The Journal Gazette
Sunday, October 28, 2018 1:00 am

Report sheds light on death of 2-year-old

Mother, boyfriend charged in fatal beating of young boy

JAMIE DUFFY | The Journal Gazette

The day 2-year-old Malakai Garrett died, his great-grandmother Jean Unverzagt dropped his half-sister, Kaydence, at home about 4 p.m. after cheerleading practice.

Unverzagt asked Mitchell Vanryn, the boy's caregiver, if she could see Malakai, but was told he was sleeping.

Unverzagt later told one caseworker from the Indiana Department of Child Services that she wished she had gone in to check on her grandson because, if she had, he might still be alive. 

The grandmother's regret was included in a 400-page confidential report The Journal Gazette obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request to the state agency. Unverzagt said she raised Malakai's mother, Amber V. Garrett, “after her biological mother walked out on her.” A repeat entry in the DCS report indicated Amber Garrett was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder.

The report sheds more light on the events surrounding Malakai's death and the efforts of Lantz Garrett, the boy's father, and his family to wrest Malakai away. Lantz Garrett, Malakai's biological father, had a court hearing scheduled Dec. 6 to address visitation rights and a Dec. 12 emergency custody hearing.

Malakai died Nov. 29, 2017, from severe injuries to internal organs, including the stomach, liver, small intestine and pancreas. The Allen County coroner's report said the injuries were due to multiple blows and strikes from a closed fist. The death blows were delivered in the last two or three days of the boy's life, the attending physician at the hospital stated.

Vanryn, 28, Amber's live-in boyfriend, was charged with Malakai's murder in November. His trial is scheduled for March.

Amber Garrett, 26, was charged with two felony counts of neglect of a dependent, one of those counts resulting in serious injury. Her trial is scheduled to start Nov. 27, court documents indicate.

Vanryn moved in to Amber's home at 6902 Palmetta Court in June 2017 after meeting her in March. Lantz Garrett and his family had regular visits with Malakai until Amber sought a restraining order on Lantz for an alleged domestic violence incident. 

Lantz's family had access to Malakai until relations became strained.

Kaydence, now 7, told the Garrett family that she and Malakai were locked up in their rooms when Mitch was in charge and that he hit Malakai. She shared those accounts with the Dr. Bill Lewis Center for Children after her brother was dead. Kaydence said she sometimes couldn't sleep because her mother and Mitch were arguing and she could hear them yell and cuss at each other. One time, “Mommy” accidentally broke a tablet and Mitch threw it at her. Then she heard Mitch smack her mommy, she told DCS. 

Lantz's family also noted, with increasing concern, social media posts by Amber Garrett about Malakai. The posts included references to his falling in the shower, hurting his lip and requiring stitches, and of having corneal abrasions and chemical burns as a result of an Epsom salt bath in August to reduce itching from mosquito bites. Photos posted of Malakai showed signs of abuse, they said.

Others also had concerns. Greg Unverzagt said his daughter, Amber, “had done a 360” after Mitch came into her life. He called his daughter “a liar” and said his grandson never had bruises “until Mr. Vanryn came into the picture.” He also told DCS Vanryn was physically, mentally and verbally abusive to Amber and the children. 

Greg Unverzagt baby-sat Malakai in July or August and after Malakai pulled down a pull-up to proudly show his mother he hadn't wet, Unverzagt saw handprints on Malakai's buttocks. He confronted Vanryn and told him to keep his hands off his grandson and “Vanryn came back at him,” he told DCS. Amber threatened to call police, then changed her number and blocked her father's cellphone number and wouldn't let him see his grandchildren, he reported.

Greg Unverzagt said he wished he had called DCS. He was “always going to have this in the back of his mind that he could have prevented this (Malakai's death),” he said.

The Sunday before the Wednesday Malakai died, Jean Unverzagt noticed a bruise on the left side of his face but didn't know how he got it. Dale Unverzagt told DCS he told Amber several times “to get Mitch out of the house.”

Before Mitch moved in with Amber, there were two documented DCS visits. One was in July 2016 when accusations were made about neglect that DCS found unsubstantiated. Another visit occurred in November 2016 after Lantz Garrett took his son to Kosciusko Community Hospital for bad diaper rash. Lantz told DCS that Malakai, 1 at the time, had sores on his face and bruises on his left leg and that he'd observed faint bruises on Malakai's side and back. Lantz reported to DCS that the doctor did not see any signs of abuse or neglect.   

The last DCS visit at the end of October still found unsubstantiated cause for alarm, even though relatives say they knew better. 

Margaret Easterly, Malakai's great grandmother who frequently baby-sat, paid an impromptu visit to Amber's home Oct. 29. After she was turned away at the door, she called DCS to report suspected abuse. Malakai had bruises on his neck and appeared to be malnourished, when five months ago he was a “hefty little boy.” Now he looked “sunken in and pale,” she was documented as saying in the report.

DCS and law officers followed up that day with a surprise visit to Amber's home for a wellness check. The case manager noted dark circles under Malakai's eyes and a scratch above his lip. Amber said the injuries were caused when the boy slipped in the shower and had stitches. Amber couldn't explain the dark circles but said her son often “played rough,” or may have had an allergic reaction from a change in laundry detergents.

According to Jean Unverzagt, Malakai was anemic and had a heart murmur.

Police officers had Malakai pull up his shirt and did not see any bruises, the report said. Malakai was thin, but not malnourished. The caseworker told both Amber and Vanryn to schedule a “head to toe” assessment for Malakai and both signed a safety plan promising they would refrain from physical discipline that results in marks and bruises.

During a DCS follow-up visit Oct. 31, Vanryn answered the door. He said Amber would be home soon from the pain management clinic where she worked as a nurse's assistant. The unemployed Vanryn said he watched the children during the day when he wasn't attending classes at Ivy Tech. He was going to school on the GI Bill to obtain a psychology degree.

Vanryn also said Malakai hit his head twice while jumping on the bed, once on a broken bed frame. While apparently making excuses for Malakai's injuries, both Malakai and his half-sister told DCS they were safe in their home. They told the officers and the caseworker that no one was hurting them and that Mitch was nice to them, although Malakai had a hard time speaking, the DCS report said.

Vanryn acknowledged he had been charged with domestic violence in a prior relationship but told DCS charges were dropped because the accusations were false. Allen County court documents indicate Vanryn was charged with domestic battery in January 2015, a criminal misdemeanor that was dismissed in October 2015.

In mid-November, a DCS case manager interviewed Adam Hull, Kaydence's father. Hull said he paid child support but was prevented from seeing his daughter because of a restraining order.

Like Lantz Garrett, he had also heard stories about his daughter falling in the bathtub and getting bruises.

“It's identical to the situation I had with Amber,” Hull told the case manager. “I told the courts that she is a violent person and she just tells everyone I'm a terrible father. I hope something works out for the father and she gets what she deserves.” 

Fort Wayne detectives retrieved text messages from Amber's phone revealing Vanryn's increasing frustration with his child-care obligations during the summer and fall.

In a text exchange Oct. 13, Amber told “Hubby,” as she called Vanryn, “sometimes you take punishment too far,” and “You're harder on my kids than you are on yours and that is not fair.”

Vanryn then threatened to destroy everything in the house. 

After the Oct. 29 surprise DCS visit, Amber said she was going to call a doctor and “Hubby” told her he'd “beat her ass” and that Malakai was having an allergic reaction.

A few days later, Amber told Vanryn he has anger issues and on Nov. 3, she told Vanryn he is “mean” to her kids. He responded that he was done watching her kids. On Nov. 27, two days before Malakai's death, Vanryn complained that Malakai messed up his outfits, needed two baths and that he was in trouble for the rest of the day.

After Malakai died, Amber told a detective that Vanryn would go into a rage and had shoved her down and punched her. In text messages, he threatened to kill her by “slitting her throat.”

Amber Garrett told DCS she regretted not taking her son to the emergency room Nov. 28 when he complained that his stomach hurt and the back of his head was hurting.

Chillingly, in one video Amber posted on her Facebook page titled “last video I've ever taken of Malakai before his death,” her son was lying next to her in bed. He tells her “Mitch hit my head.”

In the afternoon of Nov. 29, Vanryn put Malakai down for a nap around 1 p.m., he said. Malakai hadn't been eating, had been experiencing diarrhea and complaining of a headache. Amber said he had a cold and they gave him Tylenol and cold medicine.

Vanryn went to wake him at 4:30 p.m. Malakai normally slept for an hour, but that day slept much longer.

Vanryn found him unresponsive and his mouth stiff. His eyes were open, but they were looking through him, rather than at him, Vanryn said. Vanryn said he slapped Malakai, trying to wake him and Malakai moaned. He took him to the bathtub and put cold water on him to wake him. He tried to give Malakai CPR, but his jaw was locked and wouldn't open.

Kaydence reported she was sent outside to play on the trampoline and when she tried to enter through the back of the house, she saw Mitch holding Malakai “who was not doing anything.”

At 4:43 p.m., Vanryn raced out of the house holding Malakai, then ran back into the home. About two minutes later, he was seen on a neighbor's video, leaving again and running to the fire station less than a block away.

Inside the station, firefighters carried Malakai to the kitchen table and tried to save him. The boy's skin was cool and dry. There was bruising on the face, near the collarbone, on his back and near his penis when they lifted his soiled diaper.

In the hospital's waiting room, DCS caseworkers made note of Amber and Mitch. Amber was very tearful, but another said “she cried minimally and shared that she was at work all day.” Mitch seemed “very over-dramatic and he may be trying to cover his tracks,” the report said.

Easterly recalled in the hospital room that Mitch suggested that Malakai “had a seizure or something like that and that he was low iron and he couldn't wake him up. He kept saying he didn't know what happened. He went to sleep and he didn't wake up.”

Vanryn was pacing and talking to his biological son's mother, Easterly said. “He kept putting his arms around (his biological son's mother) and said 'I don't know what happened. I don't know what happened.' ”

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