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

Dr. Patip Keen, Maricopa County's medical examiner, conducts the autopsy of Abby Lahnan on March 28, 2005.

Keen finds nothing to suggest Abby had been physically mistreated.

Matt Bors
Abigail Rose Minor, shortly before her death.
courtesy of Faith Nyman
Abigail Rose Minor, shortly before her death.

He concludes that Abby "died a suffocation death secondary to ligature from an electrical cord that was near the crib. Manner of death is accident."

One sentence in the postmortem report sums up the heartbreaking nature of Abby's case: "Upon arrival, the body is attired in a pink jumpsuit, red shirt, white socks and disposable diaper."

It's the outfit she'd been wearing when her dad found her dead in the crib.

In his final police report on the case, Alex Femenia does not recommend prosecution of Abby's parents.

"At one point, I was starting to think that this dad had done something very bad," he says. "But we go where the facts take us. This was an accident, no doubt about it. These folks loved that baby. I just hope they can try to get a grip on their lives because it's not going to be easy. The next months are going to be treacherous for their relationship. I've seen it."

Months pass. The case against Eric Natzel remains in legal limbo.

One reason is that the medical examiner's postmortem report has been delayed by the volume of cases at the undermanned facility.

Finally, on February 6, Dr. John Hu issues his official report on the death of Abbey Minor. He concludes that Abbey did suffocate in the closed toy box, and that the manner of her death is "undetermined."

But Hu's conclusions about the other injuries on Abbey's body are chilling, and bode poorly for Eric Natzel. Hu says the multiple bruises and abrasions, while not fatal, had been intentionally inflicted by another person.

That defines child abuse.

Ballentine calls Hu for further explanation.

The doctor tells him it would have been physically impossible for Abbey to have inflicted the injuries to herself. He points out that many of the bruises are "clusters," especially in the middle of her back.

Hu's analysis is similar to the detective's suspicion that Eric pummeled Abbey after crunching her into the box.

Ballentine continues to move toward what he hopes is the next step -- an arrest of Eric Natzel. He works closely with the County Attorney's Office, talking to experts, trying to move the case along.

When Ballentine became a Phoenix cop in 1978, his mother gave him a wallet-size card depicting an illustration of St. Michael, patron saint of cops. Mary Ballentine passed away years ago, but her son still carries the laminated card with him.

It reads, "Pray for us [and] cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who wander through the world seeking the ruin of souls."

Ballentine is hoping to arrest Eric Natzel on charges of first-degree felony murder. In Arizona, a person may be charged with that crime when the death stems from specific crimes such as robbery, rape, burglary, arson or, in Abbey's case, child abuse.

Eric has moved to Michigan, and still hasn't had contact with Amy since the night Abbey died.

Amy Minor is living with her infant son, Ian, at her mother's home in Glendale.

A few months ago, Faith Nyman created a little garden in the backyard in memory of her beloved granddaughter. A smiling photo of the little girl is surrounded by flowers, plants and electric butterflies that light up brightly at night.

Last week, Amy and Faith spent a moment together in Abbey's Garden thinking about their loss.

"She was our bright light," Abbey's grandmother says of the little girl. "She was a lot of fun, a good girl. She'll always be with us."

"The Case of the Two Abigails" is the fifth and final story in New Times' Murder City series. The series commenced after the Phoenix Police Department and its chief, Jack Harris, afforded New Times staff writer Paul Rubin unprecedented access to the inner workings of its homicide unit.

Rubin closely followed the C-32 squad, particularly detectives Jack Ballentine and Alex Femenia, for the entire calendar year of 2005. Rubin was at the scenes of 16 murders, two suicides, three accidental deaths and two deaths deemed of "undetermined" causes by the county medical examiner. Police arrested murder suspects in four of the six cases profiled in New Times' series.

The first story in the series ("The Case of the Grim Tweaker," February 2) centered on the May 10, 2005, slaying of 22-year veteran Phoenix police officer Dave Uribe. Police arrested two men, Donnie Delahanty and Christopher Wilson, on murder charges, and a third man, former state prison officer David York, for helping the accused killers hide and destroy key evidence.

York was sentenced last November to three and a half years in prison after pleading guilty.

Wilson pleaded guilty last March 3 to second-degree murder. He faces a sentence of 10 to 22 years, and is expected to testify against accused triggerman Delahanty when the case goes to trial, possibly in 2007.

Shawn Drake, the onetime wine sommelier featured in the series' second story ("The Case of the Jealous Lover Boy," February 16), pleaded guilty April 14 to manslaughter. Earlier, Drake confessed to Detective Femenia that he had stabbed his lover and roommate to death at their central Phoenix home. He faces up to almost 19 years in prison when a judge sentences him on May 31.

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My Voice Nation Help

This case has haunted me for years and I wish there was something more I could do to help. See, I knew Eric when he was about 12 or 13. I was an acquaintance. He lived down the street from me. One day when I was walking home from school he put his arm around me and grabbed my chest. I was 10. I yelled at him and nobody else was around. He tried to pull me back into an alley by grabbing me by my arms. I got away and ran home. There was always something off about him and my parents filed a report and did not press charges. It really scared me and I hate to think about what he would have done to me. I believe he should be locked up forever for doing this.


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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