“There’s something about a child that touches all of us”
A man accused of killing his child in Somerset will spend the next 40 years in prison. A small group gathered in Gunnison County’s District courtroom on Friday, February 11 to see Edward Cox, who was arrested last May in connection with the death of his infant son, take a plea deal that spared him possible execution but sent him to prison for the next four decades, plus 5 years of parole.
Friday’s schedule had been set for a motions hearing before a proposed jury trial in June. But District Judge Steven Patrick was presented two documents at the hearing signed by Cox: a plea agreement and a petition to plead guilty to the charge of child abuse resulting in death.
In a statement made to the court at the hearing, lead investigator on the case detective William Folowell summed it up, saying, “These kinds of cases are so hard. They’re hard on the family, they’re hard on the people that investigate them, they’re hard on the defense attorneys, the prosecutors and the judges. There’s something about a child that so touches all of us.” And the case involving Cox has gone on for nearly a year.
On April 17, 2010, Cox was found by police trying to resuscitate his 13-month-old son, Christian, who lay with no pulse on the floor of his family’s Somerset home. When EMTs arrived, they saw bruises on the boy’s ribs and chest and he was pronounced dead at a hospital a short time later. The coroner’s report said the boy had gotten an injury to his liver from blunt trauma and had died of internal bleeding in less than five minutes.
The investigation that followed revealed a history of violence and abuse that started when Cox was 18, living in St. Clair County Michigan, where he ultimately served three terms in state prison for felony charges and was labeled an “habitual felon.”
The trend of violence continued after Cox moved to Colorado in 2009 with his girlfriend, Shannon, and their two-year-old daughter, “to get his life straightened out.” According to the court affidavit, Cox became controlling and abusive with both his girlfriend and his daughter.
At the hearing, special prosecutor Kathy Eberling told the court, “I think after hearing a day and a half of testimony… that this defendant deserves every minute of a 40-year sentence in prison. Little Christian did not die because of a single act of violence or a momentary loss of temper. What the court heard from a day and a half of testimony was that little Christian was only one of several victims in the defendant’s long history of abuse and violence.”
Eberling reminded the court, and the public, that Cox had two children with a woman named Jessica, along with the daughter he had with Shannon.
“He put Shannon in the hospital and otherwise subjected her to violence and he abused [the daughter] to the point that more than a year later, she remains terrified of her father and wants nothing to do with him,” she said.
Shannon told investigators there would be times when she would arrive home from work to find bruises and scrapes on their daughter. The girl would say “daddy has been mean” to her. Shannon told investigators that a few days before returning to Michigan in October 2009, she found a burn mark on her daughter’s hand.
Cox, the affidavit says, had no explanation.
“Then comes along little Christian,” Eberling said.
Two weeks before Christian’s death, his mother, Crystal Wentz, had also arrived home to find a second-degree burn on the boy’s left hand. Cox and Wentz fought about taking him to the doctor. Cox confronted Wentz as she was on her way to the highway and pushed her down. After neighbors intervened, Cox was arrested. Gunnison County court records show Wentz had an active protection order against him at the time of Christian’s death.
By the time Cox entered the courtroom last Friday wearing a clean shirt, dress pants and a tie, he had already served 285 days and was shackled at the waist. He walked with a bit of a swagger and looked around the room before taking a seat next to one of his attorneys, who was enthusiastically playing Boggle® on her Smartphone.
After being asked by Judge Patrick, Cox said he signed the documents, entering an “Alford guilty plea” that allows him to maintain his innocence while admitting that the prosecution had enough evidence for a conviction.
For Cox to be convicted, a 12-person jury would have to unanimously agree that Cox is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If the standard were met, Cox could face life in prison or the death penalty. When Judge Patrick asked Cox why he had signed the agreement, he said, “I guess, to get this situation over with. I know it’s a situation that needs to be resolved.”
The agreement includes a stipulation to a 40-year Department of Corrections sentence and a mandatory five years of parole after the sentence is over.
Detective Folowell, who retired in November and had conducted many of the interviews transcribed in the court affidavit, was visibly wracked by what he had experienced second-hand as he gave his statement to the court.
“We’re all here today for a small child whose name was Christian Wentz. The first time I ever saw Christian was on an autopsy table in Montrose. I was touched by what a beautiful child that little boy was in life. Even in death, he was still a beautiful child…
“This was my last homicide case and the last autopsy that I will ever attend, hopefully. And it will go with me the rest of my life. It’s such a tragedy that that little boy is now gone. I think that everyone here, including Mr. Cox, wish that he rest in peace.”
In her statement, Eberling recounted the time spent hearing testimony that painted a guilty picture of Cox, who was alone with Christian when he died. But she, like Folowell, wanted to find the silver lining.
She said it was because of the tragedy of Christian’s death that Wentz was taken into a family that “saved her life.”
“The second good, I hope, that’s come of this, is that little Christian’s death will serve to save the lives of other children,” she said. “Little Christian’s death is the reason [Cox’s daughter] will never again have to face this man. Hopefully little Christian’s death will make this world a safer place.”
In her statement to the court, Wentz made no effort to hide her feelings for Cox. “All I want to say is that he is a monster and he deserves to be in prison. But I personally wish he got the death penalty,” she said. “My son Christian was loved by his family and friends and will never be forgotten.”
At the end of the hearing, Wentz wiped away tears to glance over her shoulder for a last look at Cox before being ushered out of the courtroom. In prison, a restraining order will keep Cox from having any contact with her.
But that didn’t stop Cox, in his statement, from offering an explanation of the events of April 17, that ultimately resulted in Christian’s death, if Wentz asked to hear his version of events and apologizing “to everyone involved in this situation.”
Cox also maintained that he did nothing that night to hurt his son, but admitted that “[Crystal] may want the death penalty and she may be right, because my reckless actions got someone we both loved killed and for that I do deserve to pay… I think anybody that hurts kids deliberately deserves to go to prison and I can honestly say that I did not deliberately hurt my son. I love him, you can ask anybody.”
But the prosecutors had asked everyone they could find and the testimony didn’t add up to what Cox was claiming. In fact, it revealed just the opposite and Cox wasn’t willing to take his case to a jury. He was taken into the custody of the Gunnison County Sheriff’s Department at the end of the hearing before being transferred to a state facility to begin serving what remains of his 40-year sentence.
“I guess the thing that has touched me the most about this is that this little boy now rests on a windblown hill outside of Paonia, Colorado,” Folowell told the court. “The last time I was there, there were stuffed toys, wind chimes and all those things that showed that there were people that loved him. The main thing [I learned] about him was that he was a happy, sweet child.”