Editor's note: This story was originally published on June 7, 2010.
Orlando, Fla. • Stephanie Stacy and Nathan Sloop saw themselves as soul mates, inscribing the invitations to their July 4 wedding with a quote from Aristotle: "Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies." ÃÂ¶ That verse now chills former friends, neighbors and family of the couple, who connected last year in cyberspace. ÃÂ¶ For when two volatile, unraveling souls unite, there is no voice of reason. ÃÂ¶ It's just a matter of time before someone gets hurt.
From the combustible union of Stephanie and Nathan, that someone was Ethan Stacy, her towheaded 4-year-old, a spunky, skinny boy with glasses who arrived in Utah for a summer visit at the end of April.
Within two weeks, his mother reported Ethan missing from the Layton apartment they shared with Nathan. Ensnared by their conflicting stories the next day, police say, the couple admitted killing Ethan and led officers to his body, buried off a trail near Powder Mountain Ski Resort.
Stephanie told police the beatings began May 5, and said the next day they locked the battered boy in his room while she and Nathan went to the old memorial courthouse in Farmington to get married.
After Ethan died, the new Mrs. Sloop went to nearby stores for provisions to conceal his death: lighter fluid for Ethan; slushy drinks for Stephanie and Nathan.
They chose not to burn his body, instead taking a hammer to Ethan's face to make him less recognizable.
As Stephanie tells it, they buried him on Mother's Day, a fine spring day.
A perfect storm • Stephanie, 27, and Nathan, 31, had been together just seven months when they were arrested May 11 in Ethan's death.
On Friday, they were charged with aggravated murder, child abuse, obstructing justice and abuse or desecration of a human body. Under those charges, the prosecutor could seek the death penalty.
It's difficult to find people who will speak up for Stephanie and Nathan; most former friends and neighbors already at odds with the pair are even more angry; their parents declined interview requests.
Others, however, describe the two as the worst possible combination: An impatient, narcissistic mother indifferent to her only child, and an unstable, violent man increasingly desperate over limited access to his own 6-year-old daughter, who lives in Florida with his ex-wife.
Michelle Rodriguez of Mount Carmel, Ill. an ex-wife of Ethan's dad, Joe Stacy says a couple of months ago she phoned Stephanie to tell her to stop calling. When Nathan answered, she warned him that he should never let Stephanie near his daughter.
But Rodriguez had no idea the child in danger would be Ethan, the little boy she often took for weekends and even longer vacations to Los Angeles and New Jersey with her own children, 14-year-old Destrian Stacy and 11-year-old Alisa Stacy, Ethan's half-brother and half-sister.
Nathan "blew up" when Rodriguez suggested Stephanie was unfit.
"I said, 'The two of you are just alike,'" recalls Rodriguez. "He sounded like a controlling freak. ... He called her 'my woman.' "
The center of attention • Stephanie Croft was born in Michigan but raised in the Orlando area by her mother. She rarely saw her father described as "a rolling stone" and met her older half-brother only three years ago when she tracked him down in Michigan. She also has a teenaged half-brother in Michigan.
Stephanie's former friends say she has always been difficult. As a teenager, she would sneak out at night with boys. She once brought a physical abuse charge against her stepfather, a false accusation, according to an ex-friend. The charge was dismissed.
Joe, her ex-husband, says Stephanie's mother once told him she had been diagnosed at age 13 with borderline personality disorder, a diagnosis Joe rejects. "It ain't no disorder. It's just the way she is."
She often bragged that her purse was a pharmacy, say former friends.
"She had a lot of prescription pills from doctors," says Joe. "She'd always know just what to tell them."
She played junior varsity softball her senior year at Edgewater High School in Orlando and graduated in 2001.
Stephanie enlisted in the Air Force, but was other-than-honorably discharged during basic training, says Joe.
After a brief early marriage, Stephanie met Joe in Orlando via a mutual friend and married when she was 21.
Except for the three years the family lived in Savannah, Ga., when Joe finished a stint in the Army, the Stacy family lived near Orlando.
Over the years, Stephanie sometimes worked as a dancer at strip clubs in Cocoa Beach and Daytona Beach, according to friends. She also dabbled in modeling from a young age, she says on her Model Mayhem website.
She claims to have been a Bud Girl and a Jager Girl in bar promotions, and was trying to get into the "Playboy Hot Housewives" special edition last year. But whether that was a real possibility is up for debate.
"She is a pathological liar," says Carla Jones, a former friend.
Rodriguez, the mother of Joe's two older children, had a ringside seat for the drama that surrounded Stephanie. Her children lived with Joe and Stephanie for four years; a flight attendant, Rodriguez visited often.
Stephanie pulled all kinds of shenanigans to try to make Rodriguez's life miserable, she says. She tried to get her fired, falsely accused her of neglect and bad parenting in custody court and with child services; and cracked into her employee account at Continental Airlines, as well as her MySpace, Facebook and eBay accounts.
"Stephanie is not a stupid woman. She's very clever," says Rodriguez. "She always seemed to cover her tracks."
Stephanie insisted Destrian and Alisa call her "mom" and their real mom by her first name, says Rodriguez. She monitored the few phone conversations she allowed between Rodriguez and her children.
"She always had to be Number One," says Joe. "She was so narcissistic."
Rodriguez says she didn't know, until much later, how much her children disliked their stepmom.
Destrian says Stephanie expected him to take care of baby Ethan from the start. Their father was often gone for two weeks at a time, working as a roustabout on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. "She really never changed his diapers," says Destrian.
Stephanie would spank Destrian and Alisa with a metal spatula, and whack the backs of their heads with the back of her diamond-ringed hand, the siblings say.
"We felt we were back in the slave days," says Alisa. "She used to make us make her alcohol drinks, clean the pool, clean the bathroom until it was spotless white."
Alisa went to friends' houses rather than invite them to her own. "I was afraid she would yell at me in front of my friends," says Alisa. "She yelled for stupid reasons.
"She threatened my dad so much it got me mad."
When a relative gave Destrian and Alisa laptops for Christmas, Stephanie sold them, says Rodriguez. When their mother sent clothes, Stephanie threw them away. When she sent cash, the kids got empty envelopes.
Stephanie wanted people to think of her as the perfect mother, Joe says. "But behind closed doors, it was a whole different story."
"I tried to get her to be more of a mother," he says. "But she was not cut out to be a mother.Ã¢ÂÂ¦She just is a person with no patience."
After Joe slipped on an oil rig in late 2008, a fall that required surgery to insert two titanium rods in his neck, things got rocky, he says.
Stephanie began commuting to Las Vegas to dance at a strip club, and eventually moved there in late spring 2009.
Joe intended to move the family to Las Vegas in August, but Rodriguez fought the move because she could not easily fly in and out to see her children.
In August, there was an especially ugly fight in which Stephanie accused Joe of choking her and for which he spent a few hours in jail, though charges were never filed. Joe returned to Orlando with Ethan, and late last year to his home state of Virginia. Destrian and Alisa went to live with their mother in Illinois.
Joe filed for divorce in October, and in a motion for temporary custody in November he said Stephanie had abandoned Ethan and was "unstable," and that he feared she would take Ethan and never return him.
By February, though, Stephanie's badgering and threats wore him down and he agreed to a divorce settlement that allowed Stephanie to have Ethan each spring break and summer. They were to alternate holidays. She was to pay no child support.
Joe also agreed to give her half of the money he expected from a lawsuit settlement for his injury. If he gets nothing, the agreement said, Stephanie gains custody of Ethan.
"She said, 'I sold my son,'" says Jones, recalling a phone conversation with Stephanie this spring.
"The only reason she wanted Ethan for the summer was because she knew Joe didn't want her to have him," Jones says.
The divorce was final on April 28 in Orlando, the same day Stephanie flew back to Utah with Ethan for the summer.
Ethan, Joe says, "was a pawn; someone she could use to get what she wanted."
"Stephanie is the kind of person," says Rodriguez, "who could spit on the ground and drown her own mother and not think twice about it."
A loose cannon • Nathanael Warren Sloop was raised in a tight-knit Orlando family. His father, Warren Sloop, often coached his and his brother's teams.
Nathan was a standout lacrosse player, a top scorer his senior year at Cypress Creek High School, which today has nearly 3,500 students.
The Rev. Jim Henry was their pastor at First Baptist Church, a mega-church in Orlando, but is now retired. He remembers that the Sloops would wait in line after Sunday services to greet him at a reception.
"They were very positive, encouraging people," he says, recalling that Nathan's brother, a high school baseball star, once gave him an autographed bat.
"Their family seemed to be close-knit. They loved their boys. They were just the kind of people you wish you had a church full of."
He recalls Nathan as "clean-cut and sharp."
Nathan graduated from Cypress Creek in 1997, and it wasn't long before his parents and brother were in the insurance business in Utah's Davis County.
Nathan, too, got his Utah license to sell property and casualty insurance in early 1999, adding other lines later that year.
He and Jennifer Freeman, from the old Florida neighborhood, were married in October, just weeks before his father died at age 46.
Although Nathan would later claim during their divorce that he had sold insurance for nine years in Utah and was licensed to teach insurance classes, he never renewed his license after it lapsed in 2001.
The couple bought a home in Roy, where they lived when their daughter was born in May 2004.
Even before that, Nathan was evidently having drug and mental health issues.
He was charged in several cases with drug possession in 2002 and 2003, and ultimately spent a month in the Weber County jail, was on probation for 18 months and paid a $500 fine. He was also required to get mental-health and substance-abuse counseling.
But in 2009, he was charged with trespassing at Walgreen's because he had already filled prescriptions for Percocet from three different doctors in a week and was trying to fill a fourth. When the pharmacist refused, he became belligerent and threatening. The pharmacist called the police.
Former neighbors describe him as volatile and moody.
"One minute he'd be a good guy and then he'd just as soon want to whip you," says Don Fernelius, who lives across the street from Nathan's house.
Nathan would never get his hands dirty doing home maintenance, says Fernelius, adding that Roy City twice had to order him to cut his grass last year.
Rheta Phillips, a 70-year-old neighbor, recalls a series of encounters some violent with Nathan.
Once, Nathan screamed at her for making the four dogs in his basement a Great Dane, an English bulldog and two pitbulls bark by knocking on his back door.
Another time, he threw all of his wife's clothes and shoes onto the driveway and was screaming that he wanted her out of the house.
A confrontation in December 2008 was the most violent. It began when Nathan's dogs jumped on one of Phillips' relative's new car. Nathan went on to punch her grandson, and he swung a knife at her 47-year-old son so close it cut his shirt.
"He called me an [expletive] bitch," recalls Phillips. "I'm 70 years old. I'd heard this term before, but not right in my face, and I'm wondering 'What the hell's wrong with you?' "
Nathan is, by all accounts, fiercely attached to his daughter. He proudly shows her picture to people he meets, and once told Phillips about blowing his top and striking out at his father-in-law and new stepdad.
His daughter, then a baby, had fallen down a step after a holiday meal. Nathan accused the others of not watching her closely enough.
His mother, Phillips says, promised he'd get mental help after that incident.
In 2006, he got into a fistfight with a former friend outside a Roy store because nine months earlier the man had verbally threatened Sloop's daughter when he and Nathan got into a fight, Nathan told police.
Jennifer left Nathan in 2007, claiming she and their daughter were going to Florida for a visit.
In the divorce, finalized the next year, she accused Nathan of abusing her by punching her and pulling her hair. He had been diagnosed, she wrote, with multiple-personality disorder, a claim Nathan rejected. He wrote in court papers that he had obsessive compulsive disorder.
As part of their settlement, Nathan was to get his daughter each summer, spring vacation and alternate holidays.
But then, in a series of profanity-laced and threatening phone calls in September, he berated Jennifer for going on vacation the same week their daughter started school. That tirade led a judge to order him in March to have no contact with his ex-wife for two years. He was allowed only phone contact with his daughter, and no more web-cam sessions, in which each party can see the other as they converse via the Internet.
Only his mother, Pamela Sloop Taylor, was allowed to collect his daughter for her summer visit.
In February, Jennifer told a judge Nathan was more than $11,000 behind in child support and had never paid her $15,000 for her share of the Roy house.
The fantasy unravels • To ex-friends who talked or exchanged e-mails with Stephanie and Nathan in recent months and who visited social networking websites where Stephanie posted, it appeared the two were living in a fantasy world.
They hooked up shortly after meeting on Facebook Stephanie knew his ex-sister-in-law in middle school and almost immediately were engaged to be married.
Myriad pictures of the happy couple were posted, including on The Knot, a site for betrothed couples.
Stephanie talked of Nathan as her soul mate and began discussing a big wedding at a relative's Golden, Colo., home on the Fourth of July. They were registered at Bed, Bath & Beyond and Macy's.
By spring, she was alternately begging former friends to be bridesmaids or acting as if they'd already agreed to be.
Carla Jones, her friend in Orlando, has a note she received from Stephanie in April prescribing a mid-calf black dress, gray snakeskin heels as her bridesmaids' attire. The note told Jones to arrive in Colorado on July 3 and that she and Nathan were leaving for Seattle on July 6, presumably for a honeymoon.
It ended with a sentence Jones now finds jarring: "Ethan will be here, too."
"I never even said I would go to her wedding!" says Jones.
Rodriguez says she ordered Stephanie to stop e-mailing her about the wedding in March.
Neighbors say Nathan and Stephanie stayed in his Roy home until about the time Ethan arrived, when the sewer backed up. That's evidently when they moved to the Layton apartment where Ethan died.
In a call to her half-brother in Michigan on May 5, Stephanie explained they were getting married in Utah the next day so they could qualify for public aid, but that the "real" wedding was still on for July Fourth in Colorado.
The next day, she left increasingly frantic phone messages for Jones, saying she couldn't handle Ethan.
Destrian and Alisa say they wrote letters to Stephanie in jail, although they didn't immediately mail them.
"I hate you because you killed your own son and my brother," Alisa wrote.
Destrian says he, too, expressed his anger.
He wants his former stepmother punished to the fullest.
"I hope she gets the death penalty."
About this story
In writing this story, The Salt Lake Tribune relied on court documents in Florida and Utah, as well as interviews with relatives and others who knew Stephanie and Nathan Sloop. People in eight states were contacted in person or by phone; many declined to comment, but every effort was made to get an accurate portrayal of the Sloops.