RHINELANDER - An Oneida County detective believes that if a toddler hadn't been left in the care of his stepmother, 28-year-old Ellen Tran, he might still be alive.
Twenty-month-old Avery Edwards died in April of blunt force trauma at a Rhinelander home, and Tran is charged with first-degree reckless homicide in the death. She said the child slipped in the shower, but evidence pointed to an intentional act.
On Wednesday, Ellen Tran's husband, Trung, was also charged in the death of his son. Prosecutors say he knew leaving the toddler with his wife was dangerous, and he deserves some of the blame.
Ellen Tran called the boy "an illegitimate love child," a "little b**** son," a "dumb b******," and a "stupid b****** kid" in text messages to her husband in November 2016, according to the criminal complaint. She said she wished the boy had died.
Ellen Tran was charged within days of the child's death, but it took more than five months for Trung Tran to be charged.
"After a considerable amount of additional investigation, we received new information," said Oneida County District Attorney Michael Schiek in court on Wednesday.
Trung Tran is charged with failure to act to prevent bodily harm to a child and child neglect resulting in death. Together, the two felonies carry a maximum penalty of more than 37 years in prison. The state accuses Trung Tran of neglecting his duty to protect his son from his wife.
In a police report, Oneida County Detective Sgt. Chad Wanta wrote, "Trung was the only person that could protect [Avery] from Ellen and was responsible for [Avery's] safety. Had Trung not left [Avery] in Ellen's care, [Avery] may still be alive."
Additional text messages between Ellen and Trung Tran show a tense home.
Trung accused Ellen of drug, alcohol, and mental health problems and also called her "worthless" and a "leech."
Ellen Tran repeatedly demeaned Avery, her stepson. On April 7, 2017, seven days before he died, Ellen sent Trung a message with a picture of Avery crying.
"Nobody could think this kid is cute," she wrote. "He looks slow. I mean what happened???"
Despite that message and the atmosphere at the home, Trung Tran still left his son in Ellen's care. On the night Avery died, Ellen was the only adult home, while her husband worked at Rhinelander's hospital.
Ellen told police Avery slipped in the shower, but evidence later showed that type of fall couldn't cause blunt force trauma strong enough to kill him.
Investigations also found evidence that Trung Tran was trying to get custody of the boy only to avoid paying child support. Less than 72 hours after his son died, Trung Tran called Child Support Services in the boy's permanent Virginia home, saying he no longer needed to pay.
Like at Ellen Tran's court hearings, members of the Tri-County Council wore blue at Trung Tran's initial appearance to draw attention to child abuse.
"In this case particularly, we are the voice of the child who cannot speak for himself," said Tri-County Council Executive Director Shellie Holmes. "There has been a lot of speculation about whether or not there was other involvement besides Ellen Tran. We place all of our trust in the law enforcement officers and the detectives who have been investigating this."
Trung Tran appeared via video from the Oneida County Jail on Wednesday. Oneida County Judge Michael Bloom gave Trung Tran a $10,000 cash bond in court. His preliminary hearing is scheduled for October 24.
Ellen Tran faces up to 60 years in prison if convicted of reckless homicide. Trung Tran could serve more than 37 years if found guilty on his two felony charges.