By Paul Rubin
Abigail Rose Minor was just 34 months old when--according to police, prosecutors and a trial jury--her father locked her into a tox box, where she suffocated after apparently struggling to free herself for minutes.
Abbey's death inside her parents' apartment near Interstate 17 and Deer Valley Road in north Phoenix had haunted now-retired Phoenix police Detective Jack Ballentine, who worked the case relentlessly from day one.
More than a year after Abbey died, a county grand jury indicted her father, Eric Joseph Natzel, on charges of intentionally abusing her physically. Another year-and-a-half passed before Natzel, who still maintains his innocence, had his day in court.
The eight-person jury's guilty verdicts on two counts mandated a long prison sentence, and Superior Court Judge Roland Steinle recently ordered Natzel to spend roughly the next quarter-century behind bars, without the possibility of parole.
In a pre-sentencing memorandum, prosecutor Desi Rubalcaba wrote to the judge that Natzel had "made several choices the fateful day when he killed his child, Abbey Minor:
"He chose to be an absent father that day, chose to play video games instead of interact with Abbey. He chose his game over Abbey.
"He chose to not have any patience with Abbey. He chose to become angry with Abbey. He chose to beat Abbey's back as he stuffed her in the toy box. He chose to close and latch the lid to the toy box. Finally, he chose to ignore Abbey's cries and screams for help.
"He cheated Abbey of her life when he stuffed her in the toy box, making the toy box Abbey's coffin."
Not surprisingly, Natzel's post-trial defense counsel Bill Foreman took issue with the prosecution's "unproven claims and conclusory arguments about what caused" Abbey's death.
"In essence, Mr. Natzel appears to have been convicted based upon a series of inferences drawn from the cause of death (asphyxiation) and the state of Abigail's body upon discovery, but with little or no actual proof, scientific or anecdotal, that Eric Natzel caused either of these two events to occur."
Natzel did not testify in his own defense at trial. He did, however, read a letter to Judge Steinle at sentencing, reiterating his innocence and promising to try to someday get to the bottom of what "really" happened to his daughter.
Abbey's mother, Amy, gave birth to another child with Eric Natzel shortly after the little girl's murder. But Amy Natzel left her husband after Abbey died, and the couple never reconciled. To the contrary, Amy was a key witness for the prosecution at Natzel's trial.
Short of winning an appeal, Natzel, now 28, will be eligible for parole around the year 2031.