MARILLA, NY - Under heavy guard, wearing an orange jumpsuit, and shackled at the hands and feet, Devon VanDerWege, 17, was led into town court on Thursday, where charges against him were upgraded from assault to murder. That's after the death of a 2-year-old boy who he had been left to babysit.
The teenager is charged with severely beating Ethan Bigham last week. The child had been placed on life support due to the severity of his injuries, and died at Children’s Hospital where his organs were then donated to help give other kids a chance to live.
"We are here to honor Ethan, and we will come to every court day. And he (VanDerWege) will spend the rest of his life in prison," said Susan Wisniewski, who attended the court proceeding and identified herself to WGRZ-TV as Bigham’s grandmother.
At an afternoon news conference, Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard confirmed that VanDerWege had only moved in with Ethan's family within the past few weeks, and along with several others comprised what was apparently a very crowded household in a trailer home off of Hemstreet Road.
In a 911 call placed to police from the home, a caller claimed to authorities the child was unresponsive after falling off a bunk bed a day prior.
“One of the difficult things encountered here was the number of other individuals that were in and out of that household, so we had some sorting out to do," said Howard. “There were five adults and four children living in the trailer home.”
Erie County district Attorney John Flynn also confirmed that Ethan Bigham had been injured before and was the subject of an active Child Protective Services investigation. “Yes he was,” affirmed Flynn. “But we can’t say anything else about that right now until we learn more about it."
Members of VanDerWege's family sobbed during his court appearance, with one of them saying "We love you Devon", when he was taken away to be held without bail.
"I met with him yesterday, and he maintains his innocence," said VanDerWege’s attorney John Gilmour.
“We’ve asked for a forensics hearing and ordered a mental health examination, then we're going to come back on April 13th," he said.
Flynn declined to reveal whether VanDerWege made any statement admitting culpability for the toddler’s injuries.
“I’m not going to comment on the evidence at this time," Flynn said.