Friday, August 26, 2016


All Eyes On Texas Town At Center Of Russian Adoption Drama

Ector County Sheriff Mark Donaldson says of Max Shatto: "This kid's a Texas kid. He lived in Texas. He lived in my county. And my interest here is the death of that child and to find out what happened."
Ector County Sheriff Mark Donaldson says of Max Shatto: "This kid's a Texas kid. He lived in Texas. He lived in my county. And my interest here is the death of that child and to find out what happened."
By Richard Solash
GARDENDALE, Texas -- Waldrop Drive used to be a road that even the locals hardly noticed. It is unpaved and uninhabited, except for a single house far at the end. Tumbleweed collects here, driven across the surrounding oil fields by a whipping wind. The street sign is barely legible, long faded by the Texas sun.

But a short distance down the road, another sign sticks out of the ground. This one hasn't had a chance to fade. In stark black letters, it reads, "Private. Dead End Road. No Trespassing."

The house at the end of the road belongs to Laura and Alan Shatto, two of the some 1,600 residents of rural Gardendale, Texas. A recorded message on their answering machine says, "If this is a reporter or a news agency, we have no comment."

Late last month, an ambulance rushed to the house after 3-year-old Max, one of the couple's two adopted sons from Russia, allegedly collapsed. Max is now dead and buried. The case surrounding his death, however, has exploded, putting tiny Gardendale at the epicenter of an international drama.

Max Shatto (Maksim Kuzmin) died on January 21.Max Shatto (Maksim Kuzmin) died on January 21.
Max Shatto (Maksim Kuzmin) died on January 21.
Max Shatto (Maksim Kuzmin) died on January 21.
Russian officials this week claimed intimate knowledge of the case and accused Laura Shatto of "murder," setting off a media frenzy. They cited the case as prime justification for the country's recent, politically charged ban on adoptions by U.S. citizens.

The U.S. State Department has urged against "jumping to conclusions" as an investigation proceeds. While much remains a mystery, local officials now say a medical ruling on Max Shatto's death is imminent. That's as details about the day the child died, as well as accounts of his adoptive mother, begin trickling in.

Details Emerging

Shirley Standefer, the chief investigator at the Ector County Medical Examiner's Office, tells RFE/RL that she arrived at Medical Center Hospital in Odessa, outside Gardendale, after doctors there pronounced Max Shatto dead at 5:43 p.m. on January 21. She says she saw the body before it was sent away for an autopsy, which was completed the next day.

"We did see bruising. He had bruising -- over a lot of his body," Standefer says. "Now, whether or not those bruises are him being a kid, or whether or not those bruises are consistent with, you know, injury or something, I'm not a doctor and I can't tell you that."

READ MORE: Reports Of Adoptee’s Death In U.S. Prompt Firestorm Of Outrage In Russia

A preliminary autopsy report is done but remains private. Amid Russian claims of wrongdoing and intense media scrutiny, Standefer says her office has tried to expedite the final postmortem analysis.

Shirley Standefer, chief investigator of the Ector County Medical Examiner's Office in OdessaShirley Standefer, chief investigator of the Ector County Medical Examiner's Office in Odessa
Shirley Standefer, chief investigator of the Ector County Medical Examiner's Office in Odessa
Shirley Standefer, chief investigator of the Ector County Medical Examiner's Office in Odessa
She says that late on January 21 the county's chief medical examiner, Dr. Nathan Galloway, received full toxicology results. He should be ready to issue an official ruling on the cause and manner of the child's death as soon as the beginning of next week, she says. That ruling could point to a homicide, an accident, natural causes, or undetermined causes.

Standefer says that she and an investigator from the local sheriff's office interviewed Laura and Alan Shatto at the hospital. She says Laura Shatto was crying and shaking, but "forthcoming" when questioned.

"By the mother's account, Max was found outside the house," Standefer says. "She had been outside watching the two boys and had to go inside to use the bathroom. She said when she came out she found Max on the ground in close proximity to play equipment -- the slide and swing."

Sherriff: 'A Texas Kid And A Texas Case'

Mark Donaldson, Ector County's sheriff, confirms Standefer's account of the interview. He says his office received notification from the local fire department on January 21 that an ambulance was dispatched to the Shatto house due to "possible cardiac arrest." He also declined to comment on the preliminary autopsy results. His office has not filed any charges in the case.

Donaldson says that Sergei Chumaryov, the senior counselor for the Russian Embassy in Washington, has visited his office in recent days.

The sign by the road to the Shattos' house is clear. Their answering machine says, "If this is a reporter or a news agency, we have no comment."
The sign by the road to the Shattos' house is clear. Their answering machine says, "If this is a reporter or a news agency, we have no comment."

Pavel Astakhov, Russia's children's rights commissioner, demanded this week that Russian officials be allowed to "see the materials of the case and take part in the formulation of the prosecution." When asked to respond, Donaldson told RFE/RL, "It ain't gonna happen."

"This kid's a Texas kid. He lived in Texas. He lived in my county. And my interest here is the death of that child and to find out what happened. My job is to arrest them, charge them -- if we feel like there's something there. If there isn't anything there, I want to make sure that that gets put out, too," Donaldson says.

"What Russia says about the whole thing, that's a whole different ball game. I understand they think these things get covered up, get thrown under the rug, and nobody investigates, but this is not investigating a Russian kid. This is investigating a Texas kid that has died. And we're going to do the best job we can."

Much Misinformation

Texas Child Protective Services (CPS) is also involved in the case. In a statement, it said the Shatto family "has no prior involvement with CPS." Spokesman Paul Zimmerman says the agency received allegations of "physical abuse and neglectful supervision" of Max Shatto around the time of his death. He declined to say who had made the allegations.

As the facts in the case remain unclear, local officials have expressed concern at statements from Moscow apparently prejudging the outcome of an investigation that only now may be launching into high gear.

READ MORE: U.S. Families Rejoice As Some Pending Adoptions From Russia Go Through

Standefer, the medical examiner, says she would "love to know" where the Russians are getting their alleged information about Max Shatto's autopsy, which has included claims that the child suffered damage to his internal organs and that he was drugged.

"I'd love to know, because it has caused us all kinds of issues. I don't know whether it's propaganda or if it's just something that they're just coming up with out of the blue, or it's something to cause issues between [our countries], I really can't tell you," she says. "When we started reading all of the rhetoric, it was just like, 'Where are they getting their information?' It was ludicrous, and it still is. It's really sad and scary."

Shatto 'Really Happy' After Adoption

Meanwhile, details are also beginning to emerge about Laura Shatto and her adoption of Max, born Maksim Kuzmin, and his biological half-brother, 2-year-old Kristopher, born Kirill, from an orphanage in Pskov, Russia.

Shatto, who is in her mid-40s, formerly taught economics at Midland High School, about 30 kilometers outside of Gardendale. School Principal Jeff Horner said she left her position in June 2012 "on good terms." She had worked there since 2005. Horner said Shatto had made it known that she was trying to adopt children from Russia.

Arin Thomas, a recent graduate from the school, provided RFE/RL with one of the few accounts of Shatto to have surfaced. "She showed us the files of her adoption," said Thomas, who was a student in Shatto's class in 2011. "She was really happy and showed us pictures of her sons. She was one of those teachers who got really close to you and shared her personal stories."

Laura Shatto taught economics at Midland High School, about 30 kilometers outside of Gardendale.
Laura Shatto taught economics at Midland High School, about 30 kilometers outside of Gardendale.

According to Thomas, Shatto left during the 2011-12 school year to visit her prospective children in Russia, a standard step in the adoption process. Shatto told her students that she was planning to quit teaching to take care of her children instead of leaving them in day care, Thomas says.

RFE/RL's Russian Service reports that the Shatto family adopted through the Texas-based Gladney Center in late 2012. The agency told RFE/RL that it was legally bound to neither confirm nor deny the report.

Thomas also says Shatto brought her adopted sons on a visit to the school in late 2012. "She was nice, funny, and very friendly. I don't think she did what they say she did," she says.

Concerns For Kristopher

In Gardendale, three neighbors tell RFE/RL the Shattos, like other families in the community, kept to themselves. However, they all say they were surprised to learn that the family had children and say they never saw them.

Gary Luna, the owner of a stable down the road from the Shattos, says he once fed the family's horses but knew little about them. "I just hope it works out alright," he says. "If they did something wrong, hang their ass. If they didn't, then the Russians -- hang their asses."

Luna is far from the only area resident following the case, which has dominated local headlines and radio and television reports.

At Gardendale Grocery, one of the town's two convenience stores, locals wonder what will become of Kristopher, the Shattos' second child. Zimmerman, from Texas CPS, says Kristopher Shatto is "safe" and "in the home" and is being visited periodically by case workers.

READ MORE: Russian Children's Ombudsman Campaigns Against Foreign Adoptions

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow and Donaldson, the county sheriff, have specified that the boy is in the care of his father. They did not elaborate.

Russian officials have called for Kristopher Shatto to be returned to Russia. Yulia Kuzmina, the biological mother of Max and Kristopher, issued a televised appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 21 for help in reuniting her with her son.

Hours after the interview, Kuzmina, who originally lost custody of her children due to negligence and excessive drinking, was removed from a train for drunken and unruly behavior, Russian media reported.
This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Jorjo from: Florida
February 22, 2013 17:59
Great report and the photo of the guy speaks better than a 1,000 words "Texas!" What did you say, "Russia?" Never heard of it:)
In Response

by: Adoptive Parent from: USA
March 02, 2013 04:40

Well, Texas said "don't mess with us" which was expected. On one hand this is not the worst outcome for the surviving brother.

He could end up in Texas foster care system... Which apparently has a deal to ship its kids to Ohio where they are prostituted by local foster families.

Here is one of the recently uncovered cases:

"The private adoption agency, Dayton-based Action Inc., has said little about the case other than to deny wrongdoing. The state reviewed its operations and noted some procedural violations but no reason to suspend or revoke the agency's license. All the children had been in Texas foster care before coming to Ohio through the agency, one of many that work through interstate agreements to find homes for some of the more than 100,000 children in foster care awaiting adoption at any given time in the United States."

"The single man was a foster parent for six other children before he began adopting children in the past three years. He adopted a brother and sister and an unrelated boy, and was in the process of adopting another boy, all ages 9 to 12, when authorities arrested him a year ago Sunday following an undercover sting that began when a detective looked into an online posting about "taboo sex."

by: T from: DC
February 22, 2013 18:16
Richard, great article as usual, thanks!

by: frank from: viera, florida
February 22, 2013 19:11
This is the BEST piece I have read on this case. Bravo, RFE reporter, Richard Solash for a very comprehensive job of reporting!

by: Scott from: Houston
February 22, 2013 19:52
The Russian should investigate the death of this girl that happened in Russia, in one of the orphanages.
In Response

by: Jim from: New York
February 23, 2013 04:30
Just one girl, Scott? Sounds like reporting on the death of one steer in a slaughterhouse. It's just not news that Russians have perfected the art of hating, impoverishing, spirit-crushing, and killing each other.
In Response

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
February 23, 2013 18:26
You got it, Jim from New York, Moscow is something like Aleppo these days: thousands of dead people lying on the streets, the bloody regime of Vladimir Putin is bomging its own people. I am even surprised that the pres. George W. Obama has not imposed a non-fly zone over the Red Square yet :-))))

by: theLizzard from: Phoenix
February 23, 2013 05:04
Russia, your immature hypocrisy knows no bounds. The day you publish an open and honest report on the number of deaths every year in Russian orphanages due to abuse and neglect is the day you have the right to make reasoned and informed comments on the death of an American child...if that indeed is within your capability.
Russian citizens, stop your ridiculous dog-in-the-manger ploy of hanging on to your absurd superstition that children are put in orphanages because they are bad or have 'bad blood' and are therefore unadoptable and then rising in indignation at the theft of your 'national treasures' when a compassionate foreigner comes along to rescue a child from the cesspool that is the State orphanage system.
In Response

by: Regular Joe from: USA
March 05, 2013 21:07
Well said, Lizzard. The real victims of this politicization of a tragedy are all the other Russian kids stuck in the hellish and neglectful state orphanage system. The local authorities in Texas are far more capable of finding the truth in this case than a bunch of United Russia muckrakers. If the Russian authorities were so concerned with the well-being of Russian children, they could do a lot more good by cleaning up their own house before commenting on that of others.

by: Jo from: usa
February 26, 2013 06:35
it's a very sad story...and i hope the the funeral is back home in Russia....and I hope other little kid also returns beck to his real mom in russia....and i hope they really find what happened in tX and someone goes to jail for killing little boy.....this should shed some light on other cases and adaptive and abusive parents like the one Ohio adoptive father accused of raping 3 children...we need more workers in CPS all across nation to protect kids, and elderly here in US,Europa,Russia, and the rest of the world
In Response

by: Anonymous
February 26, 2013 07:35
You don't really expect anyone to believe you're an American, do you?
In Response

by: Jack from: US
February 26, 2013 16:40
Jo is American, as am I.
In Response

by: Andrew from: Auckland
February 28, 2013 06:26
Well Jack, then he is not very American then.

He may be another Armenian Trojan horse for Russia though.
In Response

by: Me
March 02, 2013 05:14
To be a good American I should support practice of killing Russian kids? Interesting logic
In Response

by: Jack from: US
March 03, 2013 05:28
that was my friend Moisha again

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