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‘He wanted to know his dad’

A grandmother, a boy, and a story of a childhood taken

By Patricia Wen
Globe Staff / August 23, 2009

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EUFAULA, Ala. - Christine Taylor lighted a cigarette one spring afternoon and watched her 7-year-old grandson do something extraordinary for him: sit still.

Nathaniel Turner was eagerly awaiting his father, a man he had never known, who was driving some 1,200 miles from Worcester, Mass., to pick him up for the summer - and maybe longer. While in first-grade, the boy had made up stories about his father, sometimes portraying him as the heroic lawyer, other times as the brave cop.

“I’m going to live with my Dad!’’ the boy exclaimed to neighbors in this sprawling, rural town, where he’d lived for four years.

While Nathaniel waited in a living room adorned with portraits of Jesus and President Obama, Taylor fidgeted. She had been his protector since infancy, when her daughter’s struggles became overwhelming. She worried about how Nathaniel’s 37-year-old father, who had no experience raising children and some run-ins with the law, would adjust to a boy with attention deficit disorder.

But Leslie “Bird’’ Schuler seemed kind on the phone, and sincere about wanting to know his son. He also had a stable job as a repair technician, while money was tight for Taylor, and soon could get tighter. She could give the boy a grandmother’s love, but not a father’s example.

“It’s good for Nathaniel to see his Dad go to work,’’ the grandmother recalled thinking.

So she let him go.

Four weeks later she received a call. Nathaniel was in critical condition in a Worcester hospital emergency room; the state’s child-protection authorities had taken custody. Fly to Massachusetts right away.

Taylor put down the kitchen phone and collapsed in a chair, sobbing, and cursing.

Nathaniel’s father witnessed the boy’s birth on Nov. 4, 2001, in Worcester, but was well out of the picture 10 months later when tragedy first touched Nathaniel’s life.

After stints in homeless shelters, the boy’s mother, Alicia Turner, then 20, had moved to a government-subsidized apartment near Clark University with Nathaniel, then 10 months old, and Diantea, Nathaniel’s half brother who was 3.

At about 3 p.m. on Sept. 28, 2002, Turner was napping on a couch with Nathaniel in her second-floor apartment when flames began shooting from a corner of the living room.

According to the Fire Department’s report, she raced out with Nathaniel in her arms. She called out for Diantea, who had previously exhibited a fascination with fire and sometimes played with her cigarette lighter, the report said. But his mother could not find him. Firefighters later found the boy huddled in a bedroom; an autopsy found that he died of soot and smoke inhalation.

At the time, the report indicates, Turner told investigators she had left a lighter on a coffee table, though she now asserts a faulty heater may have been involved.

Turner had little choice but to return to the shelter as she prepared for the funeral of her oldest child. She said she called the state’s child-protection agency for help, even suggesting they take Nathaniel off her hands.

“I asked for help and I didn’t get it,’’ she said recently from her home in a Worcester public housing development. The agency said it has no record of this call or any referral from law enforcement to intervene with the family.

Turner, who had battled manic-depressive and anxiety disorders in the past, began to unravel again. She was ultimately admitted to a psychiatric ward.

“She was flipping out,’’ recalled Taylor, referring to Turner, one of her three children.

Around this time, Nathaniel’s grandmother, who was still in Worcester, was feeling lost in her own way. She had struggled for years with alcoholism, arrests for disorderly conduct, as well as a short prison term for her role in a drunken brawl. Behind bars, she said, counselors helped her uncover some deeply buried anger over being abandoned at an early age: Both of her parents died violent deaths when she was a child.

She was in the midst of piecing together part-time jobs and trying to get “closer to God.’’

And then her daughter begged her: Please take Nathaniel.

Taylor didn’t expect to keep Nathaniel for good, and there were many times when the high-energy toddler was returned to his mother. But soon the calls would begin again, and Nathaniel was returned to the grandmother’s care.

“I know when I need help,’’ the boy’s mother recalled recently.

In 2005, the grandmother made the momentous decision to get far away from Central Massachusetts. After getting a court order for temporary three-month guardianship of Nathaniel, she made arrangements to move back to Eufaula, Ala., her quiet hometown with 14,000 residents. She brought with them Kadeja, her cousin’s 12-year-old daughter with special needs.

They ultimately settled in a one-story brick house with a large backyard. Almost instantly, Taylor knew the move was the right thing. Nathaniel loved joining his grandmother - whom he called “Mama’’ - to pick peas in their garden. Three months came and went, and Taylor heard nothing from the Massachusetts courts, checking in on Nathaniel’s whereabouts. Taylor soon began feeling at home again in Eufaula, where blacks and whites live in equal numbers and worship in many of the same churches.

Still, money was scarce. Taylor fought to have the Alabama Medicaid office pay for Vyvanse, the boy’s ADHD medication that is more expensive than some other brands. In her first two years in Alabama, Taylor relied largely on food stamps to feed the children when she couldn’t find a job.

Nathaniel thrived in his new routines: his morning chores, his weekly church youth group, and his weekday school bus rides, although his antics sometimes earned him scoldings from the driver. He also began showing increasing curiosity about fathers. His grandmother believed this boy who could already independently read chapter books in first grade deserved what so many children in Eufaula had, a father to take him fishing, hunting, or biking. The Eufaula Primary School, where Nathaniel attended for three years, was full of fathers who picked up their children at school.

Last year, his first-grade teacher said, Nathaniel - a straight-A student - often told larger-than-life tales about his father’s career accomplishments.

“I knew how much he wanted to know his Dad,’’ Kelli Whitehead said.

Yet, throughout Nathaniel’s childhood, his father had almost no role in his life, except financially. He avoided all child support payments demanded by the state Department of Revenue during Nathaniel’s early years, and ignored the state’s early offer of a genetic marker test to confirm paternity.

Schuler’s absence from Nathaniel’s life might have continued if he had not landed a salaried job as a field service engineer at Candela Corp., a Wayland-based maker of cosmetic laser machines, in May 2006. Months later, his wages were garnished by the state at a rate of about $70 a week.

By that time, he also owed thousands of dollars in back child support payments. Schuler demanded another chance for a genetic marker test - and it proved Nathaniel was his. He then began to ask for visitation rights, saying in court papers, “I want the chance to become the child’s father, not just a paycheck once a week.’’ (Requests for an interview with Schuler were declined by his lawyer.)

The boy’s mother had not told Schuler that Nathaniel was in Alabama and that she had diverted many child support payments to her mother. She did not disclose that information until just before a May 20 court hearing, which she believed would focus on whether he could have visitation rights.

Her confession triggered a court ruling that would alter the financial dynamics in the family. The state bars out-of-state child support payments without prior approval of the court. Consequently, Judge Susan Ricci ordered, “Father’s child support obligation is terminated retroactive to March 10, 2008.’’

Visitation would be decided at a later date.

Instead, Schuler reached an informal agreement with Nathaniel’s grandmother and mother to get summer custody of the boy - with the possibility of an extension. Neither woman had serious concerns then about safety, recalling the father as a good, decent man. He had an arrest record for assaults, but they viewed them as minor flare-ups. Turner, who had a three-year relationship with Schuler, said she did not recall him as a violent man.

Before picking up the Nathaniel, Schuler promised the boy’s grandmother that he would be a devoted father and even take him to his repairman’s job during the day.

On Memorial Day weekend, the sturdy, 6-foot-1-inch man, approached Taylor’s brick house in Eufaula, where his son waited by the window, his suitcase packed with clothes, coloring books, and his ADHD pills.

Nathaniel was apparently happy in his first week or two at his father’s apartment back in Worcester - calling his grandmother and mother frequently with cheerful updates. Twice, Nathaniel visited his mother and played with his 2-year-old half brother, Turner’s third child. Everything seemed fine, recalled Turner, who does not remember noticing any injuries or hearing any complaints from Nathaniel.

But by the middle of June, when the boy’s calls stopped, Turner and Schuler began to clash. Turner said they argued about Schuler’s alleged desire to discontinue the boy’s ADHD medication, his new proposal for full custody, and his attempts to block her from seeing more of Nathaniel. The father, according to text messages he sent to Turner, seemed to bristle at her demands for money.

On June 11, he wrote: “I know u want money.’’

She later replied: “Remember u was not there for seven years.’’

The two exchanged testy messages, with Schuler saying Turner knew nothing about him, “other than I keep a good job.’’

Meanwhile, the boy’s grandmother was growing puzzled about why Nathaniel had stopped calling. She figured, in time, the phone would ring.

When Taylor got the call from the hospital, she was told that the boy’s father initially attributed the injuries to a biking accident. But the horrific truth later unfolded: The boy was on life support, allegedly beaten unconscious by his father on Father’s Day. Police said it was the culmination of disciplinary acts meted out over days on the boy by Schuler, while his fiancée , Tiffany Hyman, stood by. According to gruesome accounts in court records, the assaults involved fists and belts. During that final attack, Schuler allegedly strangled Nathaniel by placing his thick forearms across the boy’s neck.

The boy’s grandmother arrived at UMass Memorial Medical Center in time to see Nathaniel before doctors removed the life support.

Schuler is now behind bars facing a murder charge, and his fiancée is out on $5,000 bond on charges of failing to stop the beatings. Nathaniel and Diantea share a plot at Notre Dame Cemetery in Worcester, the younger boy’s casket just inches above his half brother’s.

In Eufaula, where the mid-August heat bakes the rolling hills, classes are already back in session at the Eufaula Primary School. Not far away is Grace Independent Baptist Church, where the pastor recently held a memorial service for Nathaniel, one of his most faithful young parishioners.

Sometimes, Taylor and her daughter speak by phone. They share remembrances of Nathaniel, whose organs were donated after his death, and discuss occasional updates on the criminal case.

Nathaniel’s grandmother, who turned 49 last month, has resumed her $8.44-an-hour job cleaning floors at a local hospital and selling produce on the weekends for extra cash. In memory of Nathaniel, she has planted a tiny tree in her front lawn. Cigarettes remain one of her few indulgences, and when she lights up, she makes sure to place the lighter on top of the refrigerator.

She said she keeps the anger away by remembering the good things: Nathaniel, the energetic boy with the top grades in class, who gave her life new purpose - and joy.

“God tells us not to hate, but he puts obstacles there,’’ Taylor said in the living room where she last saw Nathaniel alive. “But I keep on praying not to be like that - a hater.’’

Patricia Wen can be reached at wen@globe.com.