The Tragic Death of Nathaniel Craver

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8th September 2022  •  8 min read

In 2003, Nathaniel Craver was adopted from a Russian orphanage by an American couple. Six years later, he would be rushed to hospital suffering from catastrophic injures.


The Tragic Death of Nathaniel Craver

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Nathaniel Carver was born Ivan Skorobogatov in Russia’s Chelyabinsk region in 2002. Shortly after his birth, he and his twin sister, Elizabeth, were put up for adoption. Nathaniel and Elizabeth were adopted by an American couple in 2003. Michael and Nanette Craver lived in Pennsylvania, in the United States.

The couple passed all of the requirements needed to adopt the twins. These included status checks by the adoption agency in Russia, and these would continue up to three years after the adoption was finalized. After those there years, no more follow ups were required.

On the morning of the 20th of August, 2009, Michael brought Nathaniel to Holy Spirit Hospital. He said that he had found him unresponsive in his head. Immediately, staff at the hospital could see that Nathaniel was underweight. They then observed that he was covered in injuries from head to toe. Emergency nurse, Christopher Penney, also commented that: “His head felt, to me, like a wet sponge.”

The injuries to Nathaniel were so catastrophic that he needed to be transferred to Hershey Medical Center, where Dr. Mark Iantosca opened up his skull to relieve pressure on his brain. Tragically, however, Nathaniel never regained consciousness, and four days later, he was taken off life support.

According to Michael and Nanette, the injuries that Nathaniel sustained had been caused by himself. They claimed he fell into a wood-pellet stove and had a tendency to injure himself, sometimes by throwing himself down the stairs. They stated that Nathaniel had psychological issues, including self-mutilation and attachment disorder.

Investigators were immediately suspicious, and an exhaustive investigation commenced by both the Carroll Township Police and detectives from the York County District Attorney’s Office.1

During the investigation, it was revealed that other family members noticed in the months leading up to Nathaniel’s death, his eyes were so swollen that he could barely open them. When Michael and Nanette were asked about his appearance, they claimed he had a tendency to pluck at his face.

Other people reported that Nathaniel appeared terrified of making any mistakes. One of the first people to see him alive outside the family was Sandra Atkins, Michael’s aunt. When she visited the home, Nathaniel appeared to be more lethargic than usual. He also was desperate to sit on her knee and wrap his arms around her neck.

Sandra later recalled: “When I saw him I cried. There was a scar on the back of his head. The hair had been shaved. Michael said he throws himself down and falls and rubs his eyes.”2 Shortly after she queried the scar on Nathaniel’s head, he whimpered: “Mommy” and “needle.”

According to Sandra, Nanette was always horrible to Nathaniel. She commented that she ordered him “around like a little soldier.” She said that she was always screaming and yelling at Nathaniel, and that Michael’s family never really liked her. On one occasion, Sandra witnessed Nathaniel try to hug Nanette but she pushed him away.3

Nathaniel’s autopsy revealed that he had 80 injuries to his body, 20 of which were to his head. There were a plethora of old injuries as well as new injuries. The injuries to his head had been inflicted with such force that Nathaniel’s brain was softened. Moreover, Nathaniel was extremely malnourished.

Dr. Wayne K. Ross found evidence that Nathaniel had been beaten, starved and possible bound in the weeks leading up to his death. He stated that there were numerous bruises, abrasions and injuries to Nathaniel’s head which had caused it to well “like a balloon.”

There was repeated and severe blunt force trauma to Nathaniel’s head, which contributed to the brain trauma. There was also evidence of pulling or stretching near the joints in Nathaniel’s shoulders and hips. The latter combined with abrasions on the wrists and ankles was what led the pathologist to consider that Nathaniel had been bound at some point.

He suggested that Nathaniel had died after being hit repeatedly against a flat, firm surface.

Both Nanette and Michael were finally arrested on the 25th of February, 2010. They were charged with homicide, child endangerment and conspiracy to commit both charges. Prosecutors announced there were plans for these charges to be elevated.

The Tragic Death of Nathaniel Craver
Michael and Nanette Craver.

The investigation into Nathaniel’s death revealed that there may have been opportunities to save Nathaniel.

In 2007, the family home was investigated by Children and Youth Services, and Nathaniel and Elizabeth were removed from the home. However, the siblings were eventually returned. The case was closed after a caseworker examined the home and reported she was satisfied with the environment.4

With Nathaniel and his sister back in the care of the Cravers, they removed them from public school, claiming that they had opted to home-school their children instead. Pennsylvania is known as having extremely stringent home-schooling requirements, including submitting health records and portfolios of work. Each year, the child and parent are subject to review by professional evaluators. However, this doesn’t happen until a child turns eight-years-old.5

As details of Nathaniel’s interaction with Child and Youth Services was publicized in the media, the community recoiled in horror. It wasn’t just the local community who were horrified, but Russia as well. Russian Senator Valentina Petrenko, who was head of the Parliament’s committee on social policies, forwarded a plan to introduce a temporary moratorium on American adoptions of Russian orphans.6 Ultimately, she decided against the idea.

During a preliminary hearing, the Craver’s defence attorneys, Gregory Moro and David Hershey, tried to claim that Nathaniel was self-destructive. They suggested that his psychological issues could be linked to an alcoholic birth mother and conditions at the orphanage in Russia. They revealed that at one point, Nathaniel had been prescribed Risperdal, an antipsychotic medication used to treat schizophrenia, bipolar mania, and autism. He was also prescribed Concerta, which is used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The Cravers had attended just one family session for Nathaniel’s psychiatric issues, around a year before he died.

The defence attorneys went on to state that the Cravers had told them that Nathaniel repeatedly hit his twin sister and hurt animals by pulling out their hair. They said that he had been pulling out his own eyebrows and eyelashes. They asked the pathologist whether the injuries could have been caused by a fall down the stairs, but he denied wholeheartedly that it was possible.

Michael’s aunt, Sandra, also testified. She said that she had visited the family periodically and had never seen Nathaniel harm himself or anybody else.7

Following the hearing, the Cravers were bound over on charges of homicide, criminal conspiracy and child  endangerment. Prosecutors decided that they would be seeking the death penalty against the couple if convicted. They both subsequently pleaded not guilty to all of the charges against them and later, the death penalty was dropped, meaning if convicted they would be facing a sentence of life in prison.

The murder trial of Michael and Nanette Craver began in September of 2011. During opening statements, defence attorney Clasina Mahoney tried to blame Nathaniel for his own death. She said that he suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome and reactive detachment disorder that caused him to injure himself. She stated that the Cravers had sought out help for both Nathaniel and Elizabeth, who had come from an abusive background; they had suffered neglect at the Russian orphanage.8

Prosecutor Tim Barker on the other hand contended that the Cravers abused and neglected Nathaniel before ultimately killing him with blunt force trauma. He said that there were inconsistencies within Michael and Nanette’s stories. Michael claimed he found Nathaniel unresponsive when he woke to go to work at 5AM. Nanette claimed she had found him unresponsive at 4:30AM.

Nanette had also claimed she was in the kitchen when Nathaniel allegedly fatally injured himself. She ran when she heard him yell “whoops” which he allegedly did before he injured himself. However, she later claimed she ran when she heard a kettle rattle by the pellet stove.

The jury would hear from several doctors who tried in vain to save Nathaniel’s life but to no avail. They heard from Dr. Mark Iantosca, who said that the injuries may could have been caused – like the Cravers claimed – by Nathaniel throwing himself headfirst onto a wood-burning stove. However, he also agreed that the injuries could have been caused by being struck.9

Most doctors would testify about the plethora of injuries that had been found on Nathaniel. They were both fresh and old. There was a large circular laceration to Nathaniel’s head that should have required stitching. When Michael was asked why he hadn’t brought his son to the  hospital when he received the injury, he replied that those kind of injuries happened “all the time.”10 The Cravers claimed this old injury had come from Nathaniel throwing himself down the stairs. The couple admitted to putting duct tape over the wound because Nathaniel would stop “picking at it.”

The pathologist who had performed Nathaniel’s autopsy would counteract the claims of the Cravers. He said it was evident that Nathaniel had been abused. Dr. Wayne Ross said that Nathaniel’s legs were as thin as pencils and bruises covered his torso and back. He said that he ruled out the possibility that these injuries were self-inflicted.11

Dr. Ross stated: I don’t just mean a little bit of swelling. I mean the entire skull and head looked to me like a watermelon or an alien. The bottom line is, it was soft as anything. When you look at the pictures of the brain we took at autopsy, it was purple and dead it was flat and mushy. It was horrible.” He said that the injuries must have been caused by Nathaniel being struck repeatedly.12

During closing arguments, defence attorney Rick Robinson said to the jury: “Self-harm is a hard concept to grasp if you haven’t lived it, like Mike and Nanette did.” Prosecutors countered this, and said that Nathaniel’s body told a different tale, not one of self-abuse but of chronic abuse and neglect. He stated: “Common sense tells you that he didn’t do this to himself. Common sense tells you that they did this to him, … and they prevented him from getting medical care.”13

Michael and Nanette Craver were convicted of voluntary manslaughter, child endangerment and conspiracy. They were acquitted of murder charges. They were sentenced to just four to 16 months in prison, but because they had already spent 19 months in jail, they were allowed to go free.

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Footnotes:

  1. The York Dispatch, 26 February, 2010 – “Carroll Twp. Couple Charged in Couple’s Death”
  2. The York Dispatch, 29 April, 2010 – “Pathologist’s Testimony Key”
  3. The York Dispatch, 8 September, 2011 – “7-Year-old Boy Lethargic”
  4. The Patriot-News, 2 March, 2010 – “Agencies Investigating Craver Case Handling”
  5. The Patriot-News, 7 March, 2010 – “Boy’s Death Prompts Look at Safeguards”
  6. The York Dispatch, 3 March, 2010 – “Local Boy’s Death Sparks International Attention”
  7. The Patriot-News, 30 April, 2010 – “Boy Didn’t Cause His Death”
  8. The Patriot-News, 7 September, 2011 – “Abuse or Neglect Killed Boy”
  9. Associated press, 6 September, 2011 – “Trial Opens in Adopted Russian Boy’s Death in PA.”
  10. The York Dispatch, 6 September, 2011 – “Trial Opens in Death of Adopted Russian Boy”
  11. Associated Press, 7 September, 2011 – “Russian Boy Didn’t Hurt Self”
  12. The Patriot-News, 8 September, 2011 – “Doctor Describes Child’s Injuries”
  13. Associated Press, 16 September, 2011 – “Pa. Parents Guilty in Death of Adopted Russian Boy”

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Heather
Heather
23 days ago

That poor little boy…. he just wanted some affection.
What a miscarriage of justice.

RIP sweet boy

AusAsh
AusAsh
22 days ago

Oh my god. That is absolutely disgusting and heartbreaking. He just wanted to be loved. As bad as Russian orphanages are it would have still been better than that hell.

Amanda
Amanda
22 days ago

How are they allowed to go free? That is insanity.

Steve
Steve
20 days ago
Reply to  Amanda

My heart broke for that poor little boy when I saw that. Two monsters got away with murder.

Linda Rosa, RN
Linda Rosa, RN
22 days ago

It is essential to understand that the Craver parents were involved in a highly abusive, therapy cult called “Attachment Therapy” and its parenting (aka Nancy Thomas parenting).

Nathanial was diagnosed with an unrecognized disorder “Attachment Disorder” (AD) which has over 100 signs, so typical of a quack diagnosis, any child qualifies for that label. Two “Attachment Therapists” were involved in this case – Federici and Eshelman – and they would certainly claim that any children diagnosed with AD are capable of self-harm.

Teresa
Teresa
17 days ago

this is so sad all the way around!

Butterflies
Butterflies
14 days ago

How cruel people can be💔 that poor boy did not deserve any golf that he just wanted to be loved and cared for🥺💔 they deserve life in prison no excuse that is Just sick that people could do such hurtful horrible things to a child they were to care and love him and what did they do killed why? Sick just sick may his soul continue to rest in peace🥺🙏🏾

Anon
Anon
9 days ago

The only reason why there was any debate about the obvious abuse is because he was Russian. The same reason why the abusers were given such light sentences. America hates slavs.

Becky
Becky
4 days ago

This breaks my heart. That sweet little boy, trying to hug his auntie. Those people will be serving a sentence, I hope, as soon as their time on earth is done

Geoff
Geoff
10 hours ago

I can’t believe the lack of punishment of these two people. Based on what I have read here, it appears that there was a large degree of maliciousness on what did, and didn’t.
on the face of it, it looks as though the literally got away with murder.

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