The Texas Town at the Center of Russia's Adoption Drama

Three-year-old Russian adoptee Max Shatto's death has been used as a justification for the country's ban on American adoptions -- and it's brought plenty of unwanted attention to tiny Gardendale.

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A sign by the road to the Shattos' house. Their answering machine says, "If this is a reporter or a news agency, we have no comment." (Richard Solash/RFE-RL)

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.

​​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, says 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."

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.

​​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.

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 said, "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.

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Richard Solash is a reporter with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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