September 29, 2017
David “DJ” Creato Jr., who was sentenced Friday to 10 years in prison in a manslaughter plea deal after admitting to killing his 3-year-old son, didn't do the crime, according to his father.
The plea was simply “the best deal ... the best thing to do” to put an end to the case, David Creato Sr. told PhillyVoice in an exclusive interview this week.
The actual killer, he claimed, has never been identified due to a bungled investigation of the boy's death.
In particular, he faulted the work done by three medical examiners, who were unable to identify a precise cause of death or other critical details, such as where and when Brendan Creato died.
"We need to know what happens that night and the trial left us with more questions than answers," said Creato Sr., 51.
“The medical examiner not showing up at the scene, the scene where a little boy was found, was a big slap, like Brendan did not matter,” he said. “Their own slogan is ‘Every scene, every time.’ Where were they?”
Brendan Creato was reported missing on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015. Early that morning, DJ Creato called 9-1-1 to report his son's absence from their apartment. Law enforcement and neighbors searched their Westmont neighborhood of Haddon Township. Within three hours, the toddler's body, was located in nearby Cooper River Park.
The first of three autopsies took place that afternoon, and two other followed before the end of the week. The only clear sign of foul play discovered was a lack of oxygen to the boy's brain, though the precise means has never been identified. The lead medical examiner, Dr. Gerald Feigin, did not visit the scene at the park until the Saturday after. On Dec. 15, 2015, Feigin determined the child had died from "homicidal violence of undetermined etiology," with possible means including drowning, asphyxiation and manual strangulation.
On Jan. 12, 2016, Creato was arrested and charged with first-degree murder and second-degree child endangerment. The prosecution alleged the motive was Creato's attempt to maintain an intimate relationship with his then-girlfriend, Julia "Julie" Stensky, who reluctantly testified at her former lover's trial, which began April 18, 2017.
The rockiest part of the state's case proved to be the handling of the case by medical examiners, especially Feigin, who seemed unprepared for his testimony, bringing parts of a wrong file to court. The defense drilled Feigin for not using a rape kit on the child's body and for missing a bite make inside the child's cheek.
After four days of deliberation, a mistrial was declared on May 31, 2017, with the prosecution adamantly vowing to retry the case. One of two holdout jurors told PhillyVoice she thought the prosecution failed to overcome reasonable doubt.
“DJ is not smart enough to commit the perfect crime and leave behind no evidence, no DNA, no eyewitnesses .... he was stupid about Julie and jealous.” – David Creato Sr., on his son's failing
But instead of trying the case a second time, prosecutors quietly worked out a plea deal on Aug. 23, three weeks before a second trial was set to begin. Friday's hearing formalized the deal, a plea to manslaughter, with a term of 10 years in prison. But he could be out in as little as 6 years and 8 months with consideration for early parole and time served.
David Creato Sr. said he believes his son is innocent despite a carefully-worded statement he made in court on Aug. 23. For the first time, DJ Creato admitted that day he was responsible for depriving Brendan of oxygen. His declaration was a necessary step to secure the plea.
The statement, however, did not address how, where, when or why Brendan was killed, nor how his son's body ended up on a rock in a creek more than a half a mile away from his apartment.
DJ Creato added no details Friday, speaking just one word – "no" – when asked if he wanted to speak.
The statement, explained the senior Creato, was the least his son could say in order to accept a plea agreement that capped his prison time without risking more years behind bars if convicted of first-degree murder in a re-trial.
But the statement isn’t true, Creato insisted.
“That kid behind bars? He didn’t do it," he said of DJ. "I want justice for Brendan.”
Creato Sr. said he thinks of his grandson every day. “It’s torture," he confided.
He said the loss of Brendan was like a kick to the groin, adding he misses the boy's playful personality and intelligence.
"He wasn't your normal three-year-old. He was really funny and made us laugh and he was smart and sociable," Creato said. "Not shy at all. I think he would have been some sort of entertainer.
"He loved his picture taken, loved animals, loved my motorcycle, but called it a meekal.
The grandfather remembered tender moments with a boy who made him smile often.
"When I was working on something he would come over and say 'Come on, Pop Pop, we fix it.' He would sit on my lap and share popcorn with me and watch movies and he knew where I hid my Twizzlers.
"The last summer he was alive, we had a long weekend with him in Wildwood," Creato added. "He loved the sand and the rides on the boardwalk and of course, ice cream. He was so much fun to be around, always."
Creato had previously reached out to PhillyVoice to discuss his son's case soon after the mistrial.
But then he changed his mind and stayed quiet – until now. His only precondition for this interview was that the story not be published until after his son's sentencing hearing.
He sat down with PhillyVoice at a location he suggested: the memorial bench dedicated to his grandson on the edge of Cooper River Park.
The bench is a short walk from where Brendan’s body was found and not far from his Westmont home, where he lives with his wife, Lisa, 51, and daughter Sarah, 24. Bedraggled blue ribbons, memorials to Brendan which went up in the weeks after the boy's body was discovered, still frame the entrance to their home. Down the street is the apartment that DJ and Brendan shared. Sara and Lisa Creato dropped Brendan off at the apartment the evening before he was reported missing.
The senior Creato believes his grandson's killer remains on the loose, and he wants to hire the best and most relentless private investigator available to review the case and find the truth about who killed Brendan and why.
He has more than one alternative suspect in mind, but he declined to name them for publication.
In Creato's view, the boy's killer was never caught, in large part, because the criminal investigation was sloppy. His enmity toward the prosecution is aimed primarily at Feigin, the leader of the regional medical examiner's office serving Camden, Gloucester and Salem counties.
Feigin failed Brendan by conducting a lax medical investigation, said Creato.
“He doesn’t go to the scene or designate someone to go to the scene" on the day Brendan’s body was discovered, Creato said.
“He doesn’t care,” Creato said of Feigin. “He brings the wrong papers to court. He doesn’t give a s**t. My heart breaks every day because of him.”
A request for comment from on Friday was not immediately responded to by Feigin. His office said he is on vacation but said they will attempt to contact him.
Creato also criticized the state’s top medical examiner, Dr. Andrew Falzon.
Falzon switched his finding about Brendan’s cause of death from “undetermined” to “homicide” just one day before DJ Creato’s murder trial began this spring.
“That was political. That’s craziness,” said Creato Sr.
Falzon declined comment through a spokesperson.
He is perhaps most bitter about his son’s former girlfriend, Stensky, of Feasterville, Bucks County. The former couple met on Tinder and dated for about three months.
The prosecution’s case revolved around a theory that DJ Creato killed his son to further his romance with the then-17-year-old college student. Much of the case was built on electronic messages between the couple, with Stensky repeatedly voicing a dislike of children and Brendan.
“What a cold-hearted bitch she is," Creato said. "I had no idea she hated Brendan so much. I regret letting Julie into my house, and him meeting her.”
Stensky manipulated his son, Creato said. He referred to her as "evil."
Creato Sr. thought his son would be exonerated by the jury and said he was “floored” when the trial ended late last May with a mistrial.
He said he learned through a phone call that his son was considering accepting a plea deal weeks before a second trial was to start. The call from his son came just the day before DJ accepted the deal.
“He was both asking my opinion and telling me” what he planned to do, Creato said.
Creato said the plea offer by the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office made sense because the state had a flawed case heading into a re-trial.
“I have total respect for the little people who were involved when it was a search. It’s what happened when it became an investigation,” he said.
Creato recalled the day his grandson went missing.
He had joined the search for the toddler on his bike at Cooper River Park, near where the memorial bench for Brendan now rests. Suddenly, the demeanor of the searchers changed. He sensed his grandson’s body had been found in woods near the river.
Then, police emerged from the woods and began to string caution tape at the scene.
“That was serious," he said. "I knew something bad had happened.”
Authorities did not tell them – officially – that Brendan’s body had been found, even after his family and the family of Brendan’s mother, Samantha DeNoto, were taken to the Haddon Township Police Department.
They learned of their grandson’s death not from officials, but instead from a news account accessed on the smartphone of Danielle DeNoto, the boy's maternal grandmother, as they all waited in vain to hear more information from police.
Likewise, they learned of the inconclusive autopsy examination of Brendan's body from news accounts, not from officials. “They should have told our lawyer,” Creato said. He did not blame the media for the release of information, but the investigators. "The media was respectful," he said.
“The police stopped their investigation at DJ," he added. "The prosecutor offered a plea because they want the case to go away, to forget about it.”
“I wish I was a fly on the wall in (Assistant Prosecutor) Christine Shah’s office. She was stuck with an incompetent investigation by incompetent co-workers and she still almost did it,” he said.
“Her closing was excellent, even though she lied" explaining she said a pillow was used to smother his grandson, said Creato. (In her closing, Shah stated that a pillow was used by DJ; however, that was never testified to by any of the witnesses she had called.)
A request for comment on Friday was not immediately responded to by Shah or her office.
Creato wishes his son’s lawyer, Richard J. Fuschino Jr. of Philadelphia, had delivered a stronger and more detailed closing, including naming alternative suspects, but he was otherwise satisfied with the legal defense. He declined to say how much Fuschino was paid or what a second defense would have cost.
“DJ is not smart enough to commit the perfect crime and leave behind no evidence, no DNA, no eyewitnesses," he added.
His son's failing was that "he was stupid about Julie and jealous,” he said.
Following the plea agreement proceeding where DJ Creato took responsibility for causing the death of his son, Lisa Creato said she despite that she "stands behind my son 100 percent."
Meanwhile, he worries for his son’s safety in state prison, but added he’s heard of no issues during DJ’s time in the Camden County jail, which began with his arrest in January 2016.