CAMDEN - The father of slain toddler Brendan Creato suggested “a spirit” might have drawn the child to a wooded park where the boy’s body was found in October 2015, according to testimony at a murder trial Thursday.
David “DJ” Creato, who’s accused of killing his 3-year-old son, raised that possibility in a secretly recorded conversation, the child’s mother, Samantha Denoto, said on the first day of testimony at the father’s trial.
She called the comment “completely odd and unexplainable.”
Denoto testified after jurors had heard starkly different opening statements from Assistant Camden County Prosecutor Christine Shah and defense attorney Richard Fuschino Jr.
Shah laid out a circumstantial case against Creato, attacking his claim that Brendan had wandered away from home and walked about three-quarters of a mile in predawn darkness. She asserted a "very jealous" Creato had killed his son in an effort to preserve a troubled relationship with a 17-year-old girlfriend who did not like children.
Shah also claimed Creato had a special affection for the woods where Brendan's body was found.
"The defendant walked out there all the time,” Shah told the jury. “He said he spent a lot of time in those woods, that it’s his favorite place in Haddon Township.
“He refers to it as a spiritual place,” she told the jury.
Fuschino pointed to a lack of direct evidence against Creato, whom he described as a “supportive” father who cooperated with police after reporting his son missing from their home at Cooper Street and Virginia Avenue.
“I represent an innocent person,” Fuschino told the jury.
"You're not going to hear that he did anything but love his son."
Fuschino acknowledged Creato’s belief in spirits could be seen as “odd,” but added, "that's not what makes someone guilty."
He elicited agreement from Denoto that Creato was not an adherent of Satanism or sacrifices.
Creato reported his son missing in a 911 call shortly after 6 a.m. on Oct. 13, 2015, saying he had awakened to find his son gone. A K9 team found the boy’s body about three hours later.
The jury listened to the 911 call, which included background comments by Creato's mother, who had come from her home a little more than a block away. Creato's decision to call his mother before contacting 911 represented "a reasonable place to start," Fuschino said.
Jurors also heard testimony from law enforcement officers about the police response to the 911 call. They saw photographs of Creato's small apartment, where Brendan slept on a love seat beneath a large poster of a marijuana leaf.
Sgt. Lance Saunders of the Camden County Prosecutor's Office said Creato was "very calm" during a search of his apartment while his son's fate was unknown.
Denoto, who at the time lived about a mile away at her mother's Westmont home, described a very different reaction. The mother said she ran from her bed to a car to reach Creato's home, arriving in bare feet.
"I was in such a crazy daze," she recounted during calm testimony marked by long pauses when discussing her son.
Denoto said she recorded a conversation with Creato on the day of the search at the request of an investigator. In response to a question from Fuschino, the mother said investigators had not led her to conclude Creato was responsible for Brendan's death.
Authorities say Brendan died from homicidal violence of unknown cause. That could include suffocation.
Denoto said she and Creato had an informal arrangement to share time with Brendan, who was born when both parents were 19. The couple's relationship began in middle school and continued until Denoto ended it about a year before Brendan's death.
She said Brendan spent alternate weekends with Creato, who was struggling to pay his share of the boy's preschool tuition at the time of the child's death.
Shah said the child-sharing schedule caused conflict when Creato's girlfriend, Julia Stensky, left the area to attend college in New York City and could only see Creato on weekends.
Shah cited a text exchange in which Creato said he could not change the schedule without risking a court order for child-support payments.
"I can't afford that," he told Stensky, according to Shah.
"I want you to not have the kid in your life,” Stensky texted back. “I can’t get that.”
Shah said Creato responded, "You can always get what you want in the future.”
In her opening statement, Shah gave a detailed description of Brendan's pajama-clad body, noting his pants had fallen slightly to reveal a pull-up. She said the child, with his head up toward the shore, had been in the water "for a while."
“Three-year-old boys don't turn up in the woods dead unless it’s a homicide,” she told the jury.
Shah also noted the boy's neon-green socks were clean, driving home the argument he had not walked to the park.
"It's the socks that lead to the inescapable conclusion that someone put him there," the prosecutor said.
She noted crime-scene investigators had walked from the apartment to the park on the night of Oct. 13, and encountered conditions "so dark you couldn't see your hand in front of your face."
Investigators also recruited a 3-year-old to walk the route during daylight hours, with socks wrapped around the outside of the child's shoes. Those socks were dirty by the time the walk ended, Shah said.
But Fuschino repeatedly noted the lack of direct evidence.
“Not one person says, ‘I saw Creato walking (to the park),” said Fuschino, who also asserted a long-distance relationship and preschool payments were not a motive for homicide.
He noted a search of Creato's online devices found no indication he had researched topics like "how do you get away with murder?"
Jim Walsh; (856) 486-2646; firstname.lastname@example.org