Since Nov. 29, when news broke that a 2-year-old boy had been beaten to death, family, friends and the public have struggled with how such a thing could have happened.
Mitchell Lee Vanryn, 27, who was living with Malakai's mother, Amber Garrett, was initially arrested and charged with aggravated battery to a child and domestic battery death to a child. On Wednesday, he was charged with murder.
Members of the toddler's family say they alerted authorities to their concerns about his welfare weeks before his death. They and others want answers.
“I am mortified by the story about Malakai and the lack of any information about early intervention,” one Journal Gazette reader wrote in an email. “That child should have been removed from the home weeks, if not months ago!”
The family blames Child Protective Services for not responding to their pleas to remove Malakai from his home and the justice system for not moving quickly enough.
James Wide, CPS spokesman, said a confidentiality statute prevents his agency from specifically discussing the case but said when The Journal Gazette receives records it has requested from the agency he will be able to “walk through it with (us).”
“I can tell you that when we receive a report of abuse/neglect and assess the allegation, there has to be evidence of the allegation for us to substantiate. Also, we have to petition the court to ask for a child to be removed from their home. The court has to make the decision to allow DCS (Department of Child Services) to take custody of the child,” Wide wrote Thursday in an email response.
Margaret Easterly, Malakai's great-grandmother, was the last family member to see him alive. She said the family believes there was plenty of evidence in existing CPS reports to remove Malakai. Easterly said the family filed a complaint with the agency in late October after she saw the boy with two black eyes.
Easterly said she visited Malakai's home at 6902 Palmetta Court on the city's north side Oct. 29 and was alarmed when Malakai came running to the door with bruises under his eyes. He begged to leave with her, Easterly said, but she was not allowed to take him trick-or-treating.
Easterly sobbed as she drove away, she said. That day, Easterly said Lantz Garrett and his mother, Chante Harter, Easterly's daughter, called CPS and the police to report what Easterly had seen.
The family was told by police that CPS was already at the home. There was an understanding that photos of Malakai had been taken and were being sent to a hospital that specializes in children's care for verification of abuse, Easterly said.
In an email response, Michael Joyner, Fort Wayne Police Department public information officer, said that when a call of this nature is made police would “ask if the juvenile has sought medical attention for the injury, ask how it occurred, determine suspect information.” Police would also “notify the detective bureau, notify DCS, take photographs and write a detailed report.”
“The investigative process determines if a juvenile is removed,” Joyner said. “DCS and the Detective Bureau are involved in this process. And if warranted, an arrest is made. Know that there are so many variables that could be brought into play, that an investigation and actions taken could be many. Your question is general and my response is for the most part general.”
Easterly said the CPS has six reports, not just from the family. “One was a hospital. He had diaper rash so bad he was bleeding from his genitals. He's been to the ER four or five times in the last 5 months, stitches in his lip, a busted eardrum,” Easterly said.
Dennis Fett, a neighbor across the street from the Palmetta Court home, said since Malakai's death he has seen the mother, Amber Garrett, a couple of times. Another neighbor, Pat Cary, said about a week after the boy's death, she saw a U-Haul van in front of the home.
Written in large chalk letters on the sidewalk in front of the home are the words “Charge Amber,” which has also shown up in some Facebook posts and one of the battle cries in a campaign that started at the Allen County Courthouse on Tuesday and spread to the Bud Meeks Justice Center and the Allen County Jail.
Now some downtown sidewalks have pastel chalk messages tied to the child's death, with #Justice4Malakai the most common.
Family said the trouble started when Vanryn moved in with Malakai's mom around June 24.
Lantz Garrett and Amber Garrett divorced but had their battles including a September 2016 incident. According to court documents, he was charged with breaking in and domestic battery. On Oct. 11, Garrett received a suspended sentence and is on probation.
There was a confrontation in June over the boy's treatment, and Lantz Garrett said he was prevented from seeing his child. Before that, Easterly regularly picked up the boy and his half-sister for visits on Wednesdays, she said.
Then all the visits came to a stop, but Facebook posts left the family alarmed. One showed Malakai with stitches on his lip and the explanation that he slipped in the shower. His face is thinner and his expression stressed. Dark areas are evident around his neck.
The Allen County coroner said Malakai was punched and beaten and died from a lacerated pancreas and intestines and blunt force injury of the abdomen. The death was the 36th homicide this year in Allen County. Vanryn, whose Facebook page lists his hometown as Jersey City, New Jersey, is being held at the Allen County Jail without bond.
Some of the details Easterly said she and her family heard from the coroner are unbearable but will likely be divulged when and if Vanryn has his day in court.
“My baby laid for days bleeding to death internally,” Easterly said. “They left him with that monster.”