerful guilt Amy carries for having stayed with Eric may have affected her response.

The detective still doesn't suspect her of anything more than having chosen the wrong husband.

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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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