MERRIMACK, N.H. — Greg Doppstadt was walking with his dog one day last spring down a quiet, tree-lined street when he noticed the child sitting alone outside a neighbor’s home.
A longtime resident of this lakefront neighborhood, Doppstadt knew just about everybody by name, including the children who flew down the street on bicycles, their laughter billowing up on summer days from the small beach nearby.
But this silent 5-year-old boy seemed to have appeared out of nowhere.
The child was noticeably thin — without “little boy weight,” as Doppstadt would later recall — and he didn’t speak, even when Doppstadt’s dog, a Blue Heeler named Finn, wandered over. He figured the child was a neighbor’s visiting relative, and the brief encounter soon faded from his memory.
It wasn’t until an afternoon last month that he would see the boy’s face again — this time, in a photo held by a New Hampshire state trooper investigating the child’s mysterious disappearance.
For much of his life, Elijah Lewis — dimpled and shaggy-haired — might as well have been invisible. To the residents of this idyllic neighborhood, few of whom were aware that the boy had been living inside the tidy home at 7 Sunset Drive for a year and a half. To his oft-troubled parents, who, according to public records and interviews, passed him back and forth in a kind of custodial hot-potato.
And, later, to the various agencies that carried out a frantic search that would span 10 days and at least five states, and include investigators from across New England. That is, until the boy’s remains were discovered late last month in a wooded area in Abington, Mass., a South Shore town 75 miles from home.
Today, Elijah’s mother, Danielle Dauphinais, 35, and her boyfriend, Joseph Stapf, 30, are jailed, charged with witness tampering and child endangerment, part of an alleged effort to cover up the boy’s whereabouts. But details of the boy’s death, like much of his too brief life, remain a mystery.
New Hampshire authorities have worked aggressively to solve that mystery while keeping the circumstances of the death — and the events leading up to it — from public view. A judge has ordered details of the case sealed, and it could be several months, prosecutors said, before the boy’s cause of death is determined. The New Hampshire attorney general’s office, meanwhile, refused last week to release records detailing any previous police visits to the boy’s home, raising questions about whether Elijah was known to authorities prior to his death.
For now, though, attention here has turned to the small cottage on Sunset Drive where an American flag hangs from the porch, where the backyard opens up to a scenic waterfront, and where police, neighbors say, have been a common presence in recent years.
“What the hell was happening in that home?” said MJ Morrison, a longtime friend of Elijah’s mother.
Elijah Easton Lewis was born in Mesa, Ariz., on Jan. 7, 2016, directly into a world of tumult.
He was the fourth child born to his mother, the third to his father, Timothy Lewis, an English-born, 34-year-old who once worked in an AT&T store in a Nashua mall.
Elijah’s mother, Danielle Dauphinais, had been running most of her life — from town to town, from relationship to relationship, and away from the group homes she was sent to as an adolescent, according to a former stepmother.
Her childhood, in towns across Massachusetts and New Hampshire, had been marked by trauma. She was estranged from her mother and had a volatile relationship with her father, according to two women who were once married to him. He could not be reached for comment.
Dauphinais, too, had typical teenage drama — sneaking out, taking the car without permission, said Diane Stewart, who was her stepmother for more than a decade. But occasionally it took a darker turn and caused concern.
When she was doing well, Dauphinais could be bubbly and sweet, said Gail Dauphinais, another ex-stepmother. For hours, the two would sit watching TV, with the teenage Danielle partial, Gail Dauphinais recalled, to stories of knights in shining armor.
By 25, she had three children by two fathers, court record show. She’d later forgo or lose custody of all three, according to Morrison, the childhood friend.
In 2013, Dauphinais and Lewis married in Nashua, N.H. Within six months, police had been summoned to the couple’s Merrimack home, where they found Dauphinais bleeding from cuts to her torso, according to court records. She told officers that Lewis had been drinking and, during a struggle, lifted her off the ground and pushed her down a stairwell. Lewis reached an agreement with prosecutors to not pursue the case, court records show, as long as he stayed out of trouble.
Later, the couple moved across the country to Mesa, Ariz., where in 2016 they had Elijah, a brown-haired boy whose cheeks were creased with dimples.
But the change of scenery didn’t salvage a turbulent marriage.
In January 2017, less than two weeks after Elijah’s first birthday, Lewis filed to dissolve the marriage. In court documents, he accused Dauphinais of being “violent and impulsive,” having a “history of domestic violence and substance abuse,” and abandoning Elijah by moving “impulsively” to the East Coast. A decree approved by the court that April blocked her from spending time with her son, while an accompanying parenting plan called for Elijah to remain solely in Lewis’s care.
Dauphinais never signed the parenting plan documents.
Later that year, friends said, she was on the move again, returning to New Hampshire.
Joseph Stapf almost always kept his beard impeccably groomed and he draped himself in tattoos — a skull on his bicep, “Live Free Or Die” on his forearm. He posed shirtless in selfies and was open about his struggles with substance abuse, filling his Facebook page with platitudes about positivity and new beginnings: Never be defined by your past. It was just a lesson. Not a life sentence.
His criminal history, meanwhile, was extensive; he’d been convicted of several crimes — drug possession, burglary, and also for stealing crystal stones and high-powered ammunition in Marblehead. In 2016, a woman seeking a protection order accused him of hitting her numerous times over a three-day period. The court issued a temporary order against Stapf, but the woman withdrew her complaint a day later.
Within months of returning to the Northeast, Dauphinais began dating Stapf. They moved into the basement of a lakefront home in Merrimack owned by Stapf’s mother, and traded gushing messages on Facebook.
“This beautiful woman is my world,” Stapf wrote in a post accompanied by a photo of the couple kissing on a beach, Dauphinais standing on tiptoe. “I am so lucky to have you in my life.”
“I love this so much!” Dauphinais replied. “I’m so beyond blessed to have you in my life.”
But the blissful social media post masked a much grimmer reality.
Morrison and another friend said that both Dauphinais and Stapf were using drugs for at least a portion of their relationship, and neighbors would later recall regular visits to the home by police.
In early 2019, Dauphinais owed more than $19,000 in child support to the father of her first child, records show. During that same period, a judge granted an order to evict her from an apartment on East Pearl Street in Nashua. Friends say they bounced back and forth between the two homes.
In July 2019, the couple had the first of their two children. According to a social media post by Stapf’s mother, the birth of the child, a girl, was complicated, and took place inside their home in Merrimack.
Then, in May 2020, came another jolt: Elijah — the boy Dauphinais had left behind with her ex-husband in Arizona — arrived in New Hampshire.
The particulars of the arrangement aren’t fully clear, but Morrison and another friend, Michelle O’Brien, said Dauphinais told them that Elijah’s father, by then remarried, sent the boy to live with Dauphinais — the same woman he’d once described in court papers as violent and abusive and who had been barred by the court from being with the child. Lewis, who still lives in Arizona, didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment from the Globe.
Dauphinais was initially excited about Elijah’s arrival, O’Brien and two others said. But soon, she struggled. She had never raised a child that age before, and she had difficulty handling the 4-year-old boy, while also caring for a baby. In tearful phone calls, she confided that Elijah was too much for her to handle, and spoke about the possibility of sending him to live with a sister in California, according to Morrison and O’Brien.
Those close to her said they tried to help.
O’Brien, who has known Dauphinais since they were teenagers, said she gave her the name of a pediatrician — urging her to take Elijah in to be evaluated. Multiple people, meanwhile, told the Globe that they’d offered to take Elijah in themselves.
But Dauphinais never seemed willing to take them up on the offers, friends said, and by early 2021, she had withdrawn from contact, according to Gail Dauphinais. Calls to her former stepmother and half-brothers became infrequent.
Despite the silence, those who knew her continued to reach out. In a birthday message to Dauphinais in June, just a few months before Elijah would be reported missing, Stewart, the former stepmother, said she reiterated her offer to help.
I’m here for you if you need anything, she said she wrote. I have room here. You can come.
She never heard back.
How does a 5-year-old boy go missing? How did Elijah — a boy who loved toy trucks and the movie “Cars” and who roared like a dinosaur when he chased his little sister — disappear for as long as a month without anyone noticing?
Citing the ongoing investigations, Merrimack police have declined to discuss the case. Child welfare authorities in New Hampshire and Arizona also declined to comment. In an e-mail, the Merrimack public school system said Elijah had never been a student in the district.
But the details surrounding Dauphinais and Stapf — which include allegations of parental substance abuse, mental health issues, and housing instability — are the same ones found in many cases of child abuse or neglect.
“Those are all factors that put children at greater risk,” said Mary McGeown, executive director of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. “Those are all red flags.”
To date, there have been no charges filed related to his death. Both Dauphinais and Stapf have pleaded not guilty to the child endangerment and witness tampering charges.
Bruce Scherzer answered his phone on the morning of Oct. 14 and heard the frantic voice of an old friend.
Though not actually related, Scherzer — a truck driver in the Dallas-Forth Worth area who knew Dauphinais from New Hampshire — considered her to be family. Still, it had been months since he’d last heard from her, and now, he listened as she cried hysterically into the phone, telling him that New Hampshire’s child protection agency was trying to take Elijah away.
She also wanted a favor, he recalled. Dauphinais, Scherzer said, asked him to tell New Hampshire authorities that Elijah was with him in Texas, where Scherzer has lived since 2019. Assuming that the boy was with her, and that he was simply helping a friend maintain custody of her children, Scherzer agreed. When a child welfare worker contacted him minutes later, he said, he falsely told them that Elijah was with him in Texas.
“I was stupidly clueless,” Scherzer told the Globe.
Soon after speaking with the agency, Scherzer said, he grew uneasy with the situation and repeatedly attempted to contact Dauphinais, to no avail. Later that October day, authorities in New Hampshire and Texas reached out to him. He said he told them about Dauphinais’s call, and shared with them their text message correspondence.
Soon, the scope of what he’d been pulled into would become clear.
Back in New Hampshire, authorities were already sealing off the home at 7 Sunset with police tape. In the days that followed, divers scoured the lake behind JoAnne Stapf’s home, as well as a small nearby island, looking for Elijah.
On Oct. 17, Dauphinais and Joseph Stapf were arrested on the subway in New York City, charged with witness tampering and child endangerment. “What are you arresting me for?” Stapf asked officers who approached the couple, according to a police report. Officers found three packets of suspected cocaine in Dauphinais’s backpack, the report said.
Dauphinais had given birth to the couple’s second child earlier that month, according to Stapf’s attorney, public defender Paul C. Borchardt. It was unclear how long Dauphinais and Stapf had been in New York prior to their arrest — and where the couple’s two children were at the time.
Officials allege that Dauphinais encouraged Scherzer and a relative, Tracy Lyn Dauphinais, to lie to child protective service workers investigating Elijah’s whereabouts. Both Dauphinais and Stapf were also charged with ordering Joanne Stapf “not to talk to a child protective social worker,” according to court records.
In her mugshot, Danielle Dauphinais is smiling.
For a short time following the arrests, there was a hope that the boy might be found alive. Those hopes, however, came to an end on Oct. 23. A cadaver dog inspecting a wooded area in Abington alerted officers to the remains that would ultimately be identified as Elijah’s.
What led authorities to Abington, a small town 20 miles southeast of Boston, is unclear.
Attorney Jaye Rancourt, who is representing Dauphinais, declined to speak specifically about the case in a brief interview last week, but did criticize both media coverage and the societal mechanisms in place for those with addiction.
“In a tragedy like this, it is the tendency of press and society to solely place blame on a mother ... to demonize her,” Rancourt told the Globe. “Further, as facts develop in this case, I believe you’ll see that there were multiple failings by the structures available in society for those suffering from addiction [and] going through family court matters, who don’t have the means, who can’t pay for lawyers, who can’t pay out of pocket for health care.”
In an interview last week, Gail Dauphinais said she was trying to arrange an in-person visit with her former stepdaughter, who is being held at Hillsborough County House of Corrections. She’s unsure what she would say to the woman who still calls her “Mom.”
In the end, Gail Dauphinais said, she wanted what many have sought in the weeks since Elijah went missing: answers.
“I really want to just be able to take her and shake her and say, ‘Tell me what happened.’”
Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.