Joe Stacy didn't want to send his son to Utah for a summer-long visit with his mother. He worried she was too unstable to care for him, but a court order in their divorce left him no choice.
"I just wanted him to grow up where his daddy grew up, in a small town in the mountains," he said Wednesday from Virginia. "Where it was safe."
Instead, 4-year-old Ethan Stacy will return to the town of Richlands for his burial, just more than two weeks after Joe Stacy watched his ex-wife walk away with the boy to whom he had dedicated his life.
Ethan's body was found Tuesday buried in a shallow grave off a muddy trailhead near Powder Mountain ski resort. Layton police suspect his stepfather, Nathan Sloop, killed him and his mother, Stephanie Sloop, tried to cover it up.
"He was the best little boy that you'd ever meet; he really was. He was a very lovable child, and that's all he wanted, was to love on people all the time," Joe Stacy said through tears. "He was a great boy, and even if he was a bad boy, he didn't deserve this, nobody deserves this, but he was just a good, sweet boy."
'I didn't have any choice' »
Ethan's parents finalized their divorce April 28 in Florida, where they lived during their five-year marriage.
After signing the papers, Joe Stacy, 35, went to Virginia, his childhood home he had returned to in December. Ethan and Stephanie Stacy, 27, boarded a plane bound for Utah, where she had moved to after a brief stay in Las Vegas.
"I did not want him to go, and he didn't want to go at all. He kept telling me he didn't want to go," Stacy said. "I didn't have any choice, I had to send him. The type of person she was, had I kept him and didn't send him out there, she would have turned around and filed contempt of court charges against me."
But that doesn't make it any easier to grapple with the fact he won't be going to the park every day or playing Spider-Man on the PlayStation 3 with a boy who was "way, way ahead" of his peers and able to pick up on new skills after being shown just once.
Stacy had called his son every day since he came to Utah, and Stephanie Sloop often would call her ex-husband to complain about the boy's behavior, Stacy said. But starting May 5 -- the day charging documents say Nathan Sloop, 31, began abusing Ethan -- his ex-wife kept coming up with reasons the boy couldn't talk to his father. The last call Stacy made was Monday, when Nathan Sloop gave another reason why the boy couldn't talk to his father, Stacy said.
"I never did get a call back," he said.
Parting ways » Stacy said he wanted to keep Ethan away from his mother, whom he called a "pathological liar," but while the court made the oil-rig worker the custodial parent, it also granted summer visitation to Stephanie Sloop.
As part of their divorce, Stacy retained custody as long as he paid her half of a settlement from a pending injury lawsuit he had filed about 18 months ago.
"I would have given her all of it if it meant I was able to keep my son with me," he said.
In the months since their separation, Stacy said Nathan Sloop would send him text messages, some violent.
"I had been threatened over the past six months by him," Stacy said.
Freida Stacy, Ethan's grandmother, said Stephanie Sloop tried to "stir up trouble" several times for her stepson.
"The only reason she wanted [Ethan] was she thought, 'This is how I'm going to get back at Joe,'" Freida Stacy said. "It was like Ethan was just a pawn."
Nathan Sloop has a history of drug convictions and other crimes dating back to 2000. Most recently, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor possession of a controlled substance in 2003.
Joe Stacy had met the man face-to-face only once, for about 30 minutes when Stacy flew to Utah to pick up a vehicle from his ex-wife.
"I had really mixed feelings about him," Stacy said. "I didn't know what to believe with him."
Newlyweds » The Sloops planned to wed July 4 in Colorado, according to their wedding website and gift registries, but instead they married Thursday at the Farmington Courthouse. The Sloops had met when they were both in their early teens, but they didn't really connect until October.
"Instead of provoking my Bad Boy side, she respects it," Nathan Sloop wrote on the site. "She doesn't try and provoke me to protect her, but rather she loves me in ways I couldn't even ask her to do."
Stephanie Sloop wrote of losing twins she was pregnant with in December, and that Nathan Sloop had saved her life twice during that time.
"Even though I lost the babies we planned to have, it saved my life," she wrote. "You can always have more children, but Nathan couldn't replace me."
Calls to the couple's family were not returned Wednesday.
Unraveling the ruse »
Stephanie Sloop called police just before midnight Monday, saying her son had wandered off and she couldn't find him. More than 40 officers scoured the area around their apartment at 1425 N. 500 West in Layton before the couple's stories had enough discrepancies that they were brought in for further questioning. Eventually, Stephanie Sloop told investigators Ethan died Sunday. Soon after, they learned the location of a makeshift burial site near Powder Mountain, said Lt. Garret Atkin of the Layton Police Department.
Officers walked the trail, digging in the mud as snow and rain fell, and recovered Ethan's body about 5 p.m. Tuesday.
The Davis County Attorney's Office plans to announce charges against the couple Friday morning. Both are expected to face charges of child abuse, obstruction of justice and abuse or desecration of a human body. Nathan Sloop also may be charged with aggravated murder and damaging a jail.
The Medical Examiner's Office is performing an autopsy to determine Ethan Stacy's cause of death. After that, his body will be flown to Virginia for his funeral.
"They are going to send him back home and I'm getting his funeral arrangements ready here," his father said. "I know things are going to get even tougher when he comes home."
April 28 » Stephanie Stacy and Joe Stacy finalize their divorce in Florida. She flies with 4-year-old Ethan to Utah to live with her fiancé Nathan Sloop; Joe Stacy travels to Virginia.
May 5 » Stephanie Stacy begins to tell Joe Stacy that Ethan isn't available to talk with him like he had been every day before. Charging documents state this is the day Nathan Sloop begins to abuse Ethan.
May 6 » Stephanie Stacy marries Nathan Sloop two months before their planned wedding date.
May 9 » Ethan dies at his mother and step-father's apartment. They bury him in a shallow grave near Powder Mountain, according to police documents.
May 10 » Just before midnight, Stephanie Sloop calls Layton police, saying her son wandered off and she can't find him.
May 11 » Police spend nearly 12 hours searching the apartment complex and surrounding area before calling off the search, moving it to Powder Mountain. At 5 p.m., Ethan's body is recovered near a trailhead.
May 14 » The Davis County Attorney's Office plans to file charges against Stephanie and Nathan Sloop.