Anderson guilty of murder

John Christensen
The Chronicle Express

Mother faces 25 years to life for the willful murder of her toddler son in 2002

PENN YAN — A Yates County jury June 9 returned a verdict of guilty in the trial of Kelly (Axtell) Anderson for the intentional murder of her 16-month-old son, Ethan Eslick. 

Kelly Anderson

According to Yates County Sheriff Ron Spike, on Aug. 29, 2002, sheriff’s deputies received a report that Ethan had been found dead by his mother, Kelly, then 24, at 47 Highland Drive in the village of Dundee. The only other people present in the apartment at the time were Ethan’s 3-year-old brother Jordan, who was uninjured, and Kelly’s live-in boyfriend, Ronald McGuire Sr., then age 28. Ethan’s body was sent to the Monroe County Medical Examiner for a forensic autopsy, but the official ruling on the cause of death as homicide by asphyxiation was not made until several months later in 2003.

Jordan and Ethan Eslick in 2002.

In 2002, the case was initially investigated by the Yates County Sheriff’s Office as a possible homicide, but did not result in any arrests. It then lay dormant as a cold case until March 2018 when YCSO investigators presented it to the newly elected Yates County District Attorney Todd Casella. Assistance was then sought from the New York State Police Special Investigations Unit (SIU), the FBI and its Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), becoming a coordinated effort among all agencies and the District Attorney’s Office to uncover what and who had caused Ethan’s death. After obtaining an “eavesdropping warrant,” 90 days of wiretapping Anderson’s phone, and four days of grand jury presentations in June 2020, an indictment was secured against Anderson for two counts of second-degree murder (class C violent felony) for the death of her son.

McGuire was also investigated, but Casella says there was not enough evidence to support an indictment.

Anderson’s trial in Yates County Court before Judge Jason L. Cook began June 1 with the examination of approximately 120 potential jurors before the jury of eight women and four men were empaneled. Prosecuted by Casella, testimony included 24 prosecution witnesses over the course of four days, including two pathologists, a DNA expert, a serologist (bodily fluids expert), the Yates County Sheriff’s Office original investigators, and Ethan’s older brother, Jordan, who was asleep in the same room when Ethan was murdered. 

Several clips of the wiretapped conversations Anderson had with family members and others raised the issue that would become her downfall. Anderson had different stories she told to family, to the police, and in the court. Inconsistency and self-contradiction in the conversations gave the impression of evasion. In one of the clips from a 54-minute conversation recorded between Anderson and her son, Jordan, in April 2019 the day after Ethan’s birthday, Jordan asked his mother why she though Ethan was hurt and not him. Anderson said Ethan “cried a lot” and woke up during the night. She later spoke of sitting with Ethan’s things and photos of him in his casket while crying all night, thinking, “What did I do?”

Other inconsistencies included bite marks and bruises on Ethan that Anderson said she did not see, despite claiming she bathed him that night as she said she did every night. This is contrary to the medical records that showed Ethan being seen by a doctor for unexplained bruising, and witness statements of seeing Ethan often unclean. No bruising was noted during the weeks Ethan and Jordan were with their father, James Eslick, at his home in Ohio.

Anderson also claimed that when Jordan woke that morning, she looked at Ethan in his bed and “he looked fine,” yet he was found with blood and pulmonary fluid on his face consistent with having been smothered over a course of at least five minutes, according to the expert pathologists. Anderson had also told McGuire not to check on the boys before going to work very early that morning, something she had never done before. Anderson stated in some of the conversations that she always believed Ethan’s death was “medical.” Yet she told investigators in June 2019 that she always believed McGuire and his mother, Ellen, had done something to Ethan. 

Once Casella rested the people’s case, Anderson took the stand and testified in her own defense, questioned by her attorney, Susan Betzjitomir of Bath. She denied killing Ethan or knowing who did or knowing how he died. She attempted to explain the patterns of abuse and neglect of Ethan testified by others, directly refuting their statements made under oath. However, in cross examination, Casella began to pick apart the many contradictions and inconsistencies, even in statements she had just made in court. Anderson broke into tears when Casella showed her a photo of Ethan taken by the investigators on the day of his death. No other defense witnesses were called.

Once Betzjitomir and Casella completed their summations, the jury was charged late Tuesday afternoon by Cook with the matters of law pertinent to the case and the requirements of their examination before reaching a verdict. Deliberations began at 1 p.m. June 9. After one read-back on the charges, the jury reached its unanimous verdict at 3:20 p.m. An audible gasp was heard in the courtroom at the announcement, and Anderson began to cry. 

Anderson’s sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 21, following post-conviction motions. She faces a maximum sentence of 25 years to life in prison. 

At the conclusion of the case, Casella commented, “For over three years this investigation has been the focal point of so many people who worked tirelessly in the pursuit of justice for Ethan. It has been an honor to have been among them. This was a difficult case that required the greatest of efforts to successfully prosecute, and it could not have been done alone. If not for the assistance and persistence of the Yates County Sheriff’s Office, this case may have never been given a second look."

Casella thanked Yates County Sheriff’s Office Investigators Todd Sotir and Michael Christensen who initially investigated the case and whose work formed the bed rock of the subsequent investigation. He added, "The expertise, manpower, and dedication of the New York State Police SIU were instrumental in securing the additional evidence necessary to secure the indictment and ultimately the conviction. For their service, commitment and dedication to this case, Investigator Arlyn Cunningham Jr., of the Yates County Sheriff’s Office, Senior Investigator Allison Regan and Acting Senior Investigator Michael Schreiber of the New York State Police, have my sincerest gratitude.”