The short life of Viktor Alexander Matthey
The short life of Viktor Alexander Matthey
BY MATTHEW REILLY
The frail boy was lying flat on the kitchen floor by the sink. There was no sign that he was breathing or that his heart was beating.
He was disturbingly thin. The first rescue workers to arrive at the modest ranch house thought they were looking at an AIDS victim, or perhaps a child undergoing chemotherapy. Only a few tufts of hair sprouted from his nearly bald head.
The mother of the stricken 7-year-old was trying to administer CPR, but she was pushing on his abdomen, not his chest. A telephone receiver was on the kitchen floor, the line open to the county emergency center.
The mother had called 911 at 12:22 p.m., and help arrived 10 minutes later. Soon the house was swarming with medical technicians and state troopers. The boy, dressed in a shirt and sweat pants with a diaper underneath, was taken by ambulance at 1:10 p.m. to the Hunterdon County Medical Center, 10 miles away.
As the ambulance was preparing to leave, the mother swore at the police officers still there and ordered them off her property. She chose not to ride in the ambulance, but went to the hospital about 15 minutes later with her husband, who had been at Sunday church services with their six other children.
In the emergency room, doctors and nurses were able to restore the child's heartbeat, but his condition was critical. The decision was made to transfer him by helicopter that afternoon to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick.
Doctors there noted that the boy, Viktor Alexander Matthey, was covered with 40 cuts, scrapes and bruises. The skin on his right hand was bright red, from his wrist to his fingertips. Three bones in that hand were broken, and there was evidence of an earlier, untreated fracture.
He also was in an advanced state of hypothermia; his body temperature, recorded as 83.2 degrees at the emergency room in Hunterdon, had dropped to 80 by the time he reached Robert Wood Johnson. There he was put on life support in an intensive care unit while his family prayed for his recovery.
Two days later, on Oct. 31, 2000, the boy died.
A week after that, Bob and Brenda Matthey, a deeply religious couple who 10 months earlier had adopted Viktor Sergeyevich Tulimov in Russia and given him their name, were charged with his death.
Hunterdon County authorities said that before he died, the Mattheys' adopted son had been imprisoned in an unheated, unlit and damp pump room, off the basement, when the temperature outside got down to 37.
Put simply, the child from Siberia had died in the cold of America.
More than 16,000 children born in foreign countries - including 5,000 from Russia - were adopted by Americans in 1999, the year the Mattheys journeyed to eastern Siberia and adopted Viktor and his younger twin brothers, Vladimir and Yevgeniy.
The cost of adopting from overseas can be considerable. It is not unusual to spend $10,000 to $15,000 for a single child - to process documents, to travel to the country where the child is, to pay fees to the lawyers and adoption agencies.
In the vast majority of adoptions, a simple goal is achieved: A family in search of a child is united with a child in need of a family.
Sometimes, however, things don't work as planned. Some children have suffered in their early years, abused by birth parents and sent to institutions where the care is less than nurturing. Often they carry psychological scars that make adjusting to their new homes extraordinarily trying, for them and for their well-meaning but ill-prepared adoptive parents. As a result, some child psychologists now specialize in treating dysfunctional children who were adopted overseas.
There was no sign that Bob and Brenda Matthey had anything but Christian charity in their hearts when they came home from Russia with Viktor and his 4-year-old twin brothers just before Christmas in 1999. Already the parents of four boys, the Mattheys - Bob was 36, Brenda 34 - had decided God wanted them to adopt a foreign child in need of a good home.
Viktor certainly was that. One of six siblings taken from neglectful, alcoholic parents in 1997, he had been in two orphanages over 2½ years. When the Mattheys came to his orphanage to briefly meet him for the first time, Viktor was told they would be his new "forever" parents. As the Mattheys prepared to leave, Viktor began to cry, believing he had failed to please them. The Mattheys assured him they would be back, and days later he and two of his brothers were on their way to a new American home.
If there were serious problems in the Mattheys' house in Union Township, they were not apparent from the outside. The family's life centered on a Pentecostal church that taught that the answers to most problems could be found in the Bible. They did not socialize with their neighbors. None of the children attended public schools; the biological children were home-schooled until they were sent to a Bible school in September 2000.
How Viktor adapted to his new life undoubtedly will be an issue at the Mattheys' eventual trial. Relatives say he picked up English quickly, enjoyed playing on the backyard trampoline and riding a bicycle; the family's pastor says he embraced Christ.
Lawyers representing his adoptive parents are likely to paint a much different picture of Viktor, one that portrays a maladjusted, self-destructive little boy whose many injuries were his own doing.
It is now a year since Viktor died, and no date has been set for the Mattheys' trial. They were indicted in March on charges of aggravated manslaughter, endangering the welfare of a child and witness-tampering. And no one - not the dueling lawyers, not adoption officials in Russia or the United States, not the boy's birth mother in Siberia or his adoptive grandmother in America, not his teachers in a Siberian orphanage, not even the Mattheys' pastor - no one claims to fully understand why this adoption ended in tragedy.
It is far easier to pinpoint when events were set in motion. The story begins in a New Jersey church.
It was in September 1998 when Bob and Brenda Matthey heard the call.
It came from a Brazilian missionary, Amalia Batista, a guest speaker at the regular 10 a.m. Sunday service of their church, the Flemington Assembly of God in Raritan Township.
Batista told the congregation about growing up an orphan in Brazil and how she now cared for 600 orphans there. The children needed so much - basic necessities that the folks of Hunterdon County, part of New Jersey's wealth belt, could buy them.
But they also needed something more than money, she said, a special gift not everybody would be able or willing to give. They needed homes.
She asked: Would anybody be willing to take kids and adopt them?
The Mattheys were already sponsoring a number of children overseas, but the missionary's message haunted them.
Bob and Brenda went to see their pastor, the Rev. K.M. Szierer. Bob had tears in his eyes, Szierer recounted later. "You know," Bob told him, "the Lord keeps reminding us of that service, and we'd love to help if we could adopt one or two of these kids." Then, Szierer said, "They zeroed in, saying, 'If it's two brothers, we don't want to split them up, we want to keep them together.'"
It would not be easy. Bob made about $25,000 as an auto mechanic while Brenda was home-schooling their four children. They had sold some stock for $14,000 that year, and Bob made extra money by snow plowing and by towing and repairing autos at home.
They figured if they could afford to order pizza on Friday nights, they could afford some more kids.
Because of the missionary's nationality, the Mattheys began their search for a child in Brazil. But when Batista became ill, they began looking elsewhere, helped by a local adoption attorney and an agency in Colorado.
They developed a specific profile for the child or children they wanted to adopt. They wanted boys, they said, because they had four boys already. They didn't want girls, who might cause problems when puberty approached. They wanted children younger than their youngest, who was 7, but they didn't want infants.
The way they saw it, babies, not older kids, got adopted. Bob told people that once orphans were 2 years old, they didn't have a chance at a better life.
They considered an interracial adoption. After all, they were already sponsoring seven children in Ethiopia.
An Ethiopian adoption would be less costly, and race, they felt, would not be a factor. Bob said he wasn't worried about what people would think of a family of white kids and black kids.
His only concern, he said later, was that someone might make a smart-aleck comment in a McDonald's some night and, if he wasn't in a great mood, he might yell at that someone in front of the adopted kids and make them feel bad.
At 6-foot-7 and 275 pounds, Bob Matthey was not the sort of person a stranger would pick a fight with. He was handsome in a pleasant, baby-faced way, with steady blue eyes and a head of dark blond hair in a short mullet cut.
He was articulate, low-key, but with a self-confidence that occasionally veered into self-righteousness. He didn't sugar his opinions for easy consumption, and when he talked to people, he looked them in the eye.
In a pre-adoption study, in which a social worker reviews finances, education, upbringing and home life, Matthey described his personality as "choleric," not a word likely to be tossed around by the mechanics he supervised as manager of an engine shop in Bridgewater Township.
Matthey's parents divorced when he was 3. He said he had a good relationship with his father. The elder Matthey was a mechanic and a sailor, and Bob fondly remembered, at the age of 13, spending a week on a boat with him. His father died 11 years ago at age 50.
Bob's mother, Phyllis, took him on day trips, camping, and they spent a lot of time with her large extended family. He played Little League baseball and was confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church.
Brenda Matthey, whose round, pretty face was framed by waves of brown, shoulder-long hair parted in the middle, exuded a comfortable earth mother warmth.
Brenda was born in New Brunswick and raised in the Lutheran Church. Her father, Roy, who worked in the office of the telephone company, died at 41, when Brenda was 9.
She remembered him as funny and loving and strong, a protective presence in her childhood. Brenda had an older brother and sister. She speaks with her brother by telephone and sees her sister on holidays, but she and her sister don't have anything in common, she said in the pre-adoption study.
Bob and Brenda were introduced by friends at a party in June 1981. She was 16 and he was 17. They eloped in March 1983, while Brenda was still in high school. Bob, who graduated a year earlier, was in the Navy and completing electronics school in Tennessee. Brenda joined him there and finished high school.
Bob spent four years in the Navy, most of it in Maryland, where he worked on aircraft electronics before his honorable discharge. It was in Maryland that Bob began attending Bible study groups and exploring Pentecostal religion.
Less than 11 months after Bob and Brenda married, their son Robert was born, and their next son, Richard, came along 19 months later. Raymond was born in October 1990, and the youngest, Jonathan, arrived in February 1992.
By the time Bob and Brenda Matthey started thinking about adopting children in 1998, their older boys had hit their teens and the two younger ones were elementary school age, although all were home-schooled.
In the pre-adoption home study done in 1999 by Bethany Christian Services, a social service agency in Hawthorne, the Mattheys described their four children as "strong-willed."
They said punishment came in the form of "time-outs," and they believed that when the children erred, the children should not be told that something was wrong with them; it was their behavior that was wrong.
Brenda said she took the children to the Bible when they misbehaved and showed them that what they were doing was wrong. As the children got older, punishment meant the loss of privileges.
The Mattheys, according to the study, always coordinated their child-rearing decisions to present a united front to the children.
The home study also said: "They believe in the New Jersey State law concerning the use of passive means of discipline."
That meant no spanking or physical punishment.
Even in hard-drinking Russia, the Tulimovs stood out for their drunkenness and the neglect of their children.
The Tulimovs had come to the part of Siberia known as the Russian Far East in 1988 from Turkmenistan, 3,000 miles away, looking for work.
Olga Ivanovna Tulimova, who had been a telephone operator and a postwoman, had a daughter with her first husband, a factory worker who died from chemical burns. When she and her second husband, Sergey Yevgeniyevich Tulimov, arrived in the village of Busse, home of a collective farm, she was pregnant.
Winter comes early in that part of the world and stays a good long time. The first snows typically fall in October, and morning temperatures dip into the 30s well into May. In the depths of winter, the temperature can bottom out at 40 below zero and rarely will rise above zero. The landscape is ruggedly beautiful, but bleak.
Olga did housework for a while, then started to work on the farm, caring for cows and planting.
Sergey was an operator of a heating station and worked at the farm, doing some household repairs, fixing boilers. But in an economy as harsh as the environment, the Tulimovs failed to thrive.
In the next eight years, they had six children, including Viktor on Sept. 17, 1993, and twins Yevgeniy and Vladimir on Dec. 9, 1995. Money was tight, but there always seemed to be enough for a bottle of vodka, and villagers began to notice the children weren't being cared for.
On May 14, 1997, local officials, accompanied by the local militia, came to the village of 700 and found Sergey inside the family's log house, drinking and reading the Russian translation of a Guy de Maupassant novel, "Bel-Ami." Olga was outside planting potatoes.
A videotape made that day by a regional Russian television crew shows officials in the dirt yard alongside the log house, pulling back some dirty blankets from inside a pair of galvanized steel washtubs. In the basins, naked and listless, curled tight against the morning chill, were the twins, 17 months old and still unable to walk.
"Auschwitz, it was," said Anatoly Divyatkin, a photographer for Amurskaya Pravda, a regional newspaper, who was present. "When they opened the blankets, what they found were almost skeletons."
Viktor, then 3½, also naked and malnourished, was found nearby. A daughter, Yelena, was nearly 10 at the time, and two more sons, Alexander, 9, and Ivan, 7, were there, hungry and dirty as well.
Olga protested when the officials told her they were taking away her six children. The militiamen, she said in an interview later, told her that if she resisted she would not see her children again. Sergey said, okay, take the children.
The twins, extremely weak from malnutrition and exposure, went to a hospital in Svobodniy, where they stayed 11 months. On April 17, 1998, they were placed in Dome Rebyonka, an orphanage for infants and toddlers in the regional capital, Blagoveshchensk, a seven-hour drive from Busse.
Viktor went first to an orphanage called Nadezhda, Russian for "hope," in Svobodniy, a city of 70,000 about 90 miles north of Blagoveshchensk. In October 1997, shortly after turning 4, he was transferred to another children's home, Detskiy Dome No. 3, in the same city. The three other siblings were put in homes for older children, similar to boarding schools.
Although it took him a while to open up to the other children at Detskiy Dome No. 3, little Viktor was a natural leader, his teachers said. He was the one who organized games among the kids.
Viktor's teacher, Natalia Mikhailovna, remembered him as a bright child who took time to reach out to his peers and his teachers.
"He was very quiet, very shy, when he arrived here," she said in an interview at the orphanage. "He was introduced very slowly to the group, and he found good friends when he was here six months."
In his teacher's view, Viktor was academically gifted. He was reading by age 4, spoke well and had a good memory.
A videotape made at the school before his adoption shows him reciting verses and performing a long, elaborate song and dance.
The classroom where Viktor spent much of his time also served as a playroom and eating area. There was a dormitory lined with child-size wooden beds covered with cheerful bedclothes, and with a small table at the end of each bed for clothing and shoes.
"They live modestly, but the main idea is to keep it warm, clean and well-lighted," said Ludmilla Petronova Mechenkova, director of the orphanage.
In August 1997, two months before Viktor arrived at the orphanage, the Svobodnenskiy District Court stripped Sergey Tulimov and Olga Tulimova of their parental rights, finding: "The Tulimovs abused alcohol and did not provide for their children's upbringing. The children wandered around and were hungry. They did not have any clothes."
On April 23, 1999, the names of the six Tulimov children were entered in the Russian Federation's Central Registry for Orphan Children, the first step toward their adoption.
In New Jersey, the Mattheys were still looking for children to adopt from abroad.
The Mattheys' lawyer referred them to an adoption agency and told its representatives what they were looking for. Since this was to be an international adoption, they would have to deal with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, applying for permission to bring a noncitizen into the country. They would need a home study, which would be forwarded on to an adoption agency for approval. If the agency okayed their application, the process of finding a child would get under way.
The Mattheys' adoption agency, Adoption Alliance of Aurora, Colo., put them together with an Atlanta company called AMREX, which provides technical services - document processing, translation, travel assistance - to people seeking to adopt from Russia. It was in AMREX's Internet database that the Mattheys located a pair of towheaded brothers on the other side of the world.
The twins - but not their brother, Viktor, nor the older siblings -were listed in the AMREX database, used by prospective parents for browsing through photos and brief background information on candidates for adoption. The entries were sparse - photo, I.D. number, gender, birth date, race, eye and hair color, country - but it was enough for the Mattheys to make their decision.
They viewed the photos of a set of 3-year-old twins, Vladimir and Yevgeniy Tulimov. (They were known on the Web site only as I.D. Numbers 1574 and 1575.) On Sept. 21, 1999, the Mattheys asked that a "hold" be put on them until they could get more information, in the form of a brief videotape of the boys.
According to their home study, the Mattheys were advised of the risks associated with international adoption: Their new children could arrive with previously undetected health problems or a contagious disease, or could suffer developmental delays associated with the minimal care they received at home or in an institution.
"They understand and accept these risks," wrote Nancy Dykstra-Powers, the social worker who did the Mattheys' home study in preparation for the adoptions. "They will deal with any problems that arise in the way that they would if they had given birth to a child with a problem."
The Mattheys' financial picture had apparently improved. They had reported Bob's salary as $32,960 on their 1996 income tax return, $28,592 on their 1997 return, and $25,175 on their tax return for 1998, the year they began considering adoption. By September 1999, the Mattheys stated on their home study that Bob's salary was $75,000 a year, according to a letter from his employer. The couple also declared Bob made $12,000 annually from snow plowing and auto repair, and that they owned investments worth $40,000.
The home study concluded the Mattheys were "loving, caring people," and Bethany Christian signed off on them to adopt two males up to age 5.
To return home with two foreign-born children, the Mattheys, like all families adopting from overseas, had to wade through a small mountain of paperwork and await approval from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. This included submission of their home study, a fingerprint check and details about the children they would be bringing back.
Bob Matthey said some prospective adoptive couples look at dozens of children before settling on the one they want to adopt. He and Brenda never felt as if they wanted to "choose a kid," and once they had seen photos of the twins, they wanted them no matter what.
"We had a supernatural bonding, I guess, if you want to call it that," he said, in an interview with his lawyer present. "From the day we saw them, their pictures, I felt like they were my kids and they were lost. I used to look at their pictures every day on the Internet."
To Russia with hope
Finally, the adoption agency said they had been approved to adopt the twins. The Mattheys spent a month packing, unpacking, repacking, trying to figure out how best to get in everything they would need - cold-weather gear for themselves and the twins that would be good to at least 40 below, medical supplies to give to the orphanage, gifts for the various functionaries involved in the adoption - without exceeding the airlines' 44 pounds-per-person luggage limit.
Brenda talked Bob out of wearing his leather coat, fearing he would stick out as a rich American. He took his teal ski parka instead, and stood out among a sea of Russian men in black leather coats.
The Mattheys arrived in Moscow on a flight from JFK on Dec. 3, 1999, and checked into the Moscow Marriott Grand Hotel on Tverskaya Street, which offered special rates and services for people coming to adopt.
They wandered down to Red Square, took walks around the city in the evening, bought souvenirs and traded tales with other adoptive couples. "Some with good stories, some with horrible stories," Bob would say later.
Legally, there is a 10-day waiting period before the adoptive parents can leave the country with their new children. The Mattheys said they'd heard of older children getting adopted, then changing their minds about leaving on the ninth day.
"We met a lot of heartbroken parents the week before Christmas, going home without a kid," Bob said in an interview with Brenda at his side.
On their third night in Moscow, a Sunday, they were at dinner with two AMREX agents, Russians providing them with translation and legal services, when they learned twins Vladimir and Yevgeniy had three brothers and a sister. They were told the girl and two of the boys were with a grandparent in another region. But the third boy was in an orphanage near where they were going to adopt the twins.
The idea that the twins had a brother available for adoption was startling. There was no ready explanation for why no one had told the Mattheys. Their adoption agency apparently hadn't known, although the Russian government said it should have.
"Brenda and I were sitting across the table from each other, and when we heard it we were just .¤.¤. It was upsetting," Bob recounted later. "We felt like he was lost."
Using a laptop borrowed from another American couple at the hotel, Bob sent an e-mail back to the United States to tell his family the news and seek advice from his minister.
To the Rev. K.M. Szierer, whose family had fled Russian occupation in Hungary, the answer was easy. "Yeah, bring him over, give him a chance for life," he said he told the Mattheys.
The news of an additional sibling was not a shock to the Mattheys' oldest boy, Robert. He had told his parents before they left that they would be returning home with three children, not two, because, he said, he had prayed on it and God had told him so.
They would embark on the next part of their journey with even more anticipation.
On Dec. 8, Bob and Brenda Matthey took off from Moscow in a KrasAir TU-154 - a noisy old Russian jet they described as "a flying hay cart" - for Blagoveshchensk, the city 4,800 miles east of Moscow where the twins were living in an orphanage. The plane stopped after four hours, roughly halfway there, to pick up and drop off passengers and take on fuel before the final four-hour leg.
Once in Blagoveshchensk, a city of about 250,000 on the Amur River separating Russia from China, the Mattheys spent the next 10 days in a 12th-floor furnished apartment for which they paid $20 a day.
They settled in and went to see Yevgeniy and Vladimir.
"When we met the twins, they ran across the room and hugged us and we almost lost our dinner, they smelled so bad," Bob said.
They spent their days getting to know the boys, who were able to stay with them in the apartment. The Mattheys and the twins learned how to communicate with each other, went shopping and cooked meals. All the while, say the Mattheys, they never forgot about the other brother.
Soon they were able to make arrangements to meet Viktor.
On Saturday, Dec. 11, they got a car and driver to make the 90-mile trip to Svobodniy, a former nuclear missile launch site whose name means "freedom." They arrived at Viktor's orphanage shortly before lunch.
They described their first meeting as a mixture of shock and jubilation.
"We went to the class, and I guess these orphans are taught that someday momma and poppa - and that's the Russian words - will come and get you," Bob said. "And it's their dream. So we walk in and mom and pop are here for Viktor, and all the kids, of course, want us to be mom and pop."
Bob and Brenda said they fell in love with Viktor the first time they saw him. Bob had borrowed a digital camera with a preview screen on the back, and he used it to make contact with Viktor.
"So I would take the kid's picture and turn it around and show it to him, and it was such an icebreaker," he said. "Then I'd take a picture of her (Brenda) and then I'd show him the picture and say, 'Momma?' We were taught a few things. We learned to say 'Poppa zees' and 'Momma zees.' It means 'Momma's here.'"
They spent about an hour with Viktor before they had to leave for the return trip to Blagoveshchensk.
"As we were saying goodbye to him, he was crying - he thought we didn't like him, basically is what they were explaining to us," Bob said. "He thought that we interviewed him and we didn't like him. But we left him with some pictures of us and convinced him that we would be back for him. Of course, we thought we'd be back in several months."
New applications to the INS would have to be filed, their home study would have to be updated, their agency would have to decide whether they could handle an additional child. They might even have to return to the United States without him and make a second trip to Russia.
But the Mattheys and Viktor would be together again, and for some reason - the Mattheys believe it was a miracle - it was a matter of days, not months.
After that initial meeting, the Mattheys say they never spoke to anyone about adopting Viktor. The boy was simply brought from the orphanage in Svobodniy, unannounced, to the courtroom in Blagoveshchensk where the Mattheys were to adopt the twins. When they walked in, they found him sitting there, wearing a girl's winter coat.
"We were amazed because we had never signed a document," Bob said. "We said we'd take him when they asked us if we wanted him, but we never signed anything, didn't pay anybody."
On Dec. 16, 1999, the adoption of all three boys was final. Members of the court and the Ministry of Education signed documents swearing never to discuss the adoption. To ensure privacy, children were given new birth certificates with their new names and with their place of birth listed as Blagoveshchensk, not Busse, where they were actually born.
The Mattheys let the children keep their first names but changed their middle names as well as their surnames: Vladimir Jeziah Matthey, Yevgeniy James Matthey, Viktor Alexander Matthey.
Three days later, they flew back to Moscow, where they joined scores of other adoptive families trying to get their immigration paperwork completed so they could get out of Russia before the arrival of Y2K and dreaded computer glitches.
"That was kind of a whirlwind deal," Bob Matthey said. "We left Sunday morning, got there (to Moscow) Sunday night, late. Been up 20 hours, 22 hours, the kids are miserable, cranky, airsick, carsick."
The next day, when the Mattheys went to the American Embassy, more than 80 families were there, trying to leave.
"There was a big rush to get out because the rumor was they were shutting down for Y2K," Bob Matthey said. "This was the last week, and there was some really good propaganda going on there, that they're going to abandon the embassy for months. So if we didn't get done and get back by the 23rd, we might have had to wait until February to leave."
On Dec. 23, 1999, the Mattheys and their three adopted sons arrived in the United States. Although their original immigration paperwork was filled out for two children, it was changed to read "one or more" at the American Embassy in Moscow. How did it happen?
"I can't answer that, except to say ...," Bob said, and Brenda completed the thought for him: "We believe in miracles."
They rolled through JFK Airport and headed for home, exhausted and exhilarated, eager to see their other children, enjoy the holidays and start their new lives together.
A new home
Experts in the field of international adoption - particularly adoptions from Russia and Eastern European countries, which still rely on an orphanage system to care for children without parents - say there are ways parents should prepare for children emerging from these institutions, especially if the children are older.
Jane Aronson, a New York physician who specializes in providing advice to prospective adoptive parents, views videotapes of the children under consideration and offers an assessment of the children's health and development. She also provides medical care for the children once they arrive.
Some are exposed to tuberculosis, others to hepatitis B. Vitamin D deficiency causes rickets, a weakening of muscles that impairs normal development, especially gross motor and fine motor development. Add to that the possible exposure to lead paint, fetal alcohol syndrome, an unstimulating environment and a lack of individual contact with adults, and children wind up with a host of problems not normally seen in the United States.
"It's a very challenging situation to take older kids from an institution," Aronson said. "You need to be incredibly prepared. You need to know the language. I believe families who adopt older children .¤.¤. must have some working knowledge of the language, rudimentary, so the kids are not freaked out when they come. A lot of behavioral problems, I believe, in older-kid adoptions come from just the inability of kids to communicate their fears and anxieties."
Ronald Federici, a developmental neuropsychologist in Washington, D.C., and a professor of child development at Virginia Tech, has adopted seven children from Romanian orphanages. He counsels parents who adopt children from institutions in Eastern Europe, and Russia especially, to take their time helping the children adjust to new lives, especially older children.
He said all children over the age of 3 who come out of an institution are considered "special-needs" children, with emotional and developmental issues that require extraordinary care.
"No 6-year-old coming out of an institution is going to come out normal," Federici said.
To the Mattheys, however, the three Russian boys seemed perfectly normal.
While Brenda had developed a decent vocabulary in Russian, Bob was less facile. "I kept getting 'tomorrow' (ZAF-tra) and 'breakfast' (ZAF-trak) mixed up, though, cause they're like one letter apart," Bob said. "I kept asking them if they wanted 'tomorrow' and they laughed at me."
But the boys picked up English quickly - especially Viktor, who used a Russian-English translation program on the computer to help communicate with his new family. By February, the boys were using English exclusively, according to their grandmother.
The Mattheys had decided the house they were renting in Raritan Township, a 2½-story white, wood-frame house on a well-traveled road, was no longer large enough. They found a new home on a wooded hilltop in Union Township, between Pittstown and Pattenberg in northern Hunterdon County.
The house was a four-bedroom, two-bath ranch, built in 1958. The exterior was red-and-white, with an attached garage and a greenhouse off the garage. It was screened from the road by tall pines and some scraggly shrubs.
The former owner of the house, Adah-Grace Roberts Vollmer, who now lives in Doylestown, Pa., remembered remarking during the sale on the number of children in the Matthey family.
She also recalled warning the family about the pump room, which she described as about 5 feet by 8 feet, separated from the rest of the basement by a locking door.
The room contained a pump that drew water from the property's well. The room also had a 50-gallon holding tank for the water pumped in from the well, and a water-softening system. There were no lights or heat in the pump room, and the concrete floor was always wet, she said.
"It's a dank, miserable place," she said. "I tried to use it as a wine cellar and, for a while, I kept a rack of wine in there, but it was so dank, the labels would come off."
She said the door to the pump room had a hook-and-eye lock, but she kept the door open and specifically told Bob Matthey he should do the same.
"I did warn him and showed him," Vollmer said. "It was so damp. It was a miserable place and I did warn them it was a good idea to leave the door open."
The Mattheys closed on the $215,000 property on May 22, 2000.
In their new house, Viktor and the twins shared a room furnished with a set of bunk beds and a single bed. They played on a trampoline in the back yard, and Viktor learned to ride a bicycle.
While the Mattheys had always home-schooled their children, they decided that for the coming school year they would send the four older boys to a church school in Washington, Warren County, so Brenda could devote as much time as possible to the twins and Viktor.
Brenda gave the twins - who had just turned 4 - baby bottles at night, to promote bonding, and because she believed that would help them develop their speech.
She also fed a bottle to Viktor, who was 6 years old when he arrived, so he wouldn't feel left out. All three boys had put on weight and had grown taller, according to a June 9, 2000, follow-up visit by Lori Phelan, a social worker from Bethany Christian Services, the agency that had done the Mattheys' original home study.
The report said all the children "appeared to be doing well." Viktor was described as somewhat withdrawn at first, but beginning to show more affection and emotion. He was called by his new middle name - Alex.
The boys had been found to have rickets - not uncommon among Russian adoptees - and the Mattheys were advised the cure was good nutrition. Initially allowed to eat as much as they wanted, the boys didn't know when to stop eating, and so the Mattheys began portioning out their food.
Viktor was also having trouble sleeping. He did not take an afternoon nap as his younger brothers did, and he woke up frequently in the night.
There also were toilet-training problems, especially with the twins. Brenda told the Bethany social worker that she was "gentle with her reaction" to the problem.
The report concluded that the adoption was working out nicely.
"The children have benefitted greatly from all the care and love given to them," Phelan reported. "This is evidenced by their socialization and affection toward each other. The children are very much loved and cared for."
At the church
Perched on a rise overlooking Route 202 in Raritan Township, the Flemington Assembly of God is a church in the Pentecostal tradition, which stresses the need for a direct experience of the Holy Spirit. The church believes that glossolalia - speaking in tongues - physical healings, prophesying and even fainting spells are expressions of that ecstatic faith.
Shortly after they arrived in America, the three Russian boys began going to church with their new parents and brothers. The Rev. K.M. Szierer said the Mattheys were at services every Sunday and came to Family Night every Wednesday. Family life is important to the church, which teaches that disciplining children when they're young is preferable to dealing with more serious problems when they're older.
Sunday services begin at 10 a.m. with an elaborate music presentation that includes words to hymns projected on a giant screen. Electric and acoustic guitars, an electronic keyboard and drums accompany the singing, a popular style of worship known as contemporary Christian.
Some members of the congregation wave large, colorful banners, others sway gently from side to side as the music fills the sanctuary. Others jump up and down to the music. Szierer joins in the music, sometimes speaking in tongues, and then, as things quiet down, offers prayers for those who have come up to the front of the church. He lays hands on those who are ill or injured, and a few collapse as they are prayed over.
On Sunday, Oct. 29, 2000, Pastor Szierer was finishing up after church, talking to the last few members of his congregation and getting ready to leave for his own Sunday dinner, when word reached him that Viktor Matthey had been taken to the hospital. The news hit hard. Szierer had been watching the Russian children adjust to their new lives and was especially fond of Viktor.
Just two weeks earlier, at a Tuesday night prayer meeting, according to Szierer, Viktor told the church that he had accepted Christ into his life.
"Out of all of them, all three of them, if I had to make a choice - which is a terrible thing to say - my heart was for Viktor," he said. "I loved this little guy."
Szierer went directly to the emergency room at Hunterdon Medical Center.
"I came into that room and I see Brenda there just broken, crying away," he said. "Bob is trying to stabilize her, hold her."
He went to the gurney where Viktor lay motionless, nurses and doctors working to revive him. Szierer said that while he was with the boy, Viktor never regained consciousness.
"I just put my hand on his head and just began to pray for him," Szierer said. "I was just holding his left hand, just praying for him. What happened is, one time, his fingers curled around my finger. Right there I said, 'Oh!' I was just talking to him, 'Viktor, can you hear me, it's Pastor, we're praying for you, we want life to come back to you.'"
Asked if he ever questioned the Mattheys about what had happened to Viktor, Szierer said:
"Yeah, I did ask, I said, 'What's going on, what's happening?' And they said, 'We don't know, he's just gone cold.' I remember there was some breathing difficulties and that his body was getting cold. They were trying to .¤.¤. Bob was here (at the church), Brenda was at home at the time, trying to warm him up with blankets and the like. I remember her saying she had him in the rocking chair, just rocking him, holding him, just trying to get him warm."
Two days later, Tuesday, Oct. 31, Viktor's heart again stopped beating. He was pronounced dead at 1:24 p.m.
The Mattheys were arrested and initially charged Nov. 8, 2000, with endangering the welfare of a child and tampering with witnesses - Bob was picked up at work, Brenda at home. The Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office and the New Jersey State Police notified the state Division of Youth and Family Services so they could arrange for placement of the other children while the parents were in jail.
The four oldest children were questioned at length by investigators, interrogations the Mattheys' lawyers allege were conducted illegally. The children offered a chilling account of life inside the house in Union Township.
The Mattheys' oldest son, Robert, who was 16 at the time he was interviewed by police, said Viktor "was a handful" and was locked in the pump room in the basement when he would "throw severe fits," according to court documents.
Robert described the room as wet and muddy with no lights and no toilet. He told police Viktor would sometimes be locked in the room for about a half-hour, but occasionally he was left in there overnight.
"He (Robert) would hear Viktor screaming and banging on the door to get out," according to a legal brief filed by Assistant Prosecutor Dawn Solari. "He could also hear him through a monitor that was in the pump room with the receiver in the parents' room. He could hear Viktor calling out that he had to go to the bathroom and crying, sometimes through the night."
Robert said when Viktor would scream loudly, his parents put duct tape over his mouth to get him to quiet down, and "the tactic worked." He said all of the children, including Viktor, were disciplined by being "spanked or whacked" with a belt or with their hands. He said Viktor had been spanked five to 10 times in the month prior to his death.
Another Matthey son, Richard, 15 at the time he was interviewed, described the pump room as having "dirt all over the place, cobwebs and all kinds of bugs in there." He told police his parents put all three Russian boys in the room at different times as a means of punishment. If they were screaming, they would be put in the room to calm down. They were put in there during the day, or at bedtime and would stay through the night.
"They would never be wearing a coat, but depending on the weather, they would wear warmer pajamas," Solari wrote in the brief. "They were never provided with a blanket."
Other punishments included spankings, time-outs and running in place. The children told the investigator that sometimes they were punished with a cat-o'-nine-tails, a whip made of nine knotted cords attached to a handle. It was kept in Brenda's desk, they said.
Richard described a mixture of beans and barley that was used to punish Viktor: He was forced to eat the mixture before a buzzer went off - if he failed to finish, he would not be allowed to have a drink.
Raymond Matthey, who was 10 when interviewed, and Jonathan, who was 8, echoed much of what their older brothers had seen and heard, according to court papers. Jonathan said all the boys were hit with a whip. The three adopted boys were forced to march in place or run holding an aluminum bat over their heads, and if they stopped too soon, they got hit with the bat.
The boys' account appeared to be supported by what investigators found.
Police discovered blood on the inside of the pump room door, and DNA testing concluded it was Viktor's, according to pretrial court testimony.
Investigators who took temperature readings at the Matthey house found the temperature inside the pump room varied no more than a few degrees from the temperature outdoors.
And Viktor's autopsy determined his stomach contained "an excessive quantity of uncooked, dried beans without sufficient liquid," according to the Mattheys' indictment.
Investigators also talked to Bob Matthey's co-workers and friends from a Middlesex County church, the Abundant Life Christian Center Church, in Edison. The Mattheys joined the church in 1992, when they lived in Edison, and continued to attend when they moved to Somerset County.
The Mattheys belonged to a Bible study group with two other couples. The group met one night a week for about two hours, often at the Mattheys' home.
The two couples, Gary and Gina Starr and Connie and Robert Phillips, described an incident that occurred one winter night. Richard Matthey, then about 10, was sitting outside his house wearing a T-shirt and no coat. He was crying.
Both couples told investigators it was very cold, with snow on the ground. The Starrs described Richard as "whimpering" and making a "mournful-like, hopeless kind of cry" that could be heard through the closed windows. They told the Mattheys they thought the child had been outside long enough - 45 minutes to an hour - but Bob Matthey said that was Richard's punishment for his crime. The Phillipses said they believed the "crime" was a problem with schoolwork.
Both couples said they reported the incident that night to their pastor, the Rev. Scott Walsh, who called the Division of Youth and Family Services. After DYFS investigated, the Mattheys stopped attending the Bible study group and left the church. No charges were filed against the Mattheys in connection with the incident.
Gary Starr said he often tried to persuade Bob Matthey not to be so hard on the children, who were frequently in trouble. Bob said he "refused to lose." Starr said he told Bob he was not talking about a game to be won or lost.
The Starrs told investigators they knew the Mattheys beat their children with belts. Bob Matthey told Gary Starr he put a sock in his children's mouths because he didn't want the neighbors to hear them scream.
A co-worker of Bob's, Dave Rivera, said he was at the Mattheys' house in Edison when he saw Bob hit Robert with a belt several times because Robert wasn't doing his homework. Rivera and his wife, Kim, said the Mattheys admitted to them that when they moved to Raritan Borough, they put their children on the back porch in the winter, without a coat, as a form of punishment.
Regina Marchello, who met Brenda Matthey when her children were attending a youth class at the Flemington Assembly of God, said she was aware the Mattheys had adopted three children from Russia. During the 2000 New Year's Eve party at the Raritan Township church, Marchello saw Brenda in a corner of a room screaming at the Russian children, who had been in the United States less than two weeks. Brenda yelled so loudly and flailed her arms so wildly, Marchello thought she should mention it to the pastor's wife.
Marchello said Brenda Matthey later told her she had to hit her children hard because that was how they were treated in Russia.
'Let truth be revealed'
James Broscious, one of three lawyers representing the Mattheys, said the children's statements referred to in the prosecution's brief "are very confusing and, at times, internally inconsistent." He said the prosecutors have taken "snippets" of the children's statements and put them together to paint an unfair picture of the Mattheys.
Broscious said the prosecutor is selectively putting out information to make his clients look bad to the public.
"They are not monsters," he said. "Are they strict disciplinarians? Yes, they are. Do they believe in raising kids in a fashion that could be deemed old-fashioned? Yes."
In an e-mail last week, Bob Matthey called the basis for the charges lodged against him and his wife "unfounded rumors that were solely created to smear the truth."
Pastor Szierer said he, too, is troubled by the reports of how the children were questioned, saying detectives played on the family's strong religious convictions to get information from them.
He said he got the impression the State Police were looking for some kind of link between the church's teachings and the injuries Viktor presented when he arrived at the emergency room.
"I am teaching discipline, I do teach that," Szierer said. "Never have I taught beating, never. To me, I think we need to have authority, but based in love, not in anger, not in hostility. That's when beatings and all this takes place, and that's abuse and I don't agree with that. We as a church do not teach beatings or anything like that. Yes, discipline, hold you accountable."
Szierer said that what he has read in news accounts of Viktor's death does not square with what he knows about the family.
"Knowing the parents, knowing the family, I don't see it," he said. "But, hey, do I know everything? I just see a side of them that doesn't exhibit that. But nevertheless, they are good people, faithful people."
Szierer said the Mattheys, like other church members, would occasionally come forward during the Sunday services for special prayers by the minister "if there were difficulties, colds, kids not listening at home, things like that."
But they did not bring Viktor to their minister to be prayed over for refusing to eat or for injuring himself.
"No, nothing like that took place," Szierer said.
Szierer said he and the rest of the church are standing by the Mattheys, "but the most important thing in all of this is, let truth be revealed."
The Mattheys were indicted March 28, 2001, on charges of aggravated manslaughter, manslaughter, four counts of endangering the welfare of a child and one count of tampering with witnesses.
The Mattheys lost custody of their six other sons at the time of their arrest a year ago. Their four biological sons now live with Szierer. The twins are with a foster family in Hunterdon County. A separate legal fight for the return of the children is being waged in Family Court.
Viktor's remains were cremated in November 2000. Bob Matthey said last week that DYFS and the law guardian who represents Viktor's twin brothers would not allow the twins to attend a memorial service last May.
"For that reason, we have delayed the final disposition of his remains until such time as his entire family can honor his memory," Matthey said in an e-mail.
Bob and Brenda Matthey remain free on $30,000 bail each. No trial date has been set. They are due to appear in court Tuesday for a pretrial hearing.
Tears for Viktor
Olga Tulimova, Viktor's birth mother, looks through her tears at the photo from America. Her three beautiful boys, dressed in crisp white shirts, dark blue vests and pants, smile back at her.
She points first to Vladimir, one of the twins, and whispers, "Volodya," the diminutive form of the name. Her finger moves to the other twin, and she mouths his name, Yevgeniy.
Her eyes go to Viktor.
Tulimova squeezes her eyes shut but the tears roll down her cheeks anyway. She turns away.
She is sitting in an acquaintance's small apartment in Svobodniy, the eastern Siberian city where Viktor lived in an orphanage before being adopted by the Mattheys.
At 44, Tulimova looks half again as old, each year carved in her face. Her complexion, the leathery red of a hard drinker, is marked by deep scars.
It is mid-May, and Tulimova has agreed to meet with a reporter and photographer from New Jersey. Though Viktor has been dead more than six months, Tulimova has only recently learned of it from the local newspaper.
Looking at the pictures of her boys, speaking of her own life and the events and decisions that had brought her to this place, she continues to cry softly.
Yes, she says, she and her husband Sergey, now dead, had been alcoholics, and that's why she lost her children.
Later, standing outside the block of flats in Svobodniy in the disappearing light of a late spring evening, waiting for a car to take her the four hours back to Busse, she asks to send a message to her twin sons in the United States.
"Tell them their mother is here and sends her best wishes," she says. "I can't say everything is okay. If they stay, it should not be in old hands, not with that family. And it should be with the condition that they know they have a mother and sister here in Russia."
Her ride pulls up, a battered Russian Jeep-type vehicle, the only kind capable of handling the rough road home. Olga has one last request:
"If you can get me some earth, some soil from the place where Viktor is buried," she says. "If you could send it to me ..."