5-year-old’s torture, beating death brings questions

The Associated Press State & Local Wire
January 11, 2003, Saturday, BC cycle
5-year-old’s torture, beating death brings questions

BYLINE: By BOBBY ROSS JR., Associated Press Writer

SECTION: State and Regional

LENGTH: 869 words

DATELINE: CHATTANOOGA, Tenn.

In the wake of his death, the hell that 5-year-old Nathaniel Upshaw endured seems so obvious, so hard to ignore.

A black eye observed by a neighbor. Screaming and slamming against walls inside his family’s duplex in a poor neighborhood. A call to police reporting abuse of Nathaniel’s older brother by the man now charged with raping and murdering the kindergartner.

But for Nathaniel, the signs came too late.

Few recognized them – or at least paid much attention – until the sirens and flashing lights invaded Wilson Street on Tuesday. By then, the boy, tortured and beaten into a coma two days after he was held under water and nearly drowned, was too far gone.

He died Wednesday when he was taken off life support after doctors determined his brain no longer worked. He suffered severe brain and organ damage from the beating.

His mother’s live-in boyfriend, Nicholas Hilt, 23, confessed to torturing the boy. He remains jailed on a $2.5 million bond, charged with murder, rape, child abuse and attempted murder.

His mother, Altreasa Upshaw, 29, is charged with filing a false police report, child neglect and accessory to child abuse. Her bond was set at $1.2 million.

Now the signs are in memory of a boy that few knew.

At Hardy Elementary School, in the shadow of a public housing project, a sign reads: “We miss you Nathaniel. Love Hardy.”

A few blocks away at the duplex where Nathaniel lived, neighbor Lillian Langford has placed red, white and sky blue flowers in the yard. She recalls the boy as a sweet, playful child who used to chase his 11-year-old brother and 10-year-old sister up the sidewalk in his “big ole shoes and Pampers.”

In the community, there are questions about how such a tragedy could occur.

“Sadly, it happens all too often … and we have this same kind of outcry and outrage, but then nothing is done by the community and the citizenry to ensure that it doesn’t happen again,” said Randy Burton, president of Justice for Children, a child advocacy group that estimates 1,500 U.S. children die each year from abuse and neglect.

“People wring their hands and they get all upset, but you never see any follow-up.”

Justice for Children says child abuse is underreported and underinvestigated. Many witnesses fear reporting abuse, while police and child protective services often don’t take necessary steps – such as ordering a medical exam or interviewing a child outside an adult’s presence, Burton said.

In an affidavit read in court Friday, police said Hilt told them in a taped statement that he repeatedly slammed the boy into the walls of his girlfriend’s duplex Monday night.

Two days earlier, Hilt, a weekend maintenance worker at a downtown YMCA, said he took the Upshaw children swimming after the YMCA had closed. He held the boy underwater until he stopped breathing and then performed CPR to revive him.

Nathaniel did not receive medical care until Tuesday morning, when his mother called 911 and reported he had fallen out of bed, police said.

“It just tore me up inside,” said Langford, the neighbor who left the flowers. “I just got teary-eyed. I had no idea that man was doing that to them children.”

Like other neighbors, Langford said the police could have done more.

“If they had investigated, they would have seen something wrong then,” said Delores Williams, 51, referring to an abuse call involving the older brother. “That boy would still be alive.”

Roy Moon, 44, the Upshaws’ next-door neighbor, said he called police in October after he saw Hilt slam the older boy hard against a brick wall and hit him with a comb.

“The boy was crying,” Moon said. “I … said, ‘Yo, dude, don’t be doing that kid like that.’ He said, ‘Man, this ain’t none of your business. Get the (expletive) away from me.”‘

Police “just talked to the guy and they went in and talked to the mother,” Moon said. “Nothing ever came of it.”

Police spokesman Craig Joel said police investigated a report of an adult striking the boy, but the caller did not identify himself so officers didn’t know who witnessed it.

The child showed “no visible signs of abuse or injury” and made no claim of abuse, Joel said.

“There’s only so much we can do without an (explainable) reason to take the child out of a person’s custody,” Joel said. “In that case, there was none.

“Neighbors have talked about abuse being constant, but we received one phone call and one phone call only.”

Brenda Langston, 44, who lives in the same duplex as the Upshaws, heard the commotion Monday night but didn’t call police.

“I actually heard him, the way he was throwing that baby around, but I thought it was (Hilt and his girlfriend) fighting,” Langston said. “It wasn’t my business.”

Neighbor Corey Hill, 23, said he noticed “a fat little black eye” on Nathaniel several months ago but figured he’d been wrestling with his brother, who is now in protective custody along with his sister.

“By me hearing the news now, I believe that man was probably beating that little boy and probably bruised his face at that time too,” Hill said. “But I didn’t think nothing about it.”

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On The Net:

Justice for Children: www.jfcadvocacy.org