Startling new details emerge in Robert Manwill case

Court records reveal why Ada prosecutors charged the boy's mother and her boyfriend with murder.

porr@idahostatesman.comJuly 15, 2010 

Robert Manwill

COURTESY PHOTO

Ada County prosecutors say the last time Melissa Jenkins saw her 8-year-old son alive - the morning of July 24 - he complained that his head hurt.

His back hurt. His chest hurt. His stomach hurt. He had a hard time walking, stumbling down the hall in their apartment. He was sleepy.

Robert Manwill had been alone with his mother's boyfriend, Daniel Ehrlick, the night before, prosecutors say.

The next morning, the boy wasn't feeling well and there was a large hole in the sheetrock in the Boise Bench apartment the couple shared.

Investigators testified that Jenkins later admitted she should have sought medical attention for the boy that morning.

Instead, she said she went to work at 2:45 p.m. and never saw her son alive again.

Court records obtained by the Statesman reveal for the first time what prosecutors meant when they said Robert was beaten for weeks in a pattern of "escalating physical violence" that climaxed in a severe, and ultimately fatal, head injury - and that his mother didn't do anything to stop it.

Secret grand jury testimony, cited in a series of court documents after Jenkins' attorneys filed a motion to dismiss murder charges against her,details how prosecutors believe Ehrlick physically abused Jenkins' son while "disciplining" him in the weeks before his death.

In the testimony - from people other than Jenkins and Ehrlick themselves, who did not speak to the grand jury - the 260-pound Ehrlick is accused of "dropping a knee" on the chest of the 66-pound Robert while the boy was forced to lie motionless on the ground in a discipline the couple called "dead bugging."

Investigators say that eventually led to torn ligaments and excessive abdominal bleeding in the child.

Testimony and physical evidence indicate that Ehrlick hit the boy with a piece of wooden molding so hard it may have left an internal bruise for weeks, prosecutors say.

The grand jury heard testimony that Jenkins told police that Ehrlick "hates" Robert and that she "allowed" Ehrlick to beat her child.

The testimony indicated both Ehrlick and Jenkins made Robert kneel on the floor with his nose touching the wall as a form of punishment, made him eat food he did not like and made him continue to eat after he vomited.

They also hid him in a closet up to three times a week so employees with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare wouldn't see his bruises.

For all the publicity surrounding the search for the missing 8-year-old, the reasons why his mother and her boyfriend were charged with first-degree murder have been shrouded in secrecy.

Police released little information. Jenkins and Ehrlick were indicted by a grand jury - a secret proceeding closed to the public - and prosecutors fought to keep search warrant documents sealed from the media.

A few hints had spilled out in court, including testimony that Jenkins has made incriminating statements against Ehrlick.

Both Ehrlick and Jenkins are fighting the charges.

Ehrlick's attorneys have not filed a motion to dismiss the charges, as Jenkins' have, but have characterized the prosecutor's case as "one of the thinnest first-degree murder cases I've seen in all these years."

None of the attorneys involved in the case were available for comment Wednesday.

THE SEARCH

Robert was first reported missing from the couple's Bench-area apartment July 24.

The report sparked a weeklong community search that drew more than 2,300 volunteers, the FBI and national attention - as well as daily press conferences by the Boise police, many of which were attended by Ehrlick and Jenkins alongside other family members.

The search ended in sorrow when Robert's body was found in the New York Canal between Boise and Kuna on Aug. 3.

An Ada County grand jury indicted and charged Jenkins and Ehrlick with first-degree murder about two weeks later.

THE CASE AGAINST JENKINS

Prosecutors have never claimed Jenkins beat her son, but she is charged with murder because the grand jury determined that evidence indicated she knew Ehrlick was physically abusing the child and she did nothing to stop it.

Prosecutors say Jenkins' claims that she didn't know about the continuing pattern of injury - one of the reasons her attorneys want the murder charge dropped - is "disingenuous and insincere."

Jenkins lied to Health and Welfare workers a week before Robert went missing, prosecutors say, hiding him in a closet and "concocting a story for the worker that Robert had injured a horse and was spending the rest of the summer with his custodial father as punishment."

Grand jury testimony also indicates that a family member confronted Jenkins about seeing bruises on the boy during the July 4, 2009, weekend - which evidence suggests was the result of him being hit with a piece of wooden molding.

The autopsy revealed a deep bruise on the child's buttocks, which by then may not have been visible externally but would have been consistent with the child being struck with a wooden board, according to the documents.

Jenkins' attorneys have a different view of the same evidence.

They say the grand jury testimony does not show Jenkins "knew and aided and abetted" Ehrlick in inflicting extreme and prolonged acts of brutality against her son.

"At best, the evidence shows Mrs. Jenkins found out Mr. Ehrlick had on ONE occasion 'dropped a knee' on Robert a week to two prior to Robert's disappearance, and when she found out, she told Danny she did not want him doing that anymore. Furthermore ... when Melissa discovered Danny hit Robert with a stick, she took the stick, broke it, and threw it away.

"The evidence (presented at grand jury) showed whenever Ms. Jenkins learned of disciplinary acts she felt were too harsh, she intervened."

The defense motion to drop her murder charges claims that while there may be some evidence that Jenkins participated in hiding Manwill from Health and Welfare workers after she discovered bruises on the boy, there was no evidence she did that to cause suffering.

They say it was "rather because she was afraid she would lose both Robert and Aidan (Robert's younger brother) if the social worker knew Danny bruised Robert."

Patrick Orr: 373-6619

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