Amy Natzel took the witness stand February 7, a few minutes after a Maricopa County jury had convicted her estranged husband, Eric, of physically abusing their daughter, Abigail Rose.

The jury already had heard from Amy at the trial concerning 2-year-old Abbey's death in August 2005.

Now, during the so-called "aggravation" phase of the proceedings, held immediately after the guilty verdict, Deputy County Attorney Frankie Grimsman had just one very loaded question for the 25-year-old woman:

Jurors believed Eric Natzel stuffed his daughter in the toy box because she annoyed him while he played a video game.
Courtesy of Phoenix Police Department
Jurors believed Eric Natzel stuffed his daughter in the toy box because she annoyed him while he played a video game.

What effect has Abbey's death had on you?

Amy pulled the microphone closer, her hands trembling. Then, in a soft but steady voice, she said, "I'm never going to know what she could have been, and my son will never know what she could have been."

Eric Natzel's defense attorney wasn't foolish enough to pose anything on cross-examination.

As the eight-person jury left Judge Roland Steinle's courtroom moments later, not one member of the panel even sneaked a peek at the defendant, a nattily attired 27-year-old who stood at attention between his attorneys.

Sheriff's deputies then handcuffed Natzel as his mother sobbed on one side of the courtroom.

On the other side, Amy Natzel embraced family members, victim advocates, and the prosecutors who had tried the emotionally charged case.

The verdict came after a trial that once seemed a long shot because of the unusual circumstances of Abbey's death, suffocating face down in a cardboard toy box in her bedroom closet ("The Case of the Two Abigails," May 18, 2006).

But the jury's guilty verdict on the more serious of the two child-abuse counts meant that Eric will face a minimum prison term of 17 years. Sentencing is scheduled for March 14 in Judge Steinle's court.

Abbey's death at her parents' apartment near Interstate 17 and Deer Valley Road had haunted Phoenix police detectives since the early evening of August 26, 2005.

Their involvement began a few hours after Eric Natzel told a 911 operator that his daughter wasn't breathing. Fire paramedics rushed over, but the baby already was dead.

Natzel told the firefighters and, later, a police detective that he'd been home alone all day with Abbey when his wife called about 5 p.m. from her job at a pharmacy. She asked to speak with the child, but Eric reported that he couldn't immediately find her.

Amy had seen Abbey playing in and around a toy box festooned with colorful cartoon characters, and suggested that Eric take a look there.

Eric returned to the phone and said he'd found Abbey face down inside of the toy box, with its domed lid shut. The box was 19 inches long, 12 inches tall and 13 inches wide, and could be locked (or could latch itself) by two metal clasps. Abbey was 36 inches long.

Abbey had vomited inside the box, and Eric's apparent attempts at resuscitation failed, as did the efforts of the Phoenix firefighters.

The paramedics took Abbey to the John C. Lincoln-Deer Valley Hospital, where emergency room physician Larry Stalsonberg immediately noticed clusters of bruises on the little girl's back and the back of her head.

Later, the doctor told the jury that if police hadn't come to the hospital, he would have alerted authorities about the suspicious nature of Abbey's injuries.

But detectives already were involved.

Homicide Detective Jack Ballentine questioned Eric Natzel and, then, Amy at the hospital, where the couple's families and friends were gathering.

Though Eric didn't confess, the detective's interviews — portions of which prosecutors played at the trial (the only time jurors heard from the defendant, who chose not to testify) — probably sealed his fate.

Eric, who was unemployed, calmly told Ballentine that Abbey was alone with him and only him from the time his wife left for work early that afternoon.

He said his daughter had disturbed him about 4:30 p.m. while he was immersed in a video game called Metroids, in which alien predators suck the life out of their human prey like leeches.

He said he'd sent Abbey back to her room. The next time he saw her was in the toy box.

Eric insisted that he never hit his daughter, ever. His wife corroborated this to Detective Ballentine that night and on the witness stand. (She said in a second interview with the detective, however, that Natzel had beaten her and often told Abbey that he wished she hadn't been born.)

Ballentine asked Eric to explain the bruises and other injuries on Abbey's body.

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

"Oh, gosh," Ballentine replied. "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."

"In the autopsy, they can tell everything that's happened to a child," the detective explained, his tone matter-of-fact.

"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."

Shortly afterward, Ballentine told his sergeant, Patrick Kotecki, "That toy box was our little victim's coffin."

At the time, Amy Natzel was two weeks from giving birth to the couple's second child, Ian.

That night, she left the hospital with her parents and wouldn't see Eric again for a very long time. Eric Natzel left with his own parents.

Dr. John Hu of the county Medical Examiner's Office concluded that Abbey had suffocated inside the toy box (which had no breathing holes), but he found no evidence of internal injuries, bone fractures, or anything else that might have been fatal.

Hu observed the extensive bruising on the baby but said preliminarily that the manner of death was "undetermined," not homicide or even accidental.

The pathologist's final report wasn't completed for months because of the workload at the undermanned Medical Examiner's Office. But when Hu finally issued it in February 2006, the case against Eric Natzel moved forward.

Hu determined that someone had intentionally inflicted most of Abbey's bruises, especially those on her back, about two dozen in all.

That jibed with Detective Ballentine's theory that an irate Eric Natzel repeatedly hit his daughter after scrunching her into the toy box and then went back to his beloved video game.

Hu's conclusions and the opinions of other witnesses consulted by prosecutors persuaded the County Attorney's Office to secure a grand-jury indictment against Natzel on two counts of child abuse.

Defense attorney John Bovill III, who is from Natzel's home state of Michigan, argued that Abbey had let herself into the box and accidentally suffocated.

"It's a fairly simple case," Bovill told the jury in his closing argument. "I think it's gotten confused."

He said prosecutors had brought up the "non-fatal" bruises "to get all of you inflamed, so you will go after this guy."

If jurors did want to dwell on the bruises, Bovill maintained, they might consider that Amy Natzel inflicted them before going to work, but that the marks first appeared only around the time of Abbey's death.

"This was a terrible accidental death," Bovill said, suggesting that Detective Ballentine unfairly had Eric in his sights from the start.

"I don't know if I believe everything that [Ballentine] said," the attorney concluded.

Perhaps speaking of the detective's devastating testimony that Natzel "was calm, reserved, very easy to talk to, unemotional" during their interview at the hospital.

"He did not give any appearance of being upset about anything," testified Ballentine, who has since retired from the police department and now heads the arson unit at the Phoenix Fire Department.

In his closing argument, prosecutor Desi Rubalcaba countered that "this case is about responsibility and priorities. [Abbey] completely interrupted his game-playing, [so] he stuck her in that box, then he closed the lid and he latched it shut. He heard her crying, and he became enraged. She was stuffed in that box fighting for her life."

Rubalcaba said Natzel's intent to hurt his daughter "was left all over Abbey's body."

All three expert witnesses — two prosecution and one defense — agreed that Abbey would have been screaming from inside the toy box. Each also said, chillingly, that someone had deliberately inflicted the bruises on her back.

Frankie Grimsman, who co-prosecuted the trial with Rubalcaba, had the last word before jurors deliberated Natzel's fate.

"All he wanted to do is what he wanted to do," Grimsman said of the defendant and his obsession with playing video games.

The prosecutor also reminded jurors of testimony by Dr. Daniel Kessler, director of the Arizona Child Study Center at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center.

Kessler said Abbey just wouldn't have fallen into the toy box in the contorted position in which Eric Natzel said he'd found her.

"That is the key," Grimsman said.

The prosecutor looked hard at the panel before essentially repeating what Detective Ballentine had said at the hospital on that terrible summer night in 2005:

"That box became her coffin."

Amy Natzel is living with her mother and her second-born child, Ian, and still works at the pharmacy from where she made the phone call wanting to speak with her daughter.

"This isn't going to bring Abbey back home," she said in the hallway after the trial, "but Jack [Ballentine] and the [prosecutors] wanted what was right for her. They did."

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5 comments
Steven
Steven

It is very typical, point the finger of blame to another to take the focus off of the guilty one. Amy is a good and loving person who has had the largest part of her life violently ripped to shreds by this worthless individual. I never cared for eric, but I never suspected he had that kind of evil inside of him. eric didn't take a plea bargain, in my opinion, cause he didn't have the smarts to know that he should. He has no ability to think for himself, he must be told what to do or he is lost. Well, now he has no shortage of people to tell him what to do and when to do it. It is just what he deserves. I am sure he will make many new friends who will understand why he beat his infant daughter a shoved her into a toybox that was half her size. I don't think he will be playing any video games for a long, long time. Maybe he will come to regret his actions, but I will not be holding my breath. there is nothing accidental about what he did to Abbey! He is right where he belongs and he should remain locked up for the remainder of his pathetic existance. I will never get to see my niece grow and become a beautiful young lady with all of lifes opportunities wide open to her. Amy is a much stronger person than I am. I wouldn't have had the strength to withstand such a life altering ordeal with the restraint and dignity that she did. Amy and Abbey are the victims in this case. Not eric or his family. And thank you to Detective Ballentine, the prosecuters, and everyone else responsible for making this case and bringing the GUILTY to justice.

observer
observer

Very sad story.

We need to do more to promote positive ideas, qualities and behaviours.

K
K

AZ Citizen -- well said.

Joseph in the previous post is no doubt a relative or friend of the blight that is this man.

He was emotionless regarding his daughter's death. I really think that says a LOT. And certainly he was convicted on a LOT more than that. There are few things more despicable than what happened to this little girl. It's hard to contemplate -- frankly I don't want to think about it.

As for praying, if I do any praying, I'll pray for the little girl. Her scum father is (almost) where he belongs -- in prison. Someday, if there's anything at all after death, maybe he can do a little explaining to his dead child.

Oh, and to the parents of this scumbag -- wake up and realize you CAN give birth to a monster. I'm tired of the never-ending defense of parents/relatives of the convicted in this country. Wake up. YES, they ARE capable and were most likely convicted for a REASON.

AZ Citizen
AZ Citizen

To the previous comment, the fact is that a two year old child is dead. She didn't even have a chance at life. This so-called parent, if he can be so called, admitted he was to busy enjoying himself at a silly video game and not enjoying having an Angel from heaven being in his presence. Children are gifts from GOD, and when he allows you to be a parent, you don't "play" video games and not interact with your own child. How selfish can he be. If you witnessed the temper of the mother beforehand, and SAT idly by, you too are an accessory for doing nothing. This poor child, BABY, didn't have a chance with those type parents, and now she is gone....forever. At least He, the so-called father, still lives and breathes. I am appalled that someone would come to the defense of this monster, He was the only one with her the whole day. Any what gall to say that he is innocent. HA! He should have faced the death penalty for taking an innocent, sweet, young life. God Bless Abbey for she is in Heaven no longer suffering.

Joseph Marotta
Joseph Marotta

I am very disappointed in both the Justice system and the New Times. I sat through this trial and did not hear some of the so called facts referred by this reporter. Some of his report are complete fabrications. Several of his so called facts were never heard or presented in Court during Trial. If I am correct is that not "hearsay". The facts presented during this Trial did not support the guilty verdict Eric Natzel received. Mr. Natzel not only had inadequate counsel but the State over stepped its authority several times. I truly hope you never find yourself in Eric's position, accused of a crime you did not commit. Then have to go before a prosecutor who is not looking out for justice but for a win at any cost. Eric loved his daughter and never, I repeat never, spanked or hit his child. I cannot and do not believe any reasonable person can make the assumption he out of the blue decide to kill his daughter. When Eric was expecting another child in a few weeks. Please poll Eric's generation of males and you will find that most love their video games. I have four sons and can assure they all like and play challenging and graphic video games. This does not make them killers nor does is make them violent. I have seen and heard their frustration when they are losing a game but don't we all get frustrated when losing.This case was about a tragic accident and a police detective who decided he wanted somebody to pay. Eric's appointed (Public Defender)counsel did not have the experience to properly defend Eric. He put on only one witness in Eric's defense and this witness testified in the middle of the prosecution case. Eric attempted to hire help for the Public Defender but was unable to find an attorney in the state of Arizona he could afford. His parents found an attorney in Michigan but this attorney was not versed on Arizona laws, rules and/or regulations therefore was little help. I feel that the judicial system has failed Eric. I do not believe Eric deserves to serve a single day let alone 17 plus years. I sat through the Trial and the evidence did not support a guilty verdict. I truly believed this was going to have a much different outcome. Eric never consider any form a of a plea bargain because he did not do this nor did he believe he could be found guilty of it. Eric has been in jail for more then a year and half in protective custody with a bond set at a ridiculous amount awaiting his day in Court only to be let down by our justice system. Did anyone (the police, your reporter, the doctors or CPS) ever consider the fact that Amy Natzel was the violent parent? She admitted she spanked and punished Abbey regularly. I personally have witnessed Amy slap Eric so hard she left her hand print across his face for merely showing up at her place of employment. Please remember, Amy Natzel was 8 1/2 months pregnant and we all know how emotional a women is at that point in her pregnancy. Amy was never consider a suspect. I do not believe Amy killed Abbey nor do I believe Eric did. This is a tragic accident due to a child playing in a toy box with a spring loaded clasp. I hope the wrongs against can be corrected and Eric is given the chance to grieve for his daughter and to meet his son. Everyone in Arizona please remember if and when you are questioned by the police (innocent or guilty) invoke your right to counsel, remember the police can lie and distort the truth in order to achieve the outcome they want, not necessarily the truth.Please join me in praying lady justice can balance the scales. We do not need innocence person sent to prison for this tragic accident.

 
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