Mother indicted for murder of son 18 years ago

John Christensen
The Chronicle-Express
The Chronicle Express

Kelly L. (Axtell) Anderson, 42, of Dundee, was indicted today, June 30, for the murder of her 16-month-old son, Ethan Eslick in the summer of 2002.

Anderson appeared in Yates County Criminal Court via Skype from the Centralized Arraignment Courtroom at the Yates County Jail. Judge Jason L. Cook unsealed the indictment and read aloud the two counts of 2nd degree murder as class A felonies it contained.

For the indictment, Anderson was represented by Public Defender Steve Hampsey. She entered a plea of not guilty, adding that she has retained counsel for trial.

Yates County District Attorney Todd Casella requested bail be imposed at $300,000 cash, $600,000 fully secured bond, or $900,000 partially secured bond, citing the potential sentence of life in prison, her prior jail time, and Anderson's stated desire to relocate to Florida with her wife that was recorded during a 2-year "eavesdropping warrant" obtained during the investigation. Hampsey argued for reasonable bail to be set so Anderson could work with her attorney.

Judge Cook ordered Anderson remanded to the jail in lieu of $250,000 cash bail, $500,000 bond, or $750,000 partially secured bond. Her case was set on the 45-day motion calendar with her next appearance for the argument of motions scheduled for Sept. 15.

The cold case

According to Yates County Sheriff Ron Spike, on Aug. 29, 2002, Sheriff’s Deputies received a report that Ethan M. Eslick, 16 months, was found dead by his mother, Kelly L. Axtell, age 24 at the time, at 47 Highland Drive in the village of Dundee. The only other people present in the apartment at the time were his 3-year-old brother, Jordan, who was uninjured, and Kelly’s live-in boyfriend, Ronald McGuire Sr., 28 at that time.

Ethan's body was sent to the Monroe County Medical Examiner for a forensic autopsy. Spike says the official ruling on the cause of death as homicide by asphyxiation, was not made until several months later in 2003.

“The criminal investigation was extensive,” said Spike in Feb. 2019, adding, “however no arrests were made, and the matter turned into an open cold case."

In late 2018, new leads were developed, said Spike, and the Sheriff’s Criminal Investigation Division enlisted the resources of the N.Y. State Police Investigators in Canandaigua and the FBI in Corning and Buffalo to further the investigation. A new forensic examination by an FBI consultant, of the photos and notes from the original report, contested that original ruling, finding instead that Ethan died from blunt force trauma to the abdomen. That consultant also stated that the 3-year-old brother could not have inflicted those injuries. A new pathologist was engaged to examine the evidence for a formal finding.

That investigation led to a motion by Casella in Feb. 2019 demanding DNA evidence be submitted by Anderson and Ronald McGuire Sr. who both appeared in Yates County Criminal Court Tuesday, Feb. 19. Cook granted that motion permitting the taking of the DNA by cheek swabs, and the dental impressions.

“Sometime between Aug. 28 and Aug. 29, 2002, Ethan Eslick was murdered,” reads Casella’s motion. “At the time he was murdered there were only two individuals in the residence physically capable of inflicting the injuries that killed Ethan Eslick. Ronald McGuire and Kelly Anderson are those two individuals.”

The motion papers, which include the medical examiner’s report, detail several injuries to Ethan’s body, including old and new bruises consistent with a pattern of chronic child abuse, bite marks, and damage to his stomach and spleen. The investigators’ reports in the motion papers also point out numerous inconsistencies in the stories Anderson and McGuire told police, their families, friends, and neighbors.

“Criminalistics and forensic science has developed over the past 16 years,” said Spike in Feb. 2019, “and the Yates County District Attorney’s office application for the court order Feb.19 is another step in this criminal investigation."

After the arraignment, Casella stated that no charges were being filed against McGuire, and that the case against Andersen was based on the forensic evidence and the witness interviews. He explains that the two counts are for the two theories of how Ethan was murdered that he will present to the jury.

"I thank the joint efforts of the Yates County Sheriff's Office, the N.Y. State Police, and the FBI in Corning and their Behavioral Analysis Unit in Washington D.C.," said Casella," for their dogged perseverance in this investigation to pursue justice for Ethan Eslick.

A father's plea for help

Ethan’s father, James Eslick, was living in Ohio at the time of his son's murder in 2002. In March 2019, James asked for the public to help investigators solve the murder of young Ethan. James had spent that summer with Ethan in Ohio, the visit ending just two weeks before Ethan’s death.

Of that summer, James says Ethan "was a happy kid. He never cried, and he loved being around people.” James says he slept all through the nights, and his roommates at the time loved Ethan, too. “He loved playing with toy cars, and was happy to do anything we were doing.”

James’ was granted full custody of Ethan's older brother Jordan at the age of 5 after being in foster care in Yates County following Ethan’s death. Giving an idea of the life Ethan might have had, Jordan grew up in Ohio, was a wrestler and baseball player in school, and graduated with good grades. He attended a technical school and by last year was working as a firefighter and at a car dealership.

James’ love for and pride in his surviving son is as evident as his sadness for the loss of his other boy. Ten years ago, James and his wife, Danielle, were blessed with another son, but were astonished when the baby’s due date was the same as Ethan’s birthday. That boy came a month early, but it is a memory that still lingers in James’ mind.

It was with these constant memories that James asked anyone from the time of Ethan’s death who might remember anything regarding Ethan or any event around that time to come forward with the information.

“All I ask is for anyone with information to come forward,” said James. “This case is tough after so many years. The investigators are working really hard to get to the truth, and we hope there are still people there who could help. Do it for Ethan, not for me or my family or anyone else. Do it so he can be at rest after all these years."

“Resources devoted to this case especially by the NY State Police BCI Special Investigations Unit have been exceptional, and we thank them for the collaboration with YCSO Criminal Investigators, especially our lead Inv. Arlyn Cunningham, with dogged determination,” said Sheriff Spike. “This has been a time consuming matter, that Investigators have remained steadfast on that resulted in District Attorney Todd Casella presenting the matter to a Yates County Grand Jury that returned a sealed indictment June 27. Anderson was arrested today without incident in Dundee, NY after her return from Florida, and this culminates long overdue justice for Ethan,” said Sheriff Spike who thanked all those involved in this case.