Abbey Natzel's dad faces at least 17 years in prison for fatally locking the 2-year-old in a toy box

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:

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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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin