Questions plague hunt for Washington toddler; foul play suspected
The case of a toddler missing in Bellevue, Wash., after, his mother said, she left him unattended in a car for an hour has turned into a search through the parents' troubled marriage, with accusations of beatings, lies and mental illness vastly complicating the search for 2-year-old Sky Metalwala.
"She's done something with Sky -- I don't know what," a distraught Solomon Metalwala told reporters as police moved from searching the area of the car where Julia Biryukova said she left her son to combing the trash bins around her Redmond, Wash., apartment.
"What is she thinking? If she's not in her right mind, anything can happen," Metalwala said at a news conference at his lawyer's office.
Metalwala said he was available for a lie detector test Tuesday, a day after police said his emotionally distraught condition had left him unable to produce conclusive results Monday. Biryukova refused to take a test, sources familiar with the case said.
The case of the toddler allegedly left strapped in his car seat has gained international notoriety even in an unfortunate time when it can be hard to keep track of the various instances of missing children.
Biryukova told police that her car quit running Sunday and that she left Sky in the car at the side of the road as she walked with her 4-year-old daughter to a gas station. She said she returned about an hour later to find him gone.
But several questions have plagued the investigation. Why did the car start easily when police tried it? Why was at least one door left unlocked?
"Given the limited amount of information we have, the fact that there's really no solid leads to follow up on in regard to where he might be, absolutely, we suspect foul play," Bellevue Police Maj. Mike Johnson told KING 5 television in Seattle.
"Someone close to this family knows what happened to this child," he said.
It turns out that the child's disappearance came just two days after Biryukova sent word that she would not agree to a shared custody and visitation arrangement negotiated a week ago during a 12-hour mediation session in their contentious divorce, said her husband's lawyer, Leslie Clay Terry III.
Instead, Terry told The Times, Biryukova wanted Metalwala, whom she has accused of beating her and abusing the children, to give up any significant visiting privileges until he underwent further parenting classes.
The couple already had been ordered by the court to take 10 weeks of parenting training after leaving Sky in a vehicle in the parking lot outside a Target store in 27-degree weather for 55 minutes in December 2009. The incident was reported after a passerby found the child crying in the vehicle, according to court records.
The records show a tumultuous history, with Biryukova filing for a protection order against her husband in March 2010, at the same time they began to dissolve their 14-year marriage. She alleged then that Metalwala had beaten her and told her she should be working on the street as a prostitute; later, she accused him of harming the children as well.
A state Child Protective Services case worker initially sided with Biryukova. But Terry said the case against his client eroded when it was more thoroughly investigated, and that Metalwala passed a polygraph examiner's questions about whether he had hit or sexually abused his children.
The protection order was dismissed, he said, and Metalwala was officially allowed to see his children again, though he hadn't succeeded in doing it through much of the last year.
Metalwala has said the marriage began to disintegrate when Biryukova developed what appeared to be an obsessive-compulsive disorder that finally landed her in the hospital for a mental evaluation.
"They were very happily married and everything seemed to be going very well, and then suddenly something happened to her," Terry said. "She would clean the same thing over and over again. She got to the point where she would not let her husband and children in the house because she claimed they would make it dirty." Metalwala and the children, he said, would often have to eat dinner at a nearby restaurant.
"She wasn't even feeding them. She didn't want to cook in the house, because she didn't want the kitchen to get dirty," the lawyer said. "She threatened to kill herself. She said she had dreams of the children dying."
In 2010, he said, Biryukova was committed for a mental health evaluation, and released some time later with a doctor's conclusion that she was capable of caring for her children. It was when Metalwala filed for divorce that March and tried to get custody of the children, Terry said, that Biryukova filed for the protection order.
In court papers, Biryukova said her husband attacked her in front of her daughter.
"He became furious like I have never seen him before, he grabbed me by my hair in front of our daughter, dragged me into our hallway, threw me down on the floor and then threw me against a decorative column we have in the entrance of our home," she wrote in her application. "He continued to assault me with his feet -- by kicking me and then he took out his car keys and contrived to scratch me in any area that he could."
Terry said that although courts routinely grant such orders on a temporary basis, this one was dismissed after it was subjected to a full hearing.
Terry said his client is hoping desperately that his son can be found. "We want the child back," he said. "Although we have concerns about the validity of the story of the mother, we can't discount the fact that it may be true," he said.
"This is the important thing. Although we find the story to be extraordinary in its content, because there's a possibility that it's true, someone may have kidnapped this child, and someone else may have seen something that would give us a clue."
-- Kim Murphy in Seattle
Photo: Solomon Metalwala at his lawyer's office in Bellevue, Wash. Credit: Ted S. Warren / Associated Press