After finding no weapons or signs of violence, police advised the couple to go inside because they were disturbing neighbors.
Soon afterwards, the state Department of Children and Families obtained counseling for Elijah Ziolkowski and services for Marc Ziolkowski. According to DCF officials, there were no signs that Karin Ziolkowski might harm her son.
Four months later —on Nov. 14 — emergency workers pulled a lifeless Elijah from his burning home. His mother suffered from smoke inhalation and was listed in critical condition at Hartford Hospital. Marc Ziolkowski was not home at the time of the fire.
Davis Street neighbors waited 11 months before learning more about what happened that night. They say the arrest of Karin Ziolkowski last weekend brought them closer as they grieved for the child that lived on their street.
“We’ve been talking in passing,” said Sue Offen, who lives across the street from 13 Davis St. “We’ve been wondering what happened. We were wondering why hadn’t we heard anything. I felt like we didn’t have any closure.”
The neighbors learned the little boy they saw playing outside over the summer of 2016 did not die from smoke inhalation in the early morning fire as authorities initially believed. Instead, authorities say an investigation revealed he was suffocated by his mother before she started the fire.
“I was really shocked,” Offen said.
Offen and other neighbors watched that morning as smoke poured out of the single-story home. Police say Karin Ziolkowski set two fires; one in the basement and one in a front bedroom. Neighbors told firefighters that there were two people in the home and they pushed through the doors, finding Karin Ziolkowski and her son in a back room.
“I saw them carry him out,” Offen said. “They whisked him off right away. I saw them lay her on the ground.”
Jecak Gintow, who lives about four houses away, was picking up his granddaughter in Bristol and returned home to find his road was blocked.
“Neighbors were in the street,” Gintow said.
Gintow, like Offen, hoped Elijah would survive, but their hopes were quickly dashed. Karin Ziolkowski suffered smoke inhalation and was initially in critical condition.
“Yesterday I heard the mother was arrested,” Gintow said.
Police questioned neighbors about whether they had seen anyone near the house in the early morning. No one had.
Two months later in January, real estate investor Nader Saleh and a business partner bought the home for the price of $29,900.
It took Saleh months to go inside the house that was still blackened with smoke and filled with personal items, including toys.
“Of the properties we own, maybe hundreds of units and properties we have developed over the years, this by far is my most difficult,” Saleh told the Record-Journal in May. “I have four children so it’s very hard to look at it.”
The city issued a building permit in March to renovate the home, which officials said remained structurally sound. Crews cleaned the interior and stripped every wall from floor to ceilings. Personal items were removed. To give the house a new identity, Saleh reorganized the interior to create a three-bedroom layout.
“We are hoping that this is a new house and a new chapter,” he said.
Elijah and Karin Ziolkowski did not move to 13 Davis St. with Elijah’s father in January, but arrived in the summer. Offen saw them outside sitting and playing.
“My husband used to invite him in to see his trains,” she said.
Since the death, there has been traffic driving up and down the street to get a look at the home, and members of the media have been knocking on doors, neighbors said.
A new family moved into 13 Davis St. three months ago and is aware of the home’s tragic past.
“We always pray for him (Elijah),” said a young male, who asked not to be identified.
The state Office of the Child Advocate reviewed the circumstances surrounding Elijah’s death, but the Child Fatality Review Panel will not be conducting a full investigation, according to Assistant Child Advocate Faith Vos Winkel.
State statute allows the panel to investigate unexpected and unexplained deaths of children under 18 that are in and out of the care of state social or human service agencies. Their investigations attempt to locate system-wide or environmental weaknesses or risks that could be corrected to prevent other child deaths, Vos Winkel said.
The Office of the Child Advocate learned in December that Elijah’s death was a homicide. After reviewing the case, the panel determined the circumstances did not warrant a full investigation.
The Office of the Child Advocate was aware the Ziolkowski family were receiving services from DCF and the department had conducted its own review, Vos Winkel said.
Karin Ziolkowski had filed for a divorce from Elijah’s father and at one point had sought sole custody of the boy, but the case was dismissed for a lack of participation, according to court records.
“We always ask how do you improve prevention?” Vos Winkel said.
The Office of the Child Advocate issued a public health warning about the use of Benedryl to help children sleep and the dangers of over prescribing the drug. But in Elijah’s case, Benedryl was likely used as a sedative prior to his death.
“We knew Elijah had Benedryl in his system and issued a public health alert,” Vos Winkel said. “We’re investigating the Moore children of East Haven who were murdered. She used Benedryl on a regular basis. In this case, it’s a different use.”
On June 10, 2015, LeRoya Moore was arrested and charged with two counts of murder for killing her two children, Daaron, 7, and Aleisha, 6, with Benadryl overdoses before attempting to harm herself. Unlike Ziolkowski, Moore had already been convicted of child endangerment.
Perhaps the best prevention is catching parents in crisis before the situation deteriorates. There are domestic violence centers, 211 info line, DCF, to steer parents to services and or treatment, Vos Winkel said.
“There is a whole host of services and supports that people can avail themselves of,” Vos Winkel said. “If things are tough, people can help.”