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Toddler, teen charged in slaying lived in trailer with 7 others

Investigators were dealing with a confusing domestic situation as they tried to determine what exactly happened to 2-year-old Ethan Bigham on March 10, and who inflicted the injuries that led to the toddler's death four days later.

Ethan was one of nine people staying in the small mobile home at 2039 Hemstreet Road in Marilla, authorities said.

Ethan's mother lived there with her four children and four other adults. Seventeen-year-old Devon M. VanDerWege was a recent arrival, residing there for less than a month, according to the Erie County Sheriff's Office.

Now, the trailer is empty and VanDerWege has been charged with second-degree murder, accused of inflicting the blunt force trauma that left Ethan brain-dead. The boy died on Tuesday, after he was removed from life support at Women & Children's Hospital.

VanDerWege, who already was jailed after being charged with assault in the boy's beating, pleaded not guilty to the murder charge Thursday afternoon in Marilla Town Court.

His attorney, John Gilmour, requested that a forensic mental exam be done to determine whether the teenager can assist in his own defense before the case proceeds any further.

Ethan's grandparents and other friends also were in court for the arraignment, as were friends and family of VanDerWege. Although there were tears and hugs among the observers, the defendant – slightly built and shackled at the wrists and ankles – remained subdued during the brief proceedings.

Family members had said that VanDerWege was baby-sitting Ethan and a 9-month-old boy on March 10, and that he had watched them before without any trouble.

At a press conference following the arraignment, Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard said that a 911 call was made from the trailer, with a report that there was a child there who wasn't breathing.

Howard said deputies and rescue personnel arrived almost simultaneously, and responders immediately performed CPR on Ethan before taking him to the hospital. Howard said there were two adults at the house when deputies arrived.

Ian Hart, 20, father of the 9-month-old, accompanied Ethan to the hospital, family members have said.

Hart was not Ethan's father. Ethan was the son of Heather Schoepflin, 26.

She reportedly was at work when the assault occurred, and was called by deputies about the incident. Howard said the other children are 6 and 10 years old. They were in school at the time.

"It took time to sort out what was going on, with the number of other individuals who were in and out of that household," Howard said.

Also during the press conference, Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn acknowledged that workers from Child Protective Services were aware of Ethan before the fatal incident. Flynn would not elaborate or say whether there was an investigation regarding the other children or the home situation.

He also said he would not discuss evidence that led to the murder charge since the case has not yet been presented to a grand jury.

Flynn said the three surviving children are now with relatives.

Toddler, victim of beating, taken off life support after organs donated

A close friend of the family who was familiar with the incident said that CPS became involved about two weeks before Ethan was taken to the hospital, because one of the adults who lived in the house suffered a drug overdose at another location. The overdose victim reportedly spent several days at Erie County Medical Center.

"CPS was notified after the drug overdose and got involved. They could have done something and prevented this from happening," said the friend, who admitted being frustrated that Ethan and the other children were not removed from the house trailer at that time.

Colleen Curtin Gable, chief of the Homicide Bureau in the District Attorney's Office, said the murder case will be on hold until the forensic mental examination is completed.

VanDerWege is being held without bail.

Judge David Wyzykowski set the next court date for April 3.

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