Originally published on May 22
RANDOLPH, Minn. (WCCO) -- Six-year-old Eli Hart's family is continuing to share the feelings of grief and frustration they say have persisted since the boy was found dead in a car trunk near Orono Friday morning.
Orono police say they stopped a car traveling near Shoreline Drive and Bartlett Boulevard Friday morning after a caller reported the car had a shattered rear window and blown out tire. In a release, Orono Chief of Police Correy Farniok revealed when officers stopped the woman driving, they noticed blood inside the car, leading them to a body in the trunk.
While police have not released the name of the victim or the two people they say they've arrested since, multiple family members have identified the boy in the trunk as Eli Hart. An online jail roster in Hennepin County shows Hart's biological mother, Julissa Thaler, was arrested by Orono police early Saturday morning on pending murder charges.
Dakota County court documents portray the last two years of Hart's life centered around an ongoing custody battle between Thaler and his biological father, Tory Hart. In January of 2021, records show Eli Hart was placed into family foster care after concerns regarding his mother's mental health grew.
"It was just expanding our hearts to accept him as our own child," said Nikita Kronberg, whose family took Hart in for almost a year. "He was an amazing kid. He was full of energy, always smiling. So outgoing. He always wanted to befriend everyone."
Kronberg's husband, Stephen, is Thaler's cousin. She says she was concerned about Thaler once again regaining full custody at the conclusion of the Child Protective Services investigation.
"I feared if she got custody back, that she would harm Eli, if not worse," Kronberg said Sunday. "I instantly responded with, you know, this is a dangerous situation for Eli. You know, I fear for his safety if he's returned to her. There's numerous things I had brought up that were concerning that I had noticed."
Dakota County court documents show concerns about Thaler's mental health, living situation and criminal history. The case was closed and she was awarded sole custody less than two weeks before her arrest.
"At that point, I felt like I failed (Eli)," said Kronberg, who has two children of her own. "I keep looking at pictures of him and I think this can't be real. He's out there somewhere playing, having fun. It can't be real."
Kronberg says her biggest question is why.
"You want to blame one person," she said. "You want to put that blame on one person so you have somebody to be mad at. But it's a whole team."
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