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Airman sentenced to life in prison in toddler son's murder

Jan. 29, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Senior Airman Matthew Theurer was sentenced to life in prison early Wednesday after pleading guilty to murder in the 2013 death of his toddler son, also named Matthew.
Senior Airman Matthew Theurer was sentenced to life in prison early Wednesday after pleading guilty to murder in the 2013 death of his toddler son, also named Matthew. (Courtesy photo)
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Matthew Theurer (Courtesy)

A military judge early Wednesday sentenced a senior airman to life in prison and a dishonorable discharge in the death of his 14-month-old son at their home on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., a year ago.

But Matthew Theurer, who pleaded guilty Monday to murder and child endangerment, will spend no more than 40 years behind bars under the terms of a pretrial agreement, said Staff Sgt. John Strong, an Air Force spokesman.

The sentence was capped in exchange for Theurer’s guilty pleas at Langley Air Force Base, Va., Monday, the day his trial was set to begin. Theurer also pleaded guilty to making a false official statement and obstructing justice.

Theurer’s son, also named Matthew, died from severe malnutrition about a month before authorities found the child’s remains last March on a roadside in Columbus County, N.C., about 100 miles from base, according to the North Carolina medical examiner report. At autopsy, Matthew weighed less than he had at his four-month check-up.

Matthew was born full-term on Dec. 8, 2011. At least five medical appointments over the next four months showed Matthew was a normal, healthy baby whose weight hovered near the 50th percentile for children his age. By the time of his death, the medical examiner concluded, he had dropped to the fifth percentile.

The autopsy describes the final months of Matthew’s life:

On May 3, 2012, about two weeks after his last known doctor’s visit, Matthew’s mother took him to Indiana to live with her there. Less than three months later, she asked Theurer to come get the child because she could no longer care for him. Theurer returned to North Carolina with Matthew in late July. Matthew attended an off-base day care center from August to mid-November 2012. On Nov. 20, Theurer attended an orientation for on-base day care, which Matthew was to start Dec. 3.

He never showed up. Instead, a friend moved into Theurer’s home on Dec. 1 to care for Matthew. For reasons not disclosed in the report, the friend was escorted off base Jan. 5. After that, Matthew spent at least 12 hours a day alone with little food while Theurer worked; at least twice, the boy’s father left him alone overnight.

Theurer on Tuesday told Air Force judge Lt. Col. Josh Kastenberg that Matthew’s health declined after his wife moved out, the Goldsboro, N.C., News-Argus reported. Theurer said he would leave the boy in a bedroom — cordoned off with a baby gate — each day when he left for work. He’d give the boy a sippy cup of milk and something to eat, like a piece of toast. He said he’d done a bad job managing his money and couldn’t afford child care.

By the end of January 2013, Matthew looked thin and appeared less active than normal, the autopsy said. On Feb. 15, 2013, he was dead. Theurer placed his child in layers of white plastic garbage bags and drove to Myrtle Beach, S.C., to visit a female friend. He discarded Matthew’s body along the way.

Authorities found the baby four weeks later. His stomach was empty, he had scabs on his lower back, buttocks and groin and feces on his feet, the autopsy report said. There was no sign of physical abuse.

Theurer admitted to Air Force investigators what he had done after a failed suicide attempt March 12, the News-Argus reported.

“I did not want my son to die. I know it may be hard for people to understand, but I did love my son,” Theurer said in court, according to the Goldsboro newspaper. “I’m sorry for everything I did and did not do. And I wish I could take it all back.”

The Theurer case has striking similarities to a case underway in Texas this week in which the wife of a former Dyess Air Force Base airman is charged in the August 2012 death of a toddler.

Tamryn Klapheke, 22 months, died from malnutrition and dehydration due to prolonged neglect, the girl’s autopsy showed. She had gone weeks without a diaper change, according to the report. Tamryn was found dead days after Texas Child Protective Services closed its third investigation into the family. Tamryn’s father, a Dyess senior airman, was deployed at the time.

The girl’s mother, Tiffany Klapheke, faces up to life in prison if convicted. She is being defended by George Parnham, who in a 2006 retrial successfully defended Andrea Yates, the Texas mother who drowned her five children in a bathtub in 2001. Yates was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

After two days of jury selection, opening arguments were scheduled to begin Wednesday morning in Klapheke’s trial, the Associated Press reported.

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