NASHUA — A 31-year-old man tearfully pleaded guilty Thursday to manslaughter for his role in the death of Elijah Lewis, a 5-year-old whose body was found in a wooded area of Abington in October after a frantic 10-day search.
Joseph Burtold Stapf, 31, was sentenced to between 22 and 45 years in state prison after reaching a plea deal with prosecutors. Elijah, a shaggy-haired boy from Merrimack, N.H., was a victim of violence and neglect at the hands of his mother, Danielle D. Dauphinais, who is charged with his murder, and Stapf, her boyfriend, authorities allege.
The boy had fentanyl in his system, was malnourished, and showed signs of head trauma, an autopsy found.
“Clearly, to be capable of doing some [of the] things you put a 5-year-old boy through, you are less than human,” Elijah’s father, Timothy Lewis, said during a hearing at Hillsborough Superior Court. “You must not be capable of the necessary emotions, such as compassion, love, bravery. ... You could have put a stop to this at any point, had you been man enough.”
Lewis said his family’s life is now “saturated” with pain and sorrow.
“We will never be able to hug him again, or hold his hand ever again, talk to him again, hear his voice again, encourage him again,” he said. “Our lives will never be the same. No matter how many years you sit in the cell for what you have done, it will never be forgotten. And it will always remain unforgiveable.”
The sentence was negotiated between Stapf and his public defender, Paul Borchardt, and New Hampshire Attorney General John M. Formella’s office, according to court records.
Dauphinais, 36, is in custody after pleading not guilty to charges of first-degree murder and second-degree murder, among other charges, according to court records.
Elijah was last seen living with the two adults in Merrimack, N.H., and was missing for as long as six months before authorities began searching for him. He was born in Arizona in 2016 and spent much of his early life in the custody of his father after his parents’ contentious 2017 divorce. At one point, a court order blocked Dauphinais from spending time with her son, records show.
In May 2021, Elijah moved to New Hampshire to live with Dauphinais and Stapf. At the time, the couple was living with Stapf’s mother. Dauphinais, who complained that her son had behavioral issues and once likened him to a serial killer whom she wanted “gone.”
On Thursday, Assistant Attorney General Bethany Jean Durand read several chilling text messages that Stapf and Dauphinais shared about Elijah when the boy was in their care.
On Sept. 16, 2021, Stapf texted Dauphinais, “We cannot torture him again.” Dauphinais responded that Stapf was babying Elijah and said “she was the boss now,” Durand told the court.
“The text messages in that conversation show Daphne’s hatred of Elijah and hint at the treatment that he both had and would continue to experience,” she said.
Stapf, who at times struggled to maintain his composure, addressed the court briefly after entering his plea.
“I just wanted to say I never meant or ever wanted any of this to happen to Elijah,” he said. “I wish I could go back and change everything.”
But Timothy Lewis said Stapf could “have brought him home to us at any point.”
“You could have rushed him to a hospital at any point. He could still be here. He could be thriving and back in Arizona, surrounded by love from people that were actually there for him,” he said.
Material from previous Globe coverage was used in this report.
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