Alabama Rival abuse claims cloud search for dead children

By Brian Skoloff

Associated Press

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) -- Uncovering how two missing Alabama children died has police picking through wildly different tales from two suspects -- the father and stepmother -- as allegations of poison, rage and abuse swirl.

Each blames the other for the children's deaths. The accusations are amplified by relatives whose differing accounts overlap on a few details: This was a troubled relationship, marked by a series of abrupt moves and aspects of their lives they kept hidden from their parents.

John DeBlase has told police in this Gulf Coast city he buried his children -- 3-year-old Chase in March in rural Mississippi and 5-year-old Natalie in June in the Alabama woods.

Bones found Wednesday in the woods of rural Mississippi are believed to be the remains of Chase, police said.

The father claims the killer is the children's stepmother, Heather Leavell-Keaton, who's jailed in Louisville, Ky. on child abuse charges awaiting return to Mobile. Leavell-Keaton says DeBlase poisoned them.

Their families echo each one's allegations. Leavell-Keaton's mother said her daughter had tried before to leave a lying, controlling man, and they suspect he poisoned the children. DeBlase's parents, however, said they believe it was a violent and unpredictable stepmother who manipulated their son into helping cover up slayings she committed.

Still, they're not excusing DeBlase.

"I can't believe John is responsible for this, but I know he could have prevented it," Deblase's mother, Dorothy, told The Associated Press. "But if Heather told him to go jump off a bridge, he would go jump in a river."

The finger-pointing frustrates investigators.

"What we know at this point is that they're dead," said Officer Chris Levy of the Mobile Police Department. "How they died is still up for determination."

Levy added: "Both of them are ultimately responsible for the deaths."

DeBlase, 27, remained held on $206,000 bond. He is charged with child abuse and corpse abuse, and is set for arraignment Wednesday. He did not have an attorney. Neither suspect has yet been charged with killing the children.

Levy said witnesses told authorities both suspects beat the children on numerous occasions.

"We have some incidents where people observed them striking the children with objects," Levy said. "The children had some injuries that warranted medical attention which they never properly received."

It disturbs investigators that no one came forward sooner, Levy said. Police say the boy was last seen in March and the girl in June, but their disappearances weren't reported until authorities in Kentucky received a tip recently. Mobile police began investigating last month.

DeBlase and Leavell-Keaton had been together since 2008, but they were not legally married. The couple met on the website MySpace while DeBlase and his children were living with his parents and Leavell-Keaton was attending nearby Spring Hill College in Mobile.

Her mother, Helena Keaton, described her daughter as a smart and ambitious woman who has been legally blind since birth. She attended the Darlington School, a private boarding institution in Rome, Ga., and later won a merit scholarship to Spring Hill.

"She does not know really what happened to the kids. We suspect he poisoned them," Keaton told the AP, adding that her daughter smelled really bad breath on both children.

"They had the same symptoms. They were not eating, they were not drinking. They were beginning to use the bathroom on themselves although they were potty trained," she said. "John would not take those children to get medical care."

In the spring, Keaton said, DeBlase forced Leavell-Keaton to go on a long ride. DeBlase finally stopped and got something out of the vehicle, Keaton said, but Leavell-Keaton -- who was pregnant at the time with DeBlase's third child -- was unsure what it was.

Keaton described DeBlase as a controlling, "habitual liar." She said her daughter was dependent on him because of her limited eyesight.

"She has tried to get away from John before, and he has tracked her down," Keaton said.

The couple moved to Kentucky without the children this summer, and Leavell-Keaton had DeBlase's child in August.

DeBlase's parents have a very different account. They say Leavell-Keaton controlled the relationship, wouldn't allow DeBlase to take his children to church, and forced him to move out of their home with the kids.

They told the AP they suspect Leavell-Keaton killed the kids during a fit of rage while DeBlase attended night classes to become a personal trainer, then manipulated him into getting rid of the bodies.

"As a parent, we have a responsibility to protect our kids," said his father, Richard. "He failed to protect his kids."

Lisa Moseley Schreiner says she was the children's godmother and has known DeBlase for about eight years. She had met Leavell-Keaton only a few times, and said DeBlase "was a little slow."

"He's not all there," Schreiner said, but noted he loved his kids.

"He was very gentle, he wasn't violent and he was loving to those kids," she said.

The children's biological mother, Corrine Heathcock, declined an interview request from the AP, saying in an e-mail, "I'm not emotionally ready right now."

But she told The Mississippi Press newspaper she is still holding out hope they will be found alive.

Heathcock, who is divorced from DeBlase, told the newspaper that the last time he let her see the children was in November of 2009.

"He'd make up excuses why I couldn't see them," she said. "He'd forget to bring them over. He eventually stopped answering his phone."

The grandparents last saw the children in February when they tracked down their son and Leavell-Keaton at a trailer park in the rural Alabama town of Citronelle, not far from one place police searched for remains.

Leavell-Keaton's family never met the kids, and DeBlase's parents didn't even know the woman was pregnant.

They say the pain of losing their grandchildren is unbearable. They described Chase as a rambunctious little blonde-haired boy and Natalie as "the princess," with penetrating big blue eyes who loved baking cookies with her grandmother.

"They were our reason for living," Richard DeBlase said, tears running down his cheeks. "We watched them from crawling to walking and I can't tell you how badly it hurts us."


Associated Press writer Jay Reeves contributed to this report from Birmingham, Ala.

Published: Thu, Dec 9, 2010