September 29, 2017
One of the most watched recent murder cases in the Philadelphia area in years wound to a close on Wednesday with David "DJ" Creato, 23, admitting to killing his three-year-old son, Brendan, in October 2015.
He pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter in the case after a 10-day trial on a first-degree murder charge ended in a hung jury and mistrial in May.
Here's a day-by-day timeline of the significant events surrounding the case.
TUESDAY, OCT. 13, 2015: David “DJ” Creato reports his son, Brendan, missing around 6 a.m. He suggests the three-year-old may have opened the door and left the second-floor apartment they shared. A large community-wide search in Haddon Township ends three hours later when a K-9 located the boy’s lifeless body in Cooper River Park.
A death scene investigator from the office of medical examiner Dr. Gerald “Buck” Feigin goes to the scene and subsequently files a cursory report of fewer than 200 words which shows no real investigation is conducted by the investigator.
An account is set up to fund funeral costs for the boy in the name of his mother, Samantha Denoto.
WEDNESDAY, OCT. 14, 2015: A spokesman for the Camden County Prosecutor's Office announces the results of an initial autopsy performed a day earlier by Feigin are inconclusive. Feigin performs a so-called “second look," again with no conclusive answers, though a spokesman for the prosecutor does not say so at the time.
THURSDAY, OCT. 15, 2016: Dr. Charles Seibert, Feigin’s deputy in the regional medical examiner’s office, performs an autopsy, also inconclusive. The examination is initially undisclosed.
FRIDAY, OCT. 16, 2015: With a South Jersey neighborhood gripped in fear, and no arrest or answers in the case, the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office declines to discuss any additional autopsy reviews. Dr. Andrew L. Falzon, New Jersey’s then-acting medical examiner, performs a third autopsy. It, too, is inconclusive, meaning three pathologists could not pinpoint how or where the toddler died, or anything useful about who killed him.
SATURDAY, OCT. 17, 2015: Feigin, the primary medical examiner on the case, visits the scene where the child’s body was discovered for the first time, even though New Jersey law calls for a medical examiner to visit the scene of all pediatric deaths – age three and under – at the time of death as well as death scenes where the cause is “obscure.” (In practice, the law is widely ignored or a death scene investigator goes instead.) Feigin collects water samples at the scene.
WEDNESDAY, OCT. 21, 2015: Authorities announce there are no signs Brendan was sexually molested. They also say there is no sign of forced entry at the apartment. They do not mention the three inconclusive autopsies.
THURSDAY, OCT. 22: Family and friends gather for a viewing for Brendan Creato in Collingswood. The prosecutor’s office discloses for the first time that a total of three autopsies were performed, but does not disclose all were inconclusive.
FRIDAY, OCT. 23, 2015: A funeral Mass is held for the boy at a Roman Catholic church in Westmont.
WEDNESDAY, OCT. 28, 2015: Several Westmont neighbors tell PhillyVoice they saw an older man pushing a baby stroller early on the morning of Oct. 13, not far from where Brendan’s body was found. PhillyVoice uncovers a social media posting by DJ Creato’s then-17-year-old girlfriend, Julia “Julie” Stensky, which reads, in part: “Shit, I could be facing criminal charges in a homicide investigation.” The prosecutor’s office acknowledges the posting, but declines comment.
FRIDAY, OCT. 30, 2015: PhillyVoice reports investigators have spent days in the woods where Brendan’s body was found, finally leaving on Oct. 28. (While officials declined comment at the time, it later became clear officials had traced the distance from the Creato apartment, filmed the walk, and experimented with socks to see if they could stay clean – they couldn’t. They also experimented to see if stream water would wash a dirty sock clean. It didn’t.)
MONDAY, NOV. 2, 2015: Richard J. Fuschino Jr., the lawyer for DJ Creato, confirms the toxicology screen for Brendan shows no drugs in his system. The prosecutor’s office declines comment.
TUESDAY, NOV. 3, 2015: PhillyVoice reports that an abandoned stroller was found behind an empty home at 57 Strawbridge Drive in Westmont, less than a quarter mile from the apartment Creato shared with his son. (Not until Creato’s May 2017 murder trial does the prosecutor’s office explain no DNA or prints were found on the stroller.)
WEDNESDAY, NOV. 11, 2015: PhillyVoice is the first to report a grand jury is investigating the boy's death and that his young aunt and frequent caregiver, Sarah Creato, had testified. (Sarah, Brendan’s godmother and DJ's sister, had made a video for a school project using Brendan to depict a child who disappeared and died.)
MONDAY, JAN. 11, 2016: The prosecutor’s office arrests DJ Creato at a job site in Gloucester County, announcing his indictment on charges of first-degree homicide and second-degree child endangerment.
TUESDAY, JAN. 12, 2016: Creato is arraigned just one day shy of the three-month anniversary of Brendan’s murder. Bail set at $750,000. In laying out the case to a judge, Camden County Assistant Prosecutor Christine Shah alleges Creato killed his son to maintain an intimate relationship with his girlfriend, a Pace University college student. Shah characterizes Stensky, 17, who lived in Feasterville, Bucks County, as having a "strong dislike" and "disdain" for children. Shah also calls Creato “jealous” of another male student at Pace.
For the very first time, Shah announces the medical examiner – on Dec. 15, 2015 – determined the child had died from "homicidal violence of undetermined etiology." The possible means included drowning, asphyxiation and manual strangulation. "We know with certainty that he did not get to that location on his own power," Shah says, calling the case "obviously circumstantial, but quite compelling."
MONDAY, FEB. 8, 2016: Creato enters a not guilty plea before Camden County Superior Court Judge John T. Kelley, who will preside over the trial.
THURSDAY, MARCH 31, 2016: Creato’s lawyer files a motion seeking the dismissal of charges, based on Feigin’s actions – and inactions – and a failure to fully disclose the medical examiner’s behavior to the grand jury. Through that legal filing, the complete autopsies of Brendan Creato become public records. (The judge would deny the request on May 16, 2016.)
TUESDAY, JUNE 14, 2016: The judge initially sets a trial date of Oct. 3, 2016. (But the case is repeatedly moved and does not actually begin until April 2017.)
SUNDAY, DEC. 4, 2016: A still-grieving community dedicates a bench in Brendan Creato’s name, not far from where the boy’s body was found in Cooper River Park. (Tattered blue memorial ribbons remain here and there around the community today.)
MONDAY, MARCH 27, 2017: The prosecutor files a motion to take the jury to the site in Cooper River Park. The motion argues that a scene visit is needed to "understand the evidence better" and will serve to "refute the notion that the boy wandered off on his own." (The visit is eventually granted.)
MONDAY, APRIL 17, 2017: Just a day before jury selection in the trial begins, Dr. Andrew Falzon, by then confirmed as the New Jersey medical examiner, alters his official opinion on the manner of Brendan Creato’s death from “undetermined” to “homicide,” though the means is still left as undetermined. This information comes out during the trial.
TUESDAY, APRIL 18, 2017: Jury selection begins. It takes two days to seat a panel of 11 women and three men.
THURSDAY, APRIL 20, 2017: The murder trial of DJ Creato begins. During her opening, the assistant prosecutor argues that Stensky’s dislike of children was behind the child’s death. One of the messages she reads from Stensky to Creato says: "I want you to not have a kid in your life."
In a calm voice with an even tone, Brendan’s mother, Samantha Denoto testifies that DJ Creato had consistently repeated the same story about putting Brendan to bed, only to wake up and find the boy missing. But she also testifies about how he told her “spirits” may have beckoned the toddler to the location where the body was found, a spot DJ found “sacred.” Of his comments, she adds, “It was not explainable, not logical.” But she also says DJ had talked for years of “seeing and feeling spirits.”
TUESDAY, APRIL 25, 2017: Testimony continues on Day Two of the trial. Lisa Creato, DJ Creato’s mother, among the last to see Brendan alive, testifies that she and her daughter, Sarah, dropped off her pajama-clad grandson to her son's apartment, about two blocks from her home, on the evening of Oct. 12, 2015. She tells the jury that she let herself into the apartment using a screwdriver to pry open the downstairs door – something she did routinely. Her sleep the next morning, she testifies, was interrupted by a call from her son, saying Brendan was missing.
Delaware River Port Authority K-9 Officer Constance Nicholson becomes emotional on the witness stand as she describes finding the boy’s body. Nicholson testifies she saw "a small child" resting in the creek, his face down on a rock just beyond a large tree, near the creek's bank. During the officer's testimony, Lisa Creato weeps from her seat.
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 26, 2017: On Day Three of the trial much of the testimony focuses on a videotaped interview of DJ Creato by Haddon Township police the day Brendan's body was discovered. Creato repeatedly shouts “no” when told his son is dead. As the video plays in court, Creato closes his eyes and looks down.
Det. Michael Rhoads testifies that a photograph found on Creato's cellphone disproved the defendant's assertion that he had never been to the specific location in the park where his son's body was found and that his last visit to the park was a week earlier. In fact, Rhoads says, Creato visited the park – within 15 yards of the spot where the body was found – just two days earlier.
Rhoads reads a social media posting by Stensky which calls Brendan “a mistake” and threatens to end the relationship if DJ Creato doesn't move to minimize contact with the boy and his mother. (But testimony throughout the trial always found Creato telling Stensky that Brendan would always be in his life.)
Rhoads also testifies that Brendan’s body was removed from the stream by a county detective at about 9:50 a.m. on Oct. 13, 2015, about 50 minutes after discovery.
THURSDAY, APRIL 27, 2017: Rhoads admits under cross-examination that Creato agreed to every police request on the day his son was found dead, never asking for a lawyer, consenting to a request for his cellphone and providing a DNA sample. The detective testifies Creato also told him about Stensky and her resentment of Brendan and that Creato told him that Brendan going to the park on his own would be unlikely and that his son was afraid of the dark.
The detective tells Fuschino he immediately suspected foul play the day the child was found dead, but said it took a week or two before he considered Creato a suspect.
The jury visits the scene in Cooper River Park.
TUESDAY, MAY 2, 2017: A reluctant witness who unsuccessfully tried to invoke the 5th Amendment about a dozen times, Stensky characterizes Creato as "jealous" and "paranoid" about a male student at her university. She testifies she had turned her phone off the evening of Oct. 12, 2015 and gone to bed early. When she awoke, she discovered many missed messages from Creato, as well as a call from a detective, she testifies. She returned to Haddon Township, met with investigators and provided a DNA sample, she tells the jury. Asked by Fuschino if she had ever asked Creato to kill her son, she softly answers no.
Another veteran law enforcement officer, John Ellis, weeps on the stand, recalling lifting the toddler's body out of the stream for placement in a body bag. The bag rested on his lap as they drove a short distance to hand off the body to Frank Jackson, a death investigator for the medical examiner, testifies Ellis.
WEDNESDAY, MAY 3, 2017: In response to questions by Shah, Feigin testifies the boy’s brain showed he likely died as a result of oxygen deprivation lasting 30 to 90 seconds. But Feigin says he could not find an exact cause of death.
Cross-examination provides the most dramatic moments of the trial. Fuschino's aggressive questioning comes after Feigin admits to bringing the wrong crime scene report to court."You are detail-oriented and you have the wrong report?" Fuschino mocks the witness. Grimacing and shrugging, Feigin twice says he’d made a mistake, mixing two different reports together. Fuschino focuses on tests and examinations not performed by the medical examiner, including failing to use a rape kit on the child after performing an external examination only. Feigin argues the test was unnecessary because there were no signs of injury – which was wrong. (Another medical examiner had found a bite mark on the inside of Brendan’s cheek that was missed by Feigin.) The pathologist admits he did not go to the crime scene immediately and that he did not know in detail what his own investigator had done at the scene.
Fuschino was barred from pursuing most questions about two cases Feigin is said to have flubbed in Massachusetts, though the lawyer manages to get mentions of the cases heard by the jury. Feigin blames one reversal on politics. Fuschino also briefly questions Feigin about a recent case in South Jersey where he and his investigator failed to collect the severed hand of an auto accident victim from the crash scene.
THURSDAY, MAY 4, 2017: Patricia Taulane, a retired captain and former head of the county prosecutor's homicide unit, testifies in a confusing way, first saying Brendan's pajamas should have been tested – but admitting they weren't. "I don't believe they were. I probably should have oversaw that and made sure they were sent" to the lab, she testifies. But she soon reverses herself, saying the pajamas were submerged in the stream and in her experience there "would be no evidence" on them due to the water.
Fuschino counters by asking Christina Knipper, a forensic scientist from the state crime lab, whether testing for DNA evidence was advisable even with submersion in water. Knipper testifies that while water would make it harder to find biological material, "that doesn't mean it wouldn't be there." Questioned about Knipper's statement, Taulane insists it was not a mistake to forgo testing.
TUESDAY, MAY 9, 2017: Falzon, New Jersey’s medical examiner, testifies he found injuries overlooked by Feigin and also by Seibert. One was the bite mark. The other were tiny hemorrhages which can indicate a homicide, but he says there were not enough to make that call.
Falzon was the lone medical examiner who had left the cause of death as “undetermined” right up until the start of the trial. Fuschino pointedly asks why. Falzon answers that because there was no other explanation, given that the body was placed in the stream and the boy's socks.
WEDNESDAY, MAY 17, 2017: The prosecution closes with Rhoads testifying, this time speaking about Stensky flirting with a fellow student who seemed not to recall who she was. Fuschino's defense of Creato lasts than an hour, with seven character witnesses testifying that Creato was peaceful and honest. Not a single fact witness is called. The judge denies a routine request by Fuschino to dismiss the charges.
TUESDAY, MAY 23, 2017: Both sides sum up. The judge instructs the jury, which has just 30 minutes to deliberate.
WEDNESDAY, MAY 24, 2017: About halfway through the first full day of deliberations, the jury asks to review three recordings: the police interview of Creato made Oct. 13, 2015, his call to 9-1-1 reporting Brendan missing, and a secretly recorded conversation between Denoto and the boy's mother. The jury listens to the interview and the call to police before adjourning and making plans to listen to the tape recorded by Denoto.
THURSDAY, MAY 25, 2017: Jurors in the Creato murder case listened again to a 9-1-1 call, a taped law enforcement interview made the day Brendan was found dead and a secretly-recorded conversation made by his ex-girlfriend about a month later. It was the third time they have heard the recordings: once during the trial and twice during deliberations.
TUESDAY, MAY 30, 2017: After a four-day break, the jury resumed deliberations with a request to review a presentation analyzing DJ Creato's cellphone use before and after the discovery of Brendan's body. They also wanted to review brief testimony concerning surveillance video reviewed by law enforcement which apparently showed nothing deemed relevant. There is a map in evidence showing the locations of all the video feeds. At the end of the day, the jury told the judge it was having difficulty reaching a verdict. The judge ordered the jury to try again Wednesday.
WEDNESDAY, MAY 31, 2017: After reconvening in the morning, the jury remained hung and the judge declared a mistrial. Judge decided the parties will meet July 5 to discuss the future of the murder case. Creato's attorney said he will seek a bail hearing for his client as soon as possible.
WEDNESDAY, AUG. 23: Creato pleaded guilty to a manslaughter charge, admitting to depriving Brendan of oxygen. His sentence is for 10 years in prison, with parole possible in eight-and-a-half years.