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GARDENDALE, Texas >> Kris loved to soar on the swings. Max liked to fly down the slide.
So when their mother, Laura Shatto, opened the door on that January afternoon, the toddlers – two newly adopted brothers from Russia – headed for the backyard. They were captivated by the swing set, with its bright blue slide, trampoline and glider.
Shatto played with her sons for about 20 minutes, she recalled, before she had to run to the bathroom. She considered taking the boys inside, but it had been a stressful day for Max, with tears and tantrums. The backyard was fenced in. And it would just be a few minutes.
It was a split-second decision, she says, the kind of quick calculation parents make all the time, weighing what seems like taking the smallest of risks against disrupting precious moments of peace. But when Shatto returned, Max, 3, was lying in the grass, she said. He was not breathing.
In the next frantic minutes, Shatto, then paramedics and emergency room physicians, tried unsuccessfully to revive the child. It seemed like a terrible accident until the doctors saw the multicolored collage of bruises on Max’s body.
Suddenly, Shatto was no longer a grieving mother struck by calamity. She was a murder suspect, a symbol of the worst fears about adoption.
“They’re saying I killed my baby!” Shatto, 44, cried in a telephone call to her mother.
Max’s death set off an international furor, one that has reached far from this tiny, windswept oil town where Shatto, a former teacher, lives with her husband, Alan, 51, a petroleum engineer. Russian legislators and news anchors assailed the couple as criminals. Thousands of protesters marched through the streets of Moscow in support of a ban on adoptions by Americans that took effect before Max’s death.
The police, prosecutors and medical examiners in Texas eventually concluded that Max’s death on Jan. 21 was an accident, resulting from internal injuries probably caused by a fall from the swing set. Max’s bruises were self-inflicted, they said, by a deeply troubled child. But child welfare officials here, who have not disputed the finding about Max’s death, said they could not determine who caused the bruises on his body, leaving the Shattos under a cloud of suspicion.
And authorities in Russia remain unconvinced of the couple’s innocence. Russian officials have said they were moving to annul Kris’ adoption and have demanded the 2-year-old’s return.
The Shattos have become pariahs in their own community. Anonymous callers have left death threats on their answering machine. Shoppers have accosted Shatto and shouted “Murderer!” as she stood in line at the supermarket. Some friends no longer visit or return phone calls.
The couple, speaking to The New York Times in their first public discussion of the case, say they did nothing to cause Max’s injuries or death. They say they loved the boy with the shy smile who burst into song the first moment he stepped into his bedroom, ate pecans straight from the tree in the backyard and curled up at night with his fuzzy brown bear. They describe themselves as victims of an adoption system that failed to disclose the severity of Max’s problems.
The short, sad life of the boy who was born Maksim Nikolaevich Kuzmin has become more than the story of one child, a boy who was neglected by his biological mother, consigned to an institution and finally chosen by a family here in Texas. His death came at a time of sharply souring relations between the United States and Russia, becoming another point of contention between the countries. (State Department officials say that any annulment of Kris’ adoption by the Russian authorities would not be recognized in the United States.)
The New York Times reviewed Max’s autopsy report, adoption and medical records, and other documents; it also interviewed officials in Texas and Russia, medical experts, Max’s biological relatives, and friends and relatives of Shatto. Those reports and interviews helped bolster the Shattos’ account: Max’s pediatrician, Shatto’s mother and three friends all said the couple had expressed concern about the child’s behavior as it developed over a period of weeks. Detectives interviewed other relatives and friends who said they witnessed Max’s violent episodes, prosecutors said. And the Shattos sought help from Max’s doctor and their adoption agency.
Yet doubts persist among the authorities in Russia, who say they have been denied access to investigate reports and documents in this case, and among child welfare officials in Texas, who say they were “unable to determine” whether Max had been physically abused by his parents.
The Shattos, who grew up in Ruston, La., and married in 2006, had been trying for years to have a baby, struggling through multiple fertility treatments and three miscarriages. Heartbroken, they decided to adopt from Russia.
They underwent criminal background checks and a home inspection and applied for visas. They studied Russian, went through new-parent training and spent hours corresponding with Gladney caseworkers. Based in Fort Worth, Gladney is one of the nation’s oldest adoption agencies and had been bringing Russian adoptees to the United States for nearly two decades.
The Shattos spent most of their savings, in addition to money they inherited from a parent, to cover the costs: roughly $31,000 for one child, an additional $12,000 for a sibling, and the cost of the three required trips to Russia, according to Gladney’s estimates.
There were issues, though. Kris had a clubfoot, his profile said. Max appeared to have a heart defect. Both boys had developmental delays, common to children who have been institutionalized or have endured neglect.
At their age, the Shattos had decided, they could not handle a child with serious cognitive or developmental needs. They had to be prepared to say no, they told each other, if the children did not seem healthy.
But they were overcome by emotion when they finally met Max and Kris. “I saw them, and I just started crying,” Laura Shatto said. “When you’ve been waiting to be a mother for so long, well, they could have had horns and we were still going after them.”
But the Shattos said the orphanage officials did offer some disturbing information: Max and Kris’s biological mother might have been drinking while she was pregnant, the couple remembers them saying, though the officials offered few details.
The Shattos were shocked, given that the profile from Gladney did not mention any history of parental drinking. (Heidi B. Cox, general counsel at Gladney, said the agency was never told that the mother drank.)
The couple hesitated, but not for long.
TROUBLE AT HOME
Max, pensive and serious, loved hugs and toy cars and staring up at the sky. He sang and made music wherever he went. He liked to assemble and disassemble toys and watched his father carefully to see how things worked.
Kris was gregarious and seemed more athletic, even with his clubfoot.
The Shattos had been reassured about the boys’ well-being by a visit to Dr. Bruce Eckel, a pediatrician in Fort Worth who specializes in foreign adoptees and examined the boys a few days after they arrived in Texas. Eckel, who declined a request for an interview, determined that they were fine, the Shattos said.
Still, the couple worried. Max was waking up almost every night screaming. He hoarded food.
“Initially I figured it was just adjustment issues,” Alan Shatto said. “We thought it would pass.”
Instead, the Shattos said, it escalated.
On Jan. 4, the Shattos went to see Eckel again. He would later tell investigators that the boy arrived in his office with a hemorrhage in his left eye and scratches and bruises all over his body, according to the medical examiner’s report.
Convinced that Max had serious psychological problems, the report said, Eckel prescribed risperidone, an antipsychotic medicine.
The Shattos gave the medication to Max for a few days, but stopped after he suffered from side effects. “He was like a zombie,” Laura Shatto said.
’IT WASN’T REAL’
The Shattos buried Max on Jan. 30 in their hometown in Louisiana. Then they returned home to deal with the criminal and child welfare investigations.
The Shattos said the child welfare worker assigned to the case repeatedly accused Laura Shatto of abusing Max and killing him and barred her from living with Kris to ensure his safety. (A spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services said the Shattos’ complaints about the caseworker’s unprofessional conduct were addressed internally and that the employee has since resigned.)
“They tell you your baby’s dead, but you think the weirdest things,” Laura Shatto said, recalling those first weeks after Max’s death. “It wasn’t really real.”
But it was.
However, the criminal investigation was taking a turn away from the initial suspicions. The preliminary autopsy results suggested not a homicide, but an accidental death, “probably the consequence of a fall from playground equipment in his yard,” the report said.
On March 1, Bobby Bland, the district attorney, announced that four pathologists had reviewed the autopsy report and determined that Max’s death was accidental. Two weeks later, he said a grand jury had concluded that there was no evidence the Shattos had committed any crime.
But doubts lingered. On April 23, Texas child protective services officials closed their case, saying they found no evidence of neglect in Max’s death. But they said they were unable to determine whether the Shattos had abused him.
Friends and relatives have urged the Shattos to move on, to sell their house and return to Louisiana, where they can rebuild their lives in a place unencumbered by painful memories.
“They’ve made her out to be a child killer; they’ve tarnished her name,” said Michelle Cavett, a family friend. “How is she going to pull her life back together?”