Worlds apart in Matthey case

Date: 2004-04-25

Worlds apart in Matthey case

Russians follow trial on Internet as adoptive parents' backers fill court

Sunday, April 25, 2004
Star-Ledger Staff

From the other side of the world, in the Russian town of Svobodniy, Vera Ovchar monitors the trial of the New Jersey couple charged with killing their adopted son, 7-year-old Viktor Alexander Matthey.

Since the trial began last month, Ovchar spends late nights searching the Internet for American news accounts of the Hunterdon County trial of Robert and Brenda Matthey.

Some days, Ovchar, a retired teacher, goes door-to-door sharing the news with her neighbors -- all who live near Children's Home 3, the Russian orphanage Viktor Sergeyevich Tulimov once called home.

Viktor may have been adopted by the American couple, Ovchar says, but after his death the people of Svobodniy made him theirs again.

Meanwhile, friends of the Mattheys are getting their news first-hand. Not trusting the news accounts, these people, members of the same Christian church as the Mattheys, go to court in Flemington each day and sit in support of the couple.

"So far, all we hear is what the prosecution thinks based on a few bruises and conflicting medical reports. They couldn't have done what the prosecution says," said Phyllis Melanchrinos of Hillsborough, a church member since the late'80s and an acquaintance of the Mattheys since they joined the Flemington Assembly of God in 1997.

The opinions are as far apart as the geography that separates the two camps.

Ovchar and her neighbors want people to understand that the orphan they knew left Russia an apple-cheeked boy who sang and danced and had everything ahead
of him.

"It (the case) is very close to our hearts because it is connected to a real little boy who had lived very close to us in the orphanage in our town," Ovchar wrote in an e-mail exchange with The Star-Ledger last week.

"I want American people to understand that we don't think all American people are bad," Ovchar wrote. "We know lots of good examples of happy lives of adopted Russian children by American people."

The staff at Children's Home 3, where Viktor lived for two years before his adoption, is also following the case. In a letter sent to The Star-Ledger at the beginning of the trial, they said Viktor had learned to read and write inthe orphanage. He sang, danced and recited poetry. The other children called him "beautiful."

"The teaching staff of the Children's Home 3 of the town of Svobodniy are indignant by the fact" that the Mattheys blame Viktor's death on his living conditions in Russia, the letter says.

In Russia, Viktor's story is more than a saga about an international adoption gone tragically wrong, said Konstantin Semin, a journalist who covered the opening statements in the Matthey trial for Russian television.

"It is the subject of our national dignity," Semin said.

"It says that because we could not provide enough for our own children to keep them in our country -- to care for them in our country -- that something terrible like this could happen to them."

Viktor Matthey died from hypothermia 10 months after he arrived in the United States from the orphanage in an eastern area of Russia, beyond Siberia, near the China border.

The Mattheys are charged with aggravated manslaughter and child endangerment. Prosecutors say the couple locked Viktor in an unheated pump room in the basement of their Union Township home on the night before his heart stop beating on Oct. 29, 2000 -- a form of punishment they had used on previous occasions. Viktor was revived, but died two days later, at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick.

The Mattheys say the boy was sickly when they adopted him and his 4-year-old twin brothers just before Christmas 1999. Within the year, Viktor was dead. The Mattheys' defense is that the boy died from a rare disease caused by severe malnutrition he suffered in Russia before he was snared from his alcoholic parents and orphaned -- two years before he was adopted. He often refused to eat, they say, and he harmed himself by throwing himself against walls and down stairs.

Every day, for the last six weeks, a legion of defenders from the Mattheys' church have come to Judge Victor Ashrafi's courtroom to show their allegiance.

The group often smile and laugh with the Mattheys, prompting one court officer to complain that the atmosphere in the courtroom was more like "a party without
the beer or the pretzels" than a trial about a dead child.

Among the faithful is Michele Szierer -- daughter of the Rev. K. M. Szierer, the Mattheys' pastor at the Assembly of God -- who has taken a semester off from college in Florida to attend the trial.

Szierer takes copious notes of each day's proceedings and assists the Matthey team, escorting defense witnesses into Courtroom 2.

Sometimes, seated next to her in the front row, directly behind the Mattheys, is the Rev. Szierer, his lips frequently fixed in a smile. The pastor's wife also attends some days.

The Szierer family took custody of three of the Mattheys' four biological sons after the couple were charged with Viktor's death. Sometimes, the boys accompany the pastor to court.

Neither Michele Szierer nor her father will talk about the trial to reporters.They and the Mattheys' other church friends say the prosecutors have victimized the Mattheys with a rush to judgment, and the media have further hurt thecouple with distorted reporting.

During a trial break last week, Melanchrinos did speak up before she was rebuked by the Mattheys and their attorneys.

"We want them exonerated," Melanchrinos said. "Viktor had problems they were not aware of. Their best efforts at parenting weren't enough."

Seated on the opposite side of the courtroom from the Mattheys last week, Chris Keisling -- Robert Matthey's aunt -- watched as her nephew laughed along with
his wife and some of their supporters.

Keisling's sister, Phyllis, is Robert Matthey's mother. Phyllis Matthey has temporary custody of Viktor's twin brothers. She testified against her son, and they are now estranged.

Keisling lives an hour away, but she attends the trial whenever she can.

"I don't want people to come and sit behind Bob and Brenda and cheer them on and there's nobody here for Viktor," she said.

"So I come for him.

"I come for Viktor."

In Svobodniy, Vera Ovchar and her neighbors say they are there for Viktor, too, if only in spirit.

Wrote Raisa Maksimivna Goryacheva, who says she knew Viktor well, "The boy was handsome, talkative, laughed with other children.

"Now we know only the sad facts from the newspaper reports.

"I, as a mother, consider: One ought not to give children away into strange hands, into a strange country."

That's why they keep track of the trial.

"We are waiting for justice to win," Ovchar wrote.


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