An Alabama man charged with murdering his two young children allowed the kids' stepmother to torture them by binding the little boy and girl with duct tape, stuffing one in a suitcase and forcing the other to stand in a corner all night, according to arrest warrants.
John DeBlase, 27, is charged with two counts of murder, child abuse and corpse abuse. Scattered bones and a skull found in the woods of rural Mississippi on Wednesday are believed to be the remains of his 3-year-old son Chase. Authorities are still searching for the remains of 5-year-old Natalie DeBlase.
Jackson County Sheriff Mike Byrd said the bones had been taken from the woods and were examined Thursday in Mississippi.
"It is consistent with the child, so we do believe that it is him," Byrd said. "The remains have now been released to Alabama."
Byrd said the bones will now be examined further for positive identification and a cause of death. He said the visual inspection of the bones by Mississippi authorities did not reveal how the child was killed.
DeBlase told police he dumped his daughter Natalie in the woods north of Mobile in March. He said he discarded the boy's body, dressed only in a diaper and stuffed into a plastic garbage bag, in Mississippi in June on or around Father's Day. Police say the children were killed separately, then immediately disposed of.
"He didn't keep them around," Mobile Police Officer Chris Levy said Thursday.
The warrants say the abuse led to their deaths.
The documents were prepared before the murder charges were filed and detail the children's mistreatment at the hands of their stepmother, Heather Leavell-Keaton. They say DeBlase allowed her to bind the girl's hands and feet with duct tape, put a sock in her mouth and stuff her in a suitcase in a closet for about 14 hours.
The warrants also detail how Leavell-Keaton duct-taped the boy's hands to the side of his legs, strapped a broom handle to his back and shoved a sock in his mouth. The boy was then forced to stand in a corner all night while the adults went to bed.
The documents don't specify when the abuse occurred, only saying it happened sometime after March 1.
Leavell-Keaton is held in Kentucky on child abuse charges. She will be returned to Alabama on Sunday, where she could be charged in the children's slayings, Levy said. Police have said she and DeBlase share responsibility for the killings, but each one blames the other.
DeBlase and Leavell-Keaton were arrested last week on the abuse charges, and authorities began their search for the children's remains in Alabama and Mississippi over the weekend. Neither child had been seen for months.
An investigation into their disappearance didn't start until late last month after Leavell-Keaton sought a protective order against DeBlase in Kentucky, Levy said. She said in the Nov. 18 filing that DeBlase "may have murdered his children," and that she feared for her life because he was abusive. The couple just had a child together this summer.
"I am afraid that he is going to do something to harm our daughter because of what he has done to the other children," she wrote.
DeBlase, 27, has been assisting police in the search for the bodies. Investigators say he dumped the boy's body so close to the road — just about 50 feet off a highway north of Vancleave, Miss. — because he didn't want to get lost in the woods. The bones were found under piles of twigs and brush.
DeBlase pleaded not guilty to the lesser charges on Wednesday and is due in court again Friday for a bond hearing on the murder charges.
His attorney, Jim Sears, say DeBlase will plead not guilty to those charges, as well.
"He maintains his innocence," Sears said Thursday. "He is terribly upset about everything.
"He maintains that it was his common-law wife" who murdered the children, Sears added.
DeBlase and Leavell-Keaton had been together since 2008 and considered themselves husband and wife, fitting the definition of a common-law marriage in Alabama. Leavell-Keaton referred to DeBlase as her former spouse on the protective order. The couple met on the website MySpace while DeBlase and his children were living with his parents and Leavell-Keaton was attending nearby Spring Hill College in Mobile.
Her mother, Helena Keaton, said her daughter is legally blind and was dependent on DeBlase. She said they suspect he poisoned them.
In the spring, Keaton told The Associated Press, DeBlase forced Leavell-Keaton to go on a drive before stopping the vehicle and getting something out of the back. She said her daughter, who was pregnant at the time with DeBlase's third child, was unsure what it was, but they now suspect it was one of the children's bodies. However, Leavell-Keaton made no mention of this in her filing for protection from DeBlase.
DeBlase's parents say Leavell-Keaton controlled the relationship and forced him to move out of their home with the kids.
They told the AP they suspect Leavell-Keaton killed the children while DeBlase attended night classes to become a personal trainer, then manipulated him into getting rid of the bodies.
Still, they're not excusing their son.
"As a parent, we have a responsibility to protect our kids," said his father, Richard. "He failed to protect his kids."
Skoloff reported from Ocean Springs, Miss. Also contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala.; Kendal Weaver in Montgomery, Ala.; and Janet Cappiello Blake in Louisville, Ky.