NORTH WILDWOOD — A 3-year-old North Wildwood boy died Wednesday afternoon in a Camden hospital after being in a coma for three weeks, and a Lower Township man who was baby-sitting him the night he went into the coma has been charged with manslaughter.
Elijah Joseph Ulbrich had been in a coma at Cooper University Hospital in Camden since he was allegedly assaulted Feb. 25. His family said he died at about 1:30 p.m.
Charles Kane Jr., 35, of West New Jersey Avenue in the Villas section of Lower Township, was charged with aggravated manslaughter following Ulbrich’s death, said Cape May County Prosecutor Robert L. Taylor and North Wildwood police Chief Robert Matteucci in a joint release.
Kane was already in the Cape May County Jail and charged with aggravated assault on a juvenile and endangering the welfare of a minor. On Wednesday, authorities raised his bail from $100,000 to $500,000. More charges could follow once the Southern Regional Medical Examiner’s Office completes an autopsy.
Kane was an acquaintance of the boy’s mother, Christina Ulbrich, 26, who said she returned from a laundromat on the night of Feb. 25 to find her son unresponsive. She said she had left Elijah in Kane’s care.
Police are not releasing any details about the injuries, but the Ulbrich family said Elijah suffered a severe head injury.
Richard Ulbrich, 28, Elijah’s father, said police alleged that Kane opened and slammed the refrigerator door on his son’s head because he wet himself.
“I hope they charge him with premeditated murder. Throwing him against a door or a wall is not thinking, but opening the refrigerator door is thinking. When Elijah peed in his pants, he opened the refrigerator door and that takes thought,” said Jim McMakin, Christina’s father and Elijah’s grandfather.
Kane, contacted through the jail earlier this week, declined to be interviewed by The Press of Atlantic City.
Christina Ulbrich could not wake her son up when she returned home Feb. 25.
Elijah, who turned 3 on Nov. 1, was a heavy sleeper, but Ulbrich, of East Walnut Avenue, said she knew something was terribly wrong. He had a big knot on his head. He was completely unresponsive. His eyes were rolled back in his head.
The night of Feb. 25 had brought yet another winter storm to Five Mile Beach. The storm brought high winds and driving rain instead of the snow that had been predicted, but it was enough to knock out the power and send Christina to the coin-operated laundromat at 17th Street and Atlantic Avenue.
Christina said she stopped on the way home at a Wawa to get cigarettes and coffee. She said she was gone for about 45 minutes and returned home at about 10:30 p.m.
She left Elijah with Kane. She said she knew Kane for several years. He had been in the U.S. Navy and had known Elijah since he was 10 months old. She said he watched several of her friends’ children for them.
“He said he loved kids. It was a person you thought was a good person, a friend,” Christina said.
As she left to do the laundry, she said Kane told her: “I watch everybody’s kids. No problem.”
Both Christina and her husband spoke to The Press of Atlantic City shortly after the assault, when Elijah was in a coma. After consulting a lawyer, they declined other interview requests and could not be reached Wednesday.
“You really don’t know anything about anybody,” Christina said.
After living separately, Christina was back with her husband in recent weeks as they stayed at the Ronald McDonald House next to Cooper, keeping a constant vigil over Elijah.
Mary Helen Cervantes, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Children and Families, on Wednesday confirmed DYFS was involved with the family. Cervantes said due to state and federal confidentiality laws she could not release details on the case.
“It’s a real tragedy any time you lose a child,” Cervantes said
Slow road to help
Christina said she isn’t buying the story from Kane that the boy was playing with her husband’s cat, Pedro, and fell off the couch, hitting his head. She noticed the bathroom was messy. Did Kane give Elijah a bath while she went to do the laundry?
Christina said it had actually been a good day potty training.
“That was the first day he didn’t have accidents,” she said.
McMakin described Elijah as a normal 3-year-old who “does little kid things.”
Richard said his wife tried to get Kane to call 911, but he wouldn’t.
According to Richard, the three got in Kane’s truck to drive to the hospital, but saw North Wildwood police officers at the nearby Shell station and the officers called for medical help.
Christina said they waited for a helicopter for about one hour before finding it could not fly due to the weather. Medical personnel decided to take Elijah to Cape Regional Medical Center in Cape May Court House for a CAT scan. Then Elijah was taken by ambulance to Cooper, arriving at 3 a.m. and getting into surgery at 4 a.m.
The news at Cooper was not good. Christina said Elijah had the basic function of a brain stem but the rest of the brain was dead. It was sending basic signals such as breathing but was not transmitting the ones Ulbrich wanted, such as her boy looking at his mother and knowing it was her. Richard said the most response they could get was one eye partially opening.
McMakin said doctors removed the right side of Elijah’s skull and his brain membrane so the injured and swollen brain could expand. He said with the light sedation he should wake up, but he didn’t. Christina, a nurse who cares for geriatric patients, said she called Elijah her “miracle baby.” Now she blames DYFS and the lack of a hospital in the area to treat pediatric head injuries for her loss. It took more than five hours to get her son to surgery, she said.
“It was a brain injury. Every minute counts,” Ulbrich said.
Contact Richard Degener: