HEBRON, Neb. -- Townspeople who found the body of 'Little Boy Blue' along a road on Christmas Eve 1985 finally learned the tragic story behind the death of the child they named, buried and remembered with gifts placed at his grave.
Eli Stutzman, 37 was sentenced Monday to more than a year in prison on two misdeameanor charges in the death of his son, 9-year-old Danny Stutzman, who had remained unidentified until his father's arrest last month.
Before sentencing, Stutzman told Thayer County Judge J. Patrick McArdle that his son accidentally died while sleeping in the back seat of his car, apparently of natural causes, on a trip from Wyoming to Ohio, where they once lived.
Stutzman, a member of the Amish faith, said he tried to revive his son and when that failed, 'I decided to leave him and let God take care of him.'
Stutzman said he spent several hours with Danny and prayed for the boy before leaving his corpse on the roadside. 'I had difficulty facing the fact that he had died. I couldn't understand. I couldn't figure out why,' he said.
Danny's body, clad only in blue pajamas, was found Christmas Eve 1985 along a road near the southern Nebraska community of Chester. Townspeople, stunned that anyone would leave a little boy on the road, buried the child and named him Matthew, meaning 'gift of God.'
Businesses donated the money for his headstone. Residents regulary tended his grave and left flowers and toys there. A memorial service was held on the anniversary of the boy's discovery.
The boy was unidentified until a December Reader's Digest article about 'Little Boy Blue' led to a tip from a babysitter who once kept Danny. His father then was traced to Azle, Texas, and arrested. Danny's real name was etched in his tombstone last month.
Stutzman was sentenced to one year in prison with credit for 25 days already served in jail on a charge of abandoning a dead body. He also was sentenced to six months in prison for concealing a death. The judge ordered the sentences be served consecutively.
Stutzman pleaded guilty to the two Class I misdemeanors in return for the dismissal of a felony child abuse charge.
Stutzman testified that at about midnight in December 1985 on the drive to Ohio, he reached back to wake his son because he was to take medication.
He grabbed his leg and talked to the boy and when he got no response, he pulled off to the side. He noticed the boy's eyes were rolled back, his face was pale and he had no pulse. Stutzman said he tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation but could not revive Danny.
Asked why he did not seek help, Stutzman said, 'I'm still asking myself that today. I had difficulty believing that he was dead.'
The cause of the boy's death was not established at the hearing. Stutzman's lawyer, J. William Gallup, said last week he believed the boy died from carbon monoxide poisoning due to a faulty auto exhaust system, but in court Monday, he quoted a pathologist as saying the boy probably died of natural causes.
Gallup noted that three pathologists could not determine exact cause of death.
County Attorney Daniel Warner asked that the felony child abuse charge be dismissed without prejudice, meaning he can ask for permission to refile the charge later if warranted. Warner said he could not comprehend anyone leaving a son abandoned on a road.
But Gallup said he did not think it was unnatural for a person with an Amish background and an eighth-grade education like Stutzman has to abandon a body.
McArdle said the court had no evidence of how the Amish handled the dead.
'It is difficult for the court to accept ignorance as cause for abandoning a son on a cold winter's night, which in the court's opinion degrades his death,' he said.
Stutzman and his son left the Amish community of Dalton, Ohio, and moved west. Later Danny was left with foster parents in Wyoming.