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Charges possible against parents

Paul Peirce
| Saturday, Nov. 6, 2004

A Somerset County coroner's jury recommended Friday that a Meyersdale couple whose two young sons suffocated inside a cedar chest Oct. 20 be charged with endangering the welfare of children.

District Attorney Jerry Spangler will meet early next week with state police investigators to determine whether to proceed with filing criminal charges against both parents, Heather Baker and Nathan Leydig. A coroner's jury recommendation is not binding.

The couple's two sons, Anthony J. Leydig, 5, and Alyjah N. Leydig, 3, were discovered by their father at about 7:40 a.m. after they apparently locked themselves inside a cedar chest in the parents' second-floor bedroom. The family lives at 101 High St.

The jury of three men and three women deliberated 50 minutes before reaching its unanimous decision after listening to 5 1/2 hours of testimony from 10 witnesses. Jurors opted not to recommend more serious charges of involuntary manslaughter against the parents.

"What the evidence has shown here today is there was a pattern of lack of supervision," Spangler said.

"People are sick and disgust me," a distraught Leydig said after the jury's verdict was announced.

Leydig and Baker's attorney, Matthew Ziegler, of Williamsport, said the boys' parents loved their sons "and are devastated." He told jurors the deaths were accidental and urged no criminal charges.

"Evidence is pretty clear; we know what happened that night. Whether or not Heather Baker and Nathan Leydig are good parents or bad parents, whether their house is a mess ... whether they let their kids ride bikes by themselves on the street, none of those instances caused the deaths of Alyjah and Anthony," Ziegler said.

State police Trooper Jeff Brock, of the Somerset barracks, told jurors the squalor inside the house "was one of the worst I've ever seen."

"It was deplorable. The stench ... it was so hard to breathe we had to take regular breaks just to go outside to get some fresh air," Brock said.

Jurors viewed a graphic half-hour video tape showing the inside of the home that police photographed the morning the boys' bodies were discovered. The boys' parents left the courtroom while the videotape was played because they were warned it showed the boys' lifeless bodies laying on the parents' bed, where they were placed after being pulled out of the chest.

The video also showed animal and human feces laying throughout both floors of the house, including on top of the boys' mattresses in their second-floor bedroom. Garbage was strewn throughout the kitchen and an upstairs hallway, a deer antler was found on the steps leading to the second floor and a bloody deer bone was stored in a container in an upstairs bathroom.

Brock said the boys' mother told investigators she had fallen asleep with her sons in the living room between 9:30 and 10:30 p.m. Oct. 19. She said it was the last time she saw the boys alive.

Brock said Heather Baker explained that she regularly slept with her three sons in the living room because the victims' older brother, Andrew, 6, had a history of "just taking off."

"She (Heather) showed no emotion, which I found strange. She asked, 'I'm not going to be here for hours, am I?'" Brock said.

"Another time, she said, '(Expletive), I ain't got no cigarettes. This is nuts; why did this happen to both of them?'" Brock quoted Baker as telling police.

According to Brock, Baker and Leydig both told police that Nathan returned home from working at a plastics factory about 2 a.m. and Baker awoke to let him in the door. He said both parents remember Leydig complaining to Baker that she "let the boys tear up the house."

According to Brock, Nathan Leydig noticed his two young sons weren't there but assumed they were staying at Baker's mother's house, which is nearby. Brock said Nathan Leydig went upstairs to bed, while Baker went back to sleep alongside Andrew on the couch.

Brock said Baker noticed her two youngest boys were missing about 7:23 a.m. when she woke up with Andrew. He testified both parents searched the house, and Leydig discovered that the locked cedar chest "was heavy."

Baker unlocked the chest with a key and discovered the boys' bodies, which they placed on the bed until ambulance personnel arrived. Dr. Vimal Mittal, a Johnstown forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsy, estimated the time of death between 10:30 p.m. and midnight.

Coroner Wallace Miller told jurors that the boys probably had enough air for an hour after the lid locked on top of them.

Brock said Baker initially told police that the boys had played in the chest only once before. But Leydig told investigators that the boys regularly played inside it, and he had attempted to disable the lock mechanism.

"Nathan Leydig was crying and very emotional when we spoke with him. He said he yelled at (Heather) as she was opening the chest for not watching the kids," Brock said.

In a later interview, Brock said Baker admitted that the boys often were caught playing in the chest and that she had punished them with spankings.

Brock demonstrated to jurors that the weathered chest did not always lock. Brock closed and opened the lid several times, then slammed it shut once, at which point it did lock.

The family's linens were still inside the bottom of the chest, as well as Anthony and Alijah's favorite toys, a small silver car and a yellow, mud-splattered Tonka truck. The two toys were discovered inside the chest when the boys' bodies were found, Brock said.

Brock said small scratches inside the chest indicated that Anthony was fighting to get out.

Henry Glogowski, a federal product safety inspector, testified the Cavalier brand chest was built sometime between the 1930s and 1950s. He said consumer warnings were issued in 1996 and 2000 that the combination and key lock was unsafe and needed to be replaced.

He said the warnings were issued after nine other children, one as young as 21 months old and as old as 15 years old, suffocated in similar trunks. Glogowski said no criminal charges arose from the other deaths.

"It's unfortunate when they close, it's airtight," Glogowski said.

Spangler also called three neighbors to the stand who said the boys often were left unsupervised and sometimes played outdoors wearing little or no clothing. The boys' early intervention teacher, Susan Mary Gaffron, said Anthony and Alyjah often came to school dirty and hungry, but she observed no signs of physical abuse.

Mittal, in previously videotaped testimony that was played to jurors, said neither boy appeared to be physically or sexually abused. He also said that neither boy was malnourished.

State police fire marshal Terry Wilson, of Somerset, said a November 2003 fire that destroyed the family's previous home in Somerset was ruled an accident. However, he said Leydig explained to him that his son, Andrew, then 5, "had a problem playing with matches," and the fire started in Andrew's bedroom.

Wilson said no charges were filed in that case because "a child that age cannot form intent."

The chest was given to the family after the fire.

Spangler said his office and police will review the various degrees of child endangerment and compare it with the evidence. The parents could be charged with a misdemeanor or third-degree felony.

A misdemeanor conviction carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, while a felony conviction carries a maximum of seven years in prison and a $15,000 fine.

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