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

The last morning of Abigail Nicole Lahnan's short life begins peacefully.

It is March 23, 2005, a Wednesday.

Abby, who was born at Phoenix Baptist Hospital on November 28, 2003, awakens in her crib across the hall from her parents, Deanna and Patrick. The young family lives in a second-story unit at the Papago Park Apartments on Taylor Street in east Phoenix.

Matt Bors
Abigail Rose Minor, shortly before her death.
courtesy of Faith Nyman
Abigail Rose Minor, shortly before her death.
Abby Lahnan pulled the electrical cord into her crib from behind the comforter on the wall.
courtesy of Phoenix Police Department
Abby Lahnan pulled the electrical cord into her crib from behind the comforter on the wall.
A close-up of the electrical cord turned noose that cost Abby Lahnan her life.
courtesy of Phoenix Police Department
A close-up of the electrical cord turned noose that cost Abby Lahnan her life.
Eric Natzel is suspected of criminal wrongdoing in the death of his daughter.
Eric Natzel is suspected of criminal wrongdoing in the death of his daughter.
Abbey Minor's bedroom, shortly after her death last August.
courtesy of Phoenix Police Department
Abbey Minor's bedroom, shortly after her death last August.
Amy Minor (left), with her son Ian and mother, Faith Nyman, at the site of Abbey's Garden.
Peter Scanlon
Amy Minor (left), with her son Ian and mother, Faith Nyman, at the site of Abbey's Garden.
Abbey Minor suffocated inside this cardboard toy box.
Abbey Minor suffocated inside this cardboard toy box.

Both parents work long hours, Deanna for a Mesa real estate firm and Pat as a baggage handler at Sky Harbor International Airport. On his days off, Pat works out of his home for a local mortgage company.

Deanna feeds Abby a waffle, a banana and milk before leaving for a work-related class at 8:30 a.m. After that, she plans on heading to her job.

It's one of Pat's days off from his airport job.

Pat places Abby in her crib for a nap about 9:30, and closes her door behind him.

He takes a shower, and then goes to work on his computer.

Time slips away. About 11:30, Pat goes to check on Abby, who's been in her crib for going on two hours.

He opens the bedroom door.

Moments later, Pat starts to scream.


The last day of Abigail Rose Minor's short life also begins peacefully.

It is August 26, 2005, a Friday.

This Abigail was born October 24, 2002, at Thunderbird Samaritan Hospital, to Amy and Eric Natzel (they weren't married when Amy Minor bore her first child, named after the celebrated Beatles LP Abbey Road).

Eric is 26. Amy is 22, and just a few weeks from giving birth to her second child, who's going to be a boy.

The Natzels live in a two-bedroom unit at the Cactus Trail Apartments, near Interstate 17 and Deer Valley Road.

Amy Natzel works at a CVS pharmacy, where she's known as dependable and friendly. But her co-workers, friends and family know of her miserable home life.

Though she's pregnant, Amy looks dangerously underweight, and often seems depressed.

They blame Eric, her husband of two years.

Eric is unemployed, and he tends to Abbey while his wife works.

His idea of a perfect day is playing video games and smoking weed. His latest obsession is Metroids, a game in which alien predators suck the life out of their prey like leeches.

That's how Eric's in-laws view his relationship with their daughter. They consider him a self-centered boor with a hair-trigger temper.

Abbey awakens her father about 10:30 a.m. on the 26th. Dad and daughter shower together as Amy putters around. Amy serves Abbey a bowl of ramen noodles before leaving for work about 12:30 p.m.

Eric soon takes Abbey to a nearby park. But it's awfully hot; the high temperature in Phoenix will reach 109 degrees. Eric and Abbey soon return to the air-conditioned apartment.

By now, it's early afternoon, and Eric tells Abbey to go watch cartoons (Lilo & Stitch) in her room before napping. He loses track of time, saying later, "I was enthralled in the video game I was playing."

Amy phones him from work sometime after 5 p.m. She asks where Abbey is, that she'd like to say hello. He looks around the child's cluttered bedroom, but can't find her. Eric gets back on the phone and tells his wife.

Amy tells him to look in the bathroom. But Abbey isn't there, either.

She suggests that Eric look more carefully in Abbey's bedroom closet, where a cardboard toy box with a domed lid sits on the floor. Amy had seen Abbey playing in and around the box a day earlier, and knows how the colorful cartoon characters painted on it attract her little girl.

Eric returns to the phone and tells Amy there's a problem.

Abbey is choking, he tells his wife. Get home.

He hangs up and dials 911.


It's 5:37 p.m. A ceiling fan hangs from the middle of Abby Lahnan's bedroom. An electrical cord entwined with a decorative chain runs from the fan across the ceiling and down a wall to an outlet.

Abby's crib is up against that wall.

Pat Lahnan says later that Abby somehow pulled the cord into her crib in the shape of a noose. He will say he saw Abby's little head tangled in the "noose," and that she wasn't breathing. He'd freed her and pulled her out of the crib.

Pat doesn't think to call 911. In fact, he's not thinking at all.

He runs down the steps with Abby in his arms.

Oklahoma resident Shawna Rogers is sunbathing by the complex swimming pool. She's visiting her father, who lives at the complex.

A man holding a baby to his chest rushes toward Shawna shouting, "Oh my God! Help me!

"The lamp cord was around her neck!" he tells her. "She's not breathing!"

Someone calls 911 at 11:50 a.m. It comes in as a possible child drowning.

Shawna takes Abby and places her on a patch of grass near the pool. She performs CPR on the baby, but her efforts are futile.

Phoenix Fire Department paramedics pronounce Abby dead at the scene.

Someone covers the baby's body with a blue blanket.

Officer Steven Butler goes upstairs to the Lahnans' apartment.

Pat is sobbing on his living-room floor as a firefighter and a neighbor try to console him. He's called Deanna at work in Mesa, but about all he could get out is to come home, and that it's about Abby.

Butler asks everyone to leave what has become a crime scene. He leads Pat Lahnan to a vacant apartment that the complex manager has opened for authorities. The Lahnans' residence will remain locked until police get a search warrant from a judge, which will take a few hours.

Deanna Lahnan gets home and is led to the empty apartment, where she learns of her baby's death. Pat is there with her. Police officers and neighbors try to calm the couple, an impossible task.

Phoenix homicide detective Alex Femenia reports to the scene about 12:30 p.m. He arrives as three local television crews are pulling into the parking lot.

"We looking murder or what?" a breathless reporter asks the veteran detective, who shrugs and keeps moving.

Femenia's homicide sergeant, Pat Kotecki, tells him no one's sure yet if a crime has been committed.

At 1 p.m., the detectives gather around an officer under a shade tree for their briefing.

"The father is being very uncooperative with police right now," the officer tells them.

"The lack of cooperation might be because he's distraught," offers Sergeant Kotecki, always a cool head.

"So right now we're just assuming that a cord was wrapped around the baby's neck?" Femenia asks.

"Yeah," the officer says.

"Okay," Femenia says afterward, unhappy with how little solid information he's gotten. "I want to talk to the father downtown. Let's just consider this a homicide until we sort things out one way or the other."

"What else do we need?" Kotecki asks Femenia.

"Someone to calm Mom down, to schmooze her, get her on our side. She may have some info on hubby's past, if it goes that way."

Femenia tells the cop who will be driving Pat Lahnan to the police station to "low-key it. No cuffs, no judgments, just friendly and helpful."

The detective walks over to the blue blanket. He puts on surgical gloves and pulls back the blue blanket.

The baby is wearing a red pajama top, white socks and a diaper.

She's tiny.

Deep ligature marks are visible around her neck.

"Poor little thing," Femenia says.

The detective thinks aloud as he drives downtown for his interview with Pat Lahnan.

"I'm not sure where this is going," he says. "We don't have a story yet, no real description of the room, no nothing. But we'll figure it out. We have to."


Eric Natzel tells a 911 operator that his daughter Abbey isn't breathing. He seems to be crying.

"Abbey, can you hear me?" Eric asks her, as the operator calmly instructs him in CPR, telling him how to give her two mouthfuls of air.

Phoenix fire paramedics arrive and take over, but the little girl is dead, two months shy of her third birthday.

Eric tells a Phoenix officer at the apartment that he'd sent Abbey into her room for a nap about an hour before he called 911. He says he'd found her inside a closed toy box in a closet.

The paramedics transport Abbey's body to John C. Lincoln-Deer Valley Hospital.

Detective Michael Coddington gets to the hospital around 7 p.m.

He is directed to the emergency room, where Abbey's body has been taken. Coddington sees an abrasion on the child's forehead and small bruises above both eyes.

A doctor informs Coddington that he's also observed several fresh bruises on Abbey's back. The doctor says he questioned Eric Natzel about the injuries, and was told they'd resulted from "normal" falls.

Coddington introduces himself to Eric and Amy, and informs them that other detectives will want to speak with them. What he doesn't tell them is that those detectives work for the homicide unit.

Detective Jack Ballentine is assigned to head the investigation.

His longtime partner, Alex Femenia, also shows up at the hospital at 9 p.m. to assist.

Ballentine wants to interview Abbey's parents separately at the hospital, because it's a less-threatening environment than a police station. Afterward, he'll take a look at the Natzels' apartment.

First, the detective goes to examine Abbey's body. Besides the obvious bruising and abrasions all over her body, he sees that the back of her head is badly swollen.

Just before Eric is interviewed by Ballentine, he speaks briefly with a state Child Protective Services official there to offer assistance.

"Can you help me with my rent?" he asks the woman, who doesn't reply.

Now it's Ballentine's turn.


Alex Femenia apologizes to Pat Lahnan for having had to temporarily separate him from Deanna. You're not under arrest, he reminds Abby's father, and you can leave any time you want.

"Who do you live with?" the detective then asks Pat.

"My wife and daughter."

Pat describes how he'd found Abby entangled in the cord.

"She was hanging there," he says. "I don't know how it could have happened."

"I don't understand how . . . ," Femenia starts.

"I grabbed her," Pat interrupts. "I just freaked out. I picked her up to get her out of that noose. I didn't call 911. I was screaming. A lady did CPR on her. I don't know!"

"I want to get this straight," the detective says, his tone edgier now. "I'm having a hard time understanding how this cord got wrapped around your baby's neck."

Pat tries to explain how the cord had been behind a quilt tacked to the wall, and he just doesn't know how Abby had been able to get to it. But his thoughts and words are ever more disjointed.

"Did you get angry with Abby after your wife went to work?" the detective asks.

"No."

Femenia says, "I'm trying to picture what you're telling me, and I'm having a hard time understanding what you're saying, and I want you to think about it."

"I did not do this!" Pat blurts.

"Do what?" Femenia shoots back.

"Kill my daughter!"

Those words hang heavy in the cramped interrogation room.

The interview, however, elicits no admissions or revelations.

At 2:40 p.m., Femenia tells Pat that he's free to return to the apartment complex.

"I know this is the worst day of your life," the detective says, "but there will be people who will be there to support you. If you want to talk with me about anything that may have slipped your mind, you call, okay?"

Pat Lahnan nods.

Femenia returns to East Taylor Street, and immediately heads to the borrowed apartment. He asks Deanna Lahnan, who's sitting there with neighbors and friends, to join him in another room. The detective carries in chairs so they'll have somewhere to sit.

"He loved her," Deanna says of her husband's relationship with their daughter. "She's sort of been our world."

"Any way you figure this could have happened?" Femenia asks her.

"I keep thinking about this -- I don't know."

"Like you, we just want to know what happened," Femenia says, leaning forward. "I'm doing this for Abby. I'm not saying anybody did anything wrong, and I don't want to seem like I'm probing, but I am. It's my job."

Then, he adds: "If anybody tells you anything to shed light on this, call me, okay?"

That's one way of asking Deanna to snitch on Pat if the time comes.

Femenia steps outside, lights a Marlboro, and takes a deep drag.

"I got to see that crime scene," he says, for the umpteenth time.


Jack Ballentine reads Eric Natzel his Miranda warnings against self-incrimination at 10:38 p.m.

They are in a room at the Deer Valley hospital.

The dance about to begin is especially delicate. Ballentine is going to be sympathetic at first to Eric, who's just lost his child. But he wants to lock Eric into a story before he becomes confrontational (if it goes that way).

After the preliminaries, he asks Eric if he's had any run-ins with the law.

"When I was a minor, I had some anger issues," says Eric, a solidly built young man with dark, flashing eyes. "I've worked those out. I had some mishaps with marijuana."

Ballentine isn't aware yet of Eric's legal problems over the previous decade, including accusations of criminal damage, assault, and, in 2001, of threatening to kill his parents.

"Did Abbey have anger problems, like you?" Ballentine asks Eric about 15 minutes into the interview.

"When she fell, she'd scream and cry," Eric replies.

He says his daughter had come out of her bedroom about 4:30 p.m. and jumped on his chest while he was playing Metroids, demanding his attention.

Eric tells Ballentine that he'd ordered Abbey back to her room after she'd interrupted his video-game reverie.

"She was supposed to be taking a nap," he explains.

The next time he saw Abbey, Eric says, she was face-down in the toy box.

The detective pushes Eric to specify what time he last saw or heard Abbey.

"I don't know," Eric says. "I was enthralled in the video game I was playing."

He does recall that Amy had phoned him about 5 p.m., and asked "if the kid was still up, because she wanted to talk to her."

Eric says he looked inside the toy box at Amy's suggestion.

"When I found the kid, I told my wife on the phone, 'Hey, you need to come home. I found her in there,'" he says. "My wife thought I was joking because she knows I B.S. a lot . . . I don't think she thought it was as serious as it ends up being."

Eric's seemingly cavalier attitude is gnawing at Ballentine, though the detective continues to be courteous and impassive.

Eric insists that he never abused his daughter -- ever.

"My dad used to beat me up, so I don't [hit her]," he says. "I don't want to screw my kids up."

Eric suggests that Abbey was a "clumsy" baby, which might account for any bruises on her body.

"But other than that, there'd be no injuries on her," he volunteers.

Almost casually, Ballentine now mentions the injuries he'd seen on Abbey's body.

"Yeah, I noticed them, too," Eric says. "They weren't there this morning. I don't even remember seeing them when I picked her up [out of the toy box]."

Ballentine asks Eric to describe the box.

"In all honesty, I think she could have broke her way out of it," Eric says.

The detective notes the nasty cluster of bruises on Abbey's back.

"Black and blue ones?" Eric asks.

"Oh, gosh," Ballentine replies. "There's a ton. Her whole little back is pretty covered. Do you know how that happened?"

"Just little falls. Like I said, she's really clumsy."

Out of nowhere, the detective asks Eric, "You bathe her?"

"Yeah, she actually took a shower with me this morning."

Eric reiterates that he saw no bruises on Abbey's back, before, during or after the shower.

"In the autopsy, they can tell everything that's happened to a child," Ballentine says, moving the intensity level in the room up a notch. "I think it's gonna be pretty safe to say that they're going to say there's substantial [injuries]. And that concerns me quite a bit because there's really no explanation."

"Okay," is all Eric musters in response.

"This is your baby," the detective reminds him.

"I know. She meant the world to me."

Ballentine mentions his own two sons, telling Eric that "one thing I do know is anger with a child. I know how something can happen with a child and you can lose your temper.

"And what I'm telling you right here is, I know you did [lose your temper]."

"I do not ever lose my temper with my child," Eric replies, surprisingly calm under the circumstances. "I yell. And I will testify that I yell."

"I understand that. But you did something to your baby."

"No, I did not, sir."

"I think you did. Because there's no explanation for the injuries to that child."

"There's none," Eric says.

"And you understand that you're the only person there with her?"

"Yes," Eric says, adding he'll take a polygraph test to prove his innocence.

Changing direction, Eric points out that he's taken anger-management classes and undergone therapy for his problems.

"Usually if I get mad and I'm going to blow up, I don't touch people," he says. "I put holes in walls. Once in a while, I get too stressed."

"What stresses you?" Ballentine asks.

"Well, I'm an unemployed father. I don't make money. My wife pays all the bills. And it kind of gets to you, when you feel like a lowlife dad who can't support your wife and children."

Eric says his current mental-health treatment is from a "buddy who took psychology in college. He's cheap, he's free, and he kind of knows what he's there for."

Just before midnight, Ballentine allows Eric to return to family and friends, who are milling around outside the emergency room. The detective hooks up with Alex Femenia, who's just finished interviewing Amy's parents, Tom Minor and Faith Nyman, who are divorced.

Minor said he'd taken Abbey and Amy to dinner the previous night and "both of them looked beautiful."

Of Eric Natzel, he said, "He's never supported the family he made. All of my dreams have been shattered by a man who just won't go to work."

Amy's mother's assessment of Eric was equally precise: "He and I do not click. He's an abusive husband."

Faith Nyman described to Femenia how Eric once threatened to kill her after she confronted him about his mistreatment of Abbey, then a newborn:

"I saw him shake her, shake her! He was saying, 'Shut up, you fuckin' bitch. Shut up!' He was holding her by her arms. She wasn't quite three months old. He pushed her right down on the couch. I went and took her and told him he needed a break. He said he was going to slit my throat from ear to ear, that he'd done it before. I called 911 and got out of there."

Eric never was arrested in connection with that incident.

"In the beginning, Amy would run away from him a lot," Nyman told Femenia. "But she wouldn't admit that he ever hit her, though I'd seen bruises. You know how you have this horrible, horrible feeling hanging over you."

Ballentine and Femenia step outside to regroup for a moment with Sergeant Kotecki.

Ballentine speaks sadly of the toy box: "That was our little victim's coffin."

Just then, Eric Natzel's friends greet him about 25 yards from the cops. Within moments, he's laughing and carrying on with his pals.

"I know people deal with grief differently, but I'm not exactly seeing grief over there," Kotecki says, gesturing over at Eric. "I mean, his baby is lying dead right inside that door, and he's laughing? Shit."

Ballentine's interview of Amy Natzel begins just after midnight.

He's gentle with this fragile young woman, who insists throughout that Eric is a good dad.

Amy says she, too, saw the bruises on Abbey's head at the hospital. But she tries to explain them away by saying her daughter "falls all the time."

She insists she never saw her husband hit their daughter.

"But he's got a problem with anger," Ballentine replies. "That's my concern in all this."

"But he's never directed it at people," Amy tells him, a touch of desperation creeping into her voice.

"Let's be honest with each other here," the detective says. "[Eric] made it very clear to me that when he put her to bed today, she had no injuries on her. When he was sitting with her in that room over there, he realized she had significant injuries. And he has no idea how they got there. And I'm hoping it concerns you as much as it concerns me, because that's your baby. And he's made it clear that he's got a real problem with anger that's at times uncontrollable, and what I'm concerned about is that this baby suffered in death because there's far too many injuries on this child."

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.

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.


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.

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.

A trial date has not been set for the two defendants featured in the third story ("The Case of the Fatal Femme," March 9). Samantha Somegustava and Richard Enos are charged with killing and robbing Gabe Cruz, 24, on a dirt road in far southwest Phoenix. Cruz had the misfortune of meeting Somegustava at a downtown Phoenix convenience store after finishing work on March 3, 2005. Prosecutors have announced they will seek the death penalty against the 23-year-old Laveen woman, who confessed to the murder during an interview with Detective Ballentine. Enos also faces charges of first-degree murder and robbery.

The fourth story ("The Case of the Wily Coyote," April 6) described the sad demise of 19-year-old Margarita Parada, a Mexican citizen murdered hours after entering this country illegally. Abelardo Jarquin-Lopez, charged last February with strangling her in a La Quinta motel off Interstate 17, is scheduled to go to trial early next year. A human smuggler, Jarquin-Lopez confessed to killing Parada after she'd rebuffed his sexual advances at the motel.

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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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