Tragic death of autistic boy locked in a garden shed

 

The doors to the only supermarket in the small Central West NSW town slid open and a skinny young boy with gardening gloves taped to his wrists and unwashed clothes walked in.

Several weeks later, the 11-year-old was dead, killed by hypothermia after his stepfather strapped him to a chair, doused him in water and left him in a bitterly cold garden shed in 2011.

Sarah and Martin Marsh* moved to the town after buying a two bedroom cottage in 2010 for $115,000. They'd met through a dating agency in 2006, an odd match given she was from a strict religious family in Sydney's north and he was an alternative from the Far South Coast.

Sarah had two children of her own and Martin one. Sarah's son, James, had been diagnosed with autism.

But the tiny size and relative isolation of their new central West home town, they were not devoid of professional help for James.

The tragedy of what happened to the little boy can finally be revealed after his stepfather was sentenced to five years jail over his death.
The tragedy of what happened to the little boy can finally be revealed after his stepfather was sentenced to five years jail over his death.

The couple took advantage of a paediatrician less than an hour drive away. And despite the tiny population, the primary school had a special needs class, which was a safe space with caring teachers and aides.

But already there was something unusual about the family with the autistic son.

Martin fancied himself as a magician and had opened a crystals shop in town

Each week, Martin, with his warlock-style staff, and Sarah would share dinner at the town's sole pizza shop.

But the children rarely joined them.

"I sat next to James once and he tried to talk to me," a local said of Sarah and her son's visit to his business.

"He was really softly spoken but his mother jumped over and told him to shut up."

Most mornings, in a crumpled uniform, one of James' siblings would turn up to the school's breakfast club, an initiative that provided students with a free meal before classes started.

In October 2010, Martin accused the school of not supervising James properly and wanted to homeschool him instead.

James challenging behavioural problems weren't solved, and, now out of the public school system, there were fewer opportunities for people to realise what was going on behind closed doors.

Crime scene photographs of the garden shed where the 11-year-old boy was strapped to a chair and kept overnight. He died after suffering hypothermia.
Crime scene photographs of the garden shed where the 11-year-old boy was strapped to a chair and kept overnight. He died after suffering hypothermia.

Behavioural issues

James' parents claimed his behaviour, from jumping off furniture and biting his fingernails, was impossible to manage.

Martin took to Google for advice on using a straitjacket but resorted to placing white PVC pipes on James' arms.

"I thought it was a good idea because …. he can't hurt himself, he can't do anything stupid," Martin later told police.

They started keeping him in the cottage's laundry for 12 hours a night, strapped to a portable toilet chair and naked from the waist down.

Sometimes a green Woolworths shopping bag was placed over the boy's head.

Martin's rationale was that "if he couldn't see, he might go to sleep".

In the mornings, James would have abrasions on his bottom from struggling against his restraints.

"We are trying to prevent him from hurting himself. I don't like having to put tape around him … what do you do?" Sarah later explained during her police interview.

It was around this time in August/September 2011, that a real estate agent inspected the house and saw James locked in a room with no furniture and a mat on the floor.

There was faeces and urine on the floor.

"(The mother) had said she just locked James in there while she cleaned the house. But it was filthy," the agent told police. "It just wasn't right."

He went home and discussed with his partner whether to call Family and Community Services or not.

The boy’s stepfather who can’t be identified for legal reasons.
The boy’s stepfather who can’t be identified for legal reasons.

There were other glimpses that James wasn't being treated right.

A neighbour saw Martin drag James by his ear behind the family home.

A tradesman saw James kept in a roped-off section of the backyard for hours on end, which the family referred to as James' happy place.

Even after his death, Martin referred to James as "the idiot" in conversations.

"It's shocking because the fact is that many people felt responsible that this happened in their own backyard," a local woman said.

The woman was adamant that people connected to the school called Family and Community Services, concerned about the boy's treatment.

But it is understood FACS had no record of "child at risk" reports.

James' parents suggested they'd cried out for help.

"It's not like we haven't talked to people about it, it's not like we haven't asked for help," Sarah told police in October 2011

But police found James' doctors were never told about their extreme methods, and the couple were not ignorant of the government aid available and how to navigate support services.

. The officer-in-charge, Detective Sergeant Michael Burton, said the parents accessed disability support in 2008.

"To me, they had the capacity to access services," he said.

"They were aware of what was available and they had James in respite, they had received funding in the past and they didn't use that knowledge."

The last time James saw his paediatrician was on September 9, 2011. That night, his parents started locking him in the garden shed.

The boy was strapped to the garden shed with packing tape and a ratchet strap. Picture: NSW Police
The boy was strapped to the garden shed with packing tape and a ratchet strap. Picture: NSW Police

September 30, 2011

On September 30, 2011, James had defecated in the cottage. Martin was so enraged he rubbed the child's face in it. James was going to be restrained in the shed that night.

In the dirty garden shed, Martin fastened a ratchet strap around James' waist and secured packing tape across his chest and forehead.

James' feet were tapped to another chair, not far from a heater that was unplugged despite 5C temperatures.

While James' autism meant he had trouble communicating, it was obvious the shed was uncomfortable.

"I opened up the door, he goes, 'I want up', I said 'no you gotta stay in the chair'," Martin told police.

"'I said 'mate … don't be stubborn, you do this all the time.'"

James began making noises in the shed.

At 10pm, Martin went to the shed and warned "(James), stop it, I'll wet you". James replied "no, no wet".

"And then all of a sudden he stuck his tongue out," Martin later told detectives.

"I said what are you pulling a face for? I thought he is just being silly buggers."

Just after 2am, Martin, snug in the cottage's main bedroom, was fed up with hearing James' continued noises from the shed. He took the boy into the cottage, showered him under cold water and carried him back to the shed.

Temperatures in the town were as low as four degrees. Photo: NSW Police
Temperatures in the town were as low as four degrees. Photo: NSW Police

James weighed just 24kg. It was difficult for him to retain heat.

At 2.37am paramedics received a call from James mum Sarah.

James had become hypothermia from sitting in the near-freezing cold shed for eight hours.

Paramedics Howard O'Regan and Craig Parsons found James "as cold as ice".

"I went into the bathroom and the little fella was on the ground in the bathroom," Mr Parsons said.

"The mother was kneeling next to him."

According to court documents, Martin told Mr Parsons: "he was in the bathroom, he had a fit and fell to the floor and stopped breathing."

After more than 45 minutes of CPR, James died at hospital.

Interview

At the hospital, Martin spent hours methodically explaining why he restrained James.

There was no malice in his voice as he claimed he "done the best I can".

But detectives asked, was James really naughty or was it a consequence of his disability?

"I don't know about that, all I know if that if he chooses not to do something he won't do it," Martin replied.

"(I don't know if) that's autism or not or if that's a personality trait."

One detective asked whether in hindsight, was strapping James to a chair for 12 hours a reasonable way of stopping him from jumping around.

"It wasn't just for my sake, it wasn't just for (Sarah's) sake it was for (James') sake, for him to get some rest," Martin said.

Homicide and Central West detectives spent eight months confirming Martin's frank admissions, even if they wished they weren't true.

"It was an inhumane way to treat a person let alone a child, particularly when there were two other children (James' siblings) in the house sleeping in warm beds," Det Sgt Burton said.

The stepfather, now 50, was sentenced to at least five-and-a-half years jail for manslaughter. Photo: NSW Police
The stepfather, now 50, was sentenced to at least five-and-a-half years jail for manslaughter. Photo: NSW Police

Arrest

In May 2012, detectives charged Martin and Sarah with James' murder.

Investigators found someone (they couldn't prove who) had searched the weather conditions and how to treat hypothermia on a computer in the house.

In a 2015 Judge Alone verdict that can only be revealed now, following the expiry of a court order, Sarah was found not guilty on the downgraded charge of manslaughter.

She argued that she didn't know James was in the shed in wet clothing and couldn't be held responsible for Martin's actions.

In December last year, Martin, now 50, was sentenced to a maximum eight years jail, after pleading guilty to manslaughter and then trying to withdraw his admission.

With time already served, Martin will be eligible for parole in July 2021.

The crime haunts not only James' extended family but the locals riddled with guilt, and investigators who described it as the saddest case they've ever dealt with.

"I did speak to one witness who was staying next door to (James) in a holiday rental," Det Sgt Burton said.

"She said every time she gets cold now she just thinks about the boy in the shed."

*The mother, stepfather and victim have been given pseudonyms to comply with court orders.

The boy’s mother.
The boy’s mother.


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