Within the past year, 22-month-old Ethan Thompson and his five brothers, who all had been in protective custody, were reunited with their family by the courts and the Florida Department of Children and Families.
Now Ethan is dead.
Just after midnight Tuesday, Manatee County Sheriff’s Office detectives arrested and charged Ethan’s stepfather, Montez Charles McNeal, with aggravated child abuse in connection with his death.
The investigation into Ethan’s death has so far revealed that physical injuries inflicted by McNeal contributed to his death, according to an arrest report.
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The sheriff’s office has not yet released the results of the preliminary autopsy report, including the manner or cause of death.
Ethan’s five brothers — ages 6 months, 3, 4, 11 and 12 — have been placed back into protective custody.
Ethan’s autopsy revealed that his injuries at the time of his death included seven broken ribs at various stages of healing, a skull fracture at the crown of his head, bruises and a deep cut on his penis, a ruptured kidney swollen three times its normal size and other torn tissues and bleeding.
At about 11:40 p.m. Monday, deputies and paramedics responded to reports of an unresponsive child at a home in the 3300 block of Fourth Street East, Bradenton. Ethan was taken to Manatee Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead early Tuesday.
A Critical Incident Rapid Response Team is being deployed by DCF to conduct an official review in the death.
At the time of the incident, there was an open investigation and active service case as the children were recently reunified.
Florida Department of Children and Families
“At the time of the incident, there was an open investigation and active service case as the children were recently reunified,” DCF posted in its online child fatality database. “Because there was a prior verified report within 12 months of the death, a CIRRT team will be deployed to conduct a review.”
The department issued a statement to the Bradenton Herald.
“The news of Ethan’s death is heartbreaking and we are all praying for those who loved him. Ethan’s siblings have all been placed in foster care at this time and we will continue to care for them as they grieve the loss of their brother,” the statement said.
McNeal appeared before Circuit Judge Scott Brownell Thursday afternoon via video conference for a first appearance hearing.
Brownell ordered that McNeal be held on a $250,000 bond.
“Please do not speak about this case at all,” an assistant public defender told him. “These charges are very serious.”
McNeal could still face more charges, as the public defender cautioned him.
All child protective investigations in Manatee County are conducted by sheriff’s office’s Child Protection Investigation Division, and DCF said its CIRRT team will review the case and “determine if there were any actions that could have been taken to prevent this tragedy.”
Initially, Ethan’s mother told detectives the boy had a cold and had been running a fever, so she left him in the bathtub in his 13-year-old brother’s care while she went to the store to buy some medication, according to the arrest report.
On the way to the store, she said the 13-year-old called her and said Ethan wasn’t doing well and asked her to come back home. When she got back home, Ethan’s mother said she could tell he was not breathing properly, so she took him outside, handed him to a stranger and the stranger took the boy to a neighbor across the street who was an off-duty firefighter.
The firefighter examined Ethan and found his breathing was labored and his heartbeat faint, the report states. He also called 911 and asked for an ambulance.
“While waiting for the ambulance, and on 911, you can clearly hear Montez McNeal, (the mother’s) husband, over the 911 recording telling the fireman that he gave Ethan some medicine and then he took him in the shower where he began acting strange,” detective Steven Luke stated in the report. “The (mother) arrives home and you can hear her clearly in distress over the sight of her child being administered CPR.”
On Wednesday, Ethan’s mother was interviewed by detectives for a second time. She admitted to lying at the scene, out of fear, because there was a protective order between her and McNeal.
“However, she has come to realize she put Montez before her children,” Luke wrote.
She observed him multiple times throughout the marriage punching the children like they were adults.
Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Detective Steven Luke, in Montez C. McNea’s arrest report.
The mother said that after she came home from work Sunday, she had been on the bed with Ethan and when she touched his back, he was clearly in discomfort.
“She thought to herself that the child may have a broken bone, but did nothing,” Luke wrote.
On Monday, the mother was in bed with Ethan “because he wasn’t feeling good.” That morning his face had been noticeably swollen and he had teeth marks on his bottom lip. Later that afternoon, McNeal told the older children to take Ethan outside to play and get fresh air.
“Ethan’s brother had to physically carry him outside because Ethan could no longer stand on his own, nor walk under his own power,” the detective wrote.
A friend of the older brother asked if Ethan was OK, because he could tell that Ethan looked very sick and injured when the other boys were going to play football. Ethan’s brother said Ethan had been in a car accident, which was later proved untrue.
Ethan’s mother detailed McNeal’s abuse of her children to detectives.
“She observed him multiple times throughout the marriage punching the children like they were adults,” the detective wrote.
The mother told detectives she had seen McNeal slap Ethan in the face Monday after she had already noticed injuries to his face. She claimed that McNeal was upset because Ethan wasn’t potty-trained yet.
Monday night, the mother had to work from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., and at about 11:45 p.m. she got a call from her eldest son telling her to come home because Ethan didn’t look well. She came home to find her neighbor firefighter performing CPR on Ethan, she told detectives.
McNeal first denied ever hurting Ethan when the mother talked to him during a call monitored by the sheriff’s office. She demanded he come to the sheriff’s office and give them a statement immediately, according to the report.
After McNeal was read his rights, he admitted that Ethan’s injuries were his fault because he was “rough playing around.” When Ethan began to struggle with his breathing, McNeal told detectives he rushed him into the shower to spray him with water, slipped and fell on top of him.
When detectives had McNeal re-create the chain of events, a common protocol in child deaths, he was unable to do it in a way that could explain Ethan having a fracture on the crown of his head, according to the report.