Ethan Thompson’s stepfather had a history of violence long before detectives say he inflicted the abuse that caused the 22-month-old boy’s death.
Montez Charles McNeal, 25, is charged with aggravated child abuse but could still face additional charges in connection to Ethan’s death as the investigation by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office proceeds. He is being held at the Manatee County jail on a $250,000 bond.
The Florida Department of Children and Families, with a judge’s approval, had removed Ethan and his five brothers from their family’s care and reunited them sometime in the past year. Details and records of the case involving that removal and reunification are not yet being released by DCF, alleging that Ethan’s death has not been verified to be a result of abuse or neglect.
In the arrest report that charged McNeal with aggravated child abuse Thursday, the detective wrote, “It is apparent that Montez McNeal committed aggravated child abuse or willfully and knowingly abusing Ethan Thompson causing his death.”
In the wake of Ethan’s death, DCF has deployed a Critical Incident Rapid Response Team to review the death and case, to determine if anything could have been done to prevent it. Ethan and his five brothers had been removed from their home and reunited within the last year after abuse had been verified.
Ethan’s mother, who has told detectives she too is a victim of McNeal’s abuse, is not currently facing any charges in the case.
Deputies and paramedics were called to the 3300 block of Fourth Street East, Bradenton, just before midnight Monday to reports of an unresponsive child. Ethan and his brothers had been left in McNeal’s care while their mother, his wife, went to work.
McNeal was not supposed to be in the home because of a court order, according to the sheriff’s office investigation. His wife later admitted to detectives that is why she first gave them a different account of what happened leading up to Ethan’s death.
During a second interview, however, detectives say she admitted to abuse she witnessed Monday when McNeal slapped the already physically injured Ethan. Her husband regularly punched her children like they were adults, she told them.
Violence in the home was documented not long after McNeal married Ethan’s mother on Feb. 27, 2015, at the Manatee County Historical Courthouse, according to court records.
Less than two months later, police were called to the couple’s home.
Just before midnight April 12, Bradenton police officers responded to the home after receiving a 911 hang-up call, according to an arrest report. McNeal’s wife told police that she had been the one that called 911 because McNeal had “beat her up.”
“The victim stated that she and the defendant were arguing inside of the house, and he punched her in her right cheek bone area,” the arresting officer wrote. “The victim stated that she called 911 because she was scared.”
Some minor swelling and redness was already apparent on her cheek, the officer noted.
A month later, the State Attorney’s Office was forced to drop the charges after meeting with Ethan’s mother, who said she would not testify against McNeal.
“There were no other witnesses and the defendant did not provide a statement,” Assistant State Attorney Clayton Boyette wrote in an internal memo. “She stated that they were just arguing and that at no point did the defendant strike her.”
McNeal had never made any statements to law enforcement, the memo added.
“A review of the 911 call did not reveal any additional evidence,” the prosecutor wrote. “Without Ethan’s mother’s testimony, the prosecutor said the state could not prove it’s case.”
In November 2009, McNeal was charged with two counts of battery against a school board employee while he was a student at Braden River High School, according to court records. McNeal had gotten into a fight with another student in the cafeteria, and the cafeteria manager and vice principal tried to break the fight up, during which the cafeteria manager was injured.
McNeal also pushed the vice principal and the principal, according to reports.
The following month, the charges were declined to be prosecuted by the State Attorney’s Office.