Adoptive parents go on trialJury hears divergent accounts of Russian boy's life, death

Date: 2004-03-11

Author: Lillian Shupe

Two vastly different stories were presented to the jury during opening statements Monday in the manslaughter trial of adoptive parents Brenda and Robert Matthey of Pittstown.

After two weeks of questioning that ended Monday morning, 16 people were selected to hear the case being presented in Superior Court in Flemington before Judge Victor Ashrafi.

The couple is charged with various crimes including aggravated and reckless manslaughter related to the death of Viktor Matthey, the 7-year-old Russian boy they adopted less than a year before his death Oct. 31, 2000 from cardiac arrest as a result of hypothermia. The Mattheys also allegedly told their other children to withhold information from investigators.

During her opening statement Assistant Prosecutor Dawn Solari spoke of Viktor: "He was supposed to come to a land of opportunity. Instead he came to a land of abuse and eventually his death."

She described a boy who arrived in the United States healthy and happy for the first several months. By October 2000 he had lost his "sparkle," yet he had not been seen by a doctor since June. By the time he was brought to the hospital, he was battered and frail and his body could no longer fight back, she said.

In the months before his death he was confined to a crib or playpen with netting over the top and often put in the garage, Solari said. "He was struck by hands, bats, whips and a cat-o-nine-tails" and forced to march in place as punishment, she said. He was punished for soiling himself or for not sleeping, she said.

"People were not allowed to get close to Viktor or his younger twin brothers and Viktor was not allowed to do things other kids did," she said.

Solari said the state's medical witnesses would tell the jury that Viktor died with his stomach full of uncooked, incompletely chewed dried beans and his body was full of bruises, cuts, punctures and fractured bones. Police will testify that they found the unheated pump room in which Viktor was allegedly made to sleep, she said. The room was cleaner than the rest of the basement, Solari said, as if it had been cleaned recently. "But they missed the back of the door," she said. Police matched a blood stain on the door to Viktor, she said.

The defense offered a different interpretation of many of the same facts.

In his opening statement Arthur Russo, who represents Mr. Matthey, said the state's case is based on misinformation and missing information. "The state would have you believe the Mattheys traveled 10,000 miles and spent their life savings to bring three children back to abuse them."

He described Viktor's life before the Mattheys adopted him. He and his five siblings lived in a small town with no running water and they often begged for food because their unemployed parents had spent the grocery money on vodka. Despite temperatures often as cold as 30 degrees below zero, Viktor and his siblings were often without clothes, he said.

After the children were finally taken away from the alcoholic couple, Viktor spent nearly four months in the hospital. In 1997 he was hospitalized five times, including one episode when "he went limp and was unconscious" Russo said. Viktor was diagnosed with rickets, cardio mycology, pseudo tuberculosis, neurosis, parasites and other problems. These conditions and malnutrition during most of his life contributed to Viktor's hypothermia and death, the defense contends.

The Mattheys, however, did not have access to Viktor's medical history when they adopted the boy, Russo said.

The Mattheys decided to adopt a foreign child after a missionary came to their church to talk about needy orphans in Brazil. After a Brazilian adoption fell through, they found 4-year-old twins James and Josiah available in Russia. After being "evaluated with glowing results" as potential parents they traveled to the small town in Siberia, Russo said. The orphanage not only delivered the twins, but dropped off their older brother Viktor as well. The usual six-month-long adoption process was done in two days for Viktor.

Once in the United States the boys experienced many problems. But while the twins overcame them, Viktor did not, Russo said.

James Broscious, who represents Mrs. Matthey, said Viktor would have fits, throw himself against objects and bang his head on the stone floor. Methods of helping the children adjust to American life that worked with the twins didn't work with Viktor, he said. "He was out of control to the point he was a danger to himself," he said.

While the Mattheys did have netting over the crib, Broscious said that was merely a psychological tool; the boy knew how to undo it. It was used to "maintain sanity" in the house as Viktor would wander throughout the house all night when he couldn't sleep. He also said beans were Viktor's favorite food and a big bag of dried beans was kept in the pantry, where the boy somehow got access to them. The whips mentioned by the prosecution were souvenirs from a trip to Wild West City in Sussex County, he said, "They were toys." As for the marching in place, it was how the boys reacted when put in a "time-out," something they apparently learned in Siberia.

"So you see, bits and pieces of information were twisted into a tale," he said.

The first witnesses to testify on Tuesday were former members of the same church who said in 1995 or 1996 they witnessed the Mattheys punish one of their biological sons by making him sit outside in the cold with no jacket. The defense said it would come out later that the boy didn't want to do his homework and he chose to sit outside in the cold instead.

The Mattheys each face more than 30 years in prison if convicted.

The trial continues on Monday and is expected to last until at least mid-April.

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