GARDENDALE, Texas — Waldrop Drive used to be a road that even the locals hardly noticed. It is unpaved and uninhabited, except for a single house far at the end. Tumbleweed collects here, driven across the surrounding oil fields by a whipping wind.
The street sign is barely legible, long faded by the Texas sun. But a short distance down the road, another sign sticks out of the ground. This one hasn’t had a chance to fade. In stark black letters, it reads, “Private. Dead End Road. No Trespassing.”
The house at the end of the road belongs to Laura and Alan Shatto, two of the some 1,600 residents of rural Gardendale, Texas. A recorded message on their answering machine says, “If this is a reporter or a news agency, we have no comment.”
Late last month, an ambulance rushed to the house after 3-year-old Max, one of the couple’s two adopted sons from Russia, allegedly collapsed. Max is now dead and buried. The case surrounding his death, however, has exploded, putting tiny Gardendale at the epicenter of an international drama.
Max Shatto (Maksim Kuzmin) died on January 21.Max Shatto (Maksim Kuzmin) died on January 21.
Russian officials this week claimed intimate knowledge of the case and accused Laura Shatto of “murder,” setting off a media frenzy. They cited the case as prime justification for the country’s recent, politically charged ban on adoptions by U.S. citizens.
The U.S. State Department has urged against “jumping to conclusions” as an investigation proceeds. While much remains a mystery, local officials now say a medical ruling on Max Shatto’s death is imminent. That’s as details about the day the child died, as well as accounts of his adoptive mother, begin trickling in.
Details Still Emerging
Shirley Standefer, the chief investigator at the Ector County Medical Examiner’s Office, tells RFE/RL that she arrived at Medical Center Hospital in Odessa, outside Gardendale, after doctors there pronounced Max Shatto dead at 5:43 p.m. on January 21. She says she saw the body before it was sent away for an autopsy, which was completed the next day.
“We did see bruising. He had bruising — over a lot of his body,” Standefer says. “Now, whether or not those bruises are him being a kid, or whether or not those bruises are consistent with, you know, injury or something, I’m not a doctor and I can’t tell you that.”
A preliminary autopsy report is done but remains private. Amid Russian claims of wrongdoing and intense media scrutiny, Standefer says her office has tried to expedite the final postmortem analysis.
Shirley Standefer, chief investigator of the Ector County Medical Examiner’s Office in OdessaShirley Standefer, chief investigator of the Ector County Medical Examiner’s Office in Odessa
She says that late on January 21 the county’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Nathan Galloway, received full toxicology results. He should be ready to issue an official ruling on the cause and manner of the child’s death as soon as the beginning of next week, she says. That ruling could point to a homicide, an accident, natural causes, or undetermined causes.
Standefer says that she and an investigator from the local sheriff’s office interviewed Laura and Alan Shatto at the hospital. She says Laura Shatto was crying and shaking, but “forthcoming” when questioned.
“By the mother’s account, Max was found outside the house,” Standefer says. “She had been outside watching the two boys and had to go inside to use the bathroom. She said when she came out she found Max on the ground in close proximity to play equipment — the slide and swing.”
Sherriff: ‘A Texas Kid And A Texas Case’
Mark Donaldson, Ector County’s sheriff, confirms Standefer’s account of the interview. He says his office received notification from the local fire department on January 21 that an ambulance was dispatched to the Shatto house due to “possible cardiac arrest.” He also declined to comment on the preliminary autopsy results. His office has not filed any charges in the case.
Donaldson says that Sergei Chumaryov, the senior counselor for the Russian Embassy in Washington, has visited his office in recent days.
Pavel Astakhov, Russia’s children’s rights commissioner, demanded this week that Russian officials be allowed to “see the materials of the case and take part in the formulation of the prosecution.” When asked to respond, Donaldson told RFE/RL, “It ain’t gonna happen.”
“This kid’s a Texas kid. He lived in Texas. He lived in my county. And my interest here is the death of that child and to find out what happened. My job is to arrest them, charge them — if we feel like there’s something there. If there isn’t anything there, I want to make sure that that gets put out, too,” Donaldson says.
“What Russia says about the whole thing, that’s a whole different ball game. I understand they think these things get covered up, get thrown under the rug, and nobody investigates, but this is not investigating a Russian kid. This is investigating a Texas kid that has died. And we’re going to do the best job we can.”
Texas Child Protective Services (CPS) is also involved in the case. In a statement, it said the Shatto family “has no prior involvement with CPS.” Spokesman Paul Zimmerman says the agency received allegations of “physical abuse and neglectful supervision” of Max Shatto around the time of his death. He declined to say who had made the allegations.
As the facts in the case remain unclear, local officials have expressed concern at statements from Moscow apparently prejudging the outcome of an investigation that only now may be launching into high gear.
Standefer, the medical examiner, says she would “love to know” where the Russians are getting their alleged information about Max Shatto’s autopsy, which has included claims that the child suffered damage to his internal organs and that he was drugged.
“I’d love to know, because it has caused us all kinds of issues. I don’t know whether it’s propaganda or if it’s just something that they’re just coming up with out of the blue, or it’s something to cause issues between [our countries], I really can’t tell you,” she says. “When we started reading all of the rhetoric, it was just like, ‘Where are they getting their information?’ It was ludicrous, and it still is. It’s really sad and scary.”
Laura Shatto ‘Very Happy’
Meanwhile, details are also beginning to emerge about Laura Shatto and her adoption of Max, born Maksim Kuzmin, and his biological half-brother, 2-year-old Kristopher, born Kirill, from an orphanage in Pskov, Russia.
Shatto, who is in her mid-40s, formerly taught economics at Midland High School, about 30 kilometers outside of Gardendale. School Principal Jeff Horner said she left her position in June 2012 “on good terms” after working there for more than five years. He said that Shatto had made it known that she was trying to adopt children in Russia.
Arin Thomas, a recent graduate from the school, provided RFE/RL with one of the few accounts of Shatto to have surfaced. “She showed us the files of her adoption,” said Thomas, who was a student in Shatto’s class in 2011. “She was really happy and showed us pictures of her sons. She was one of those teachers who got really close to you and shared her personal stories.”
According to Thomas, Shatto left during the 2011-12 school year to visit her prospective children in Russia, a standard step in the adoption process. Shatto told her students that she was planning to quit teaching to take care of her children instead of leaving them in day care, Thomas says.
RFE/RL’s Russian Service reports that the Shatto family adopted through the Texas-based Gladney Center in late 2012. The agency told RFE/RL that it was legally bound to neither confirm nor deny the report.
Thomas also says Shatto brought her adopted sons on a visit to the school in late 2012. “She was nice, funny, and very friendly. I don’t think she did what they say she did,” she says.
Concerns For Kristopher
In Gardendale, three neighbors tell RFE/RL the Shattos, like other families in the community, kept to themselves. However, they all say they were surprised to learn that the family had children and say they never saw them.
Gary Luna, the owner of a stable down the road from the Shattos, says he once fed the family’s horses but knew little about them. “I just hope it works out alright,” he says. “If they did something wrong, hang their ass. If they didn’t, then the Russians — hang their asses.”
Luna is far from the only area resident following the case, which has dominated local headlines and radio and television reports.
At Glendale Grocery, one of Gardendale’s two convenience stores, locals wonder what will become of Kristopher, the Shattos’ second child. Zimmerman, from Texas CPS, says Kristopher Shatto is “safe” and “in the home” and is being visited periodically by case workers.
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow and Donaldson, the county sheriff, have specified that the boy is in the care of his father. They did not elaborate.
Russian officials have called for Kristopher Shatto to be returned to Russia. Yulia Kuzmina, the biological mother of Max and Kristopher, issued a televised appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 21 for help in reuniting her with her son.
Hours after the interview Kuzmina, who originally lost custody of her two sons due to negligence and excessive drinking, was removed from a train for drunken and unruly behavior, Russian media reported.