The last few times Carlyle Richards Jr. heard his 2-year-old son's voice on the phone, he knew something was not right.
"He would say, 'I miss you, Papa. Come and get me,' " Richards now recalls. "Then I'd hear a man's voice in the background and the line would go quiet. He couldn't talk anymore."
Richards, of Freeport, says he will probably never know what his son, Charles Jonathan "C.J." Gooch, went through in the days or moments before his mother's friend, Bradley Ballard, allegedly beat him to death in Georgia. But the memory of the child's soft breath on the phone those last days -- and the Long Island custody battle that took his son far from him -- will haunt Richards forever.
Tragic end to custody fight
The tragedy of C.J. Gooch's death highlights the pain and complexity that can come with fighting for custody of a child. In the eyes of the courts in C.J.'s case, both parents appeared loving and competent, but they wanted to live in cities a thousand miles apart, so a decision had to be made, court papers said.
But Carlyle Richards describes a feeling of utter helplessness as he fought to keep his son. He says that he was a good father. He had a good job and parents willing to provide full-time child care. And yet despite his concerns, he could do nothing to stop his son's mother from moving the boy beyond his grasp.
Ballard is in jail in Cobb County, Ga., awaiting trial on charges of involuntary manslaughter in the boy's death. He faces a sentence of 1 to 10 years in prison if convicted.
A warrant in the case said on Feb. 28, Ballard, 23, beat the boy so seriously it caused his brain to bleed and swell. Ballard was alone with the child at the time, prosecutors said
When Ballard then failed to call police or a doctor, the child slipped into a coma, court papers say. The boy's parents removed him from life support several days after they were told there was no hope he would regain consciousness, court papers said.
Ballard told police at the time that the child had fallen, but the boy's injuries were not consistent with that explanation, court papers say.
A lawyer for Ballard could not be reached for comment. C.J.'s mother, Casina Gooch, 34, did not return calls seeking comment. She has not been charged with any crime in connection with her son's death.
Raising C.J. together, apart
Casina Gooch and Carlyle Richards Jr. first met in Georgia in 2009, and dated on and off before Casina got pregnant. After C.J. was born in July 2010, Richards and Gooch cared for the baby together, living both together and apart, Richards said. But when Richards, now 36, lost his job, he, Gooch and the baby wound up together in a "short stay hotel."
That was when Richards said he decided it was time to head back to his childhood home in Freeport where his parents still live. Once there, Richards found a job, and soon, Gooch, now 34, joined him. C.J.'s paternal grandparents, Ina and Carlyle Richards Sr., both retired public school social workers, cared for the toddler while his parents were at work.
"I decided I was going to devote as much time to that child as I could," said Ina Richards, 65. "We walked together every day. We would dance and sing."
But by fall 2012, Ina Richards said she asked Gooch to leave her home because she and Carlyle Richards Jr. were unable to get along, court papers said.
Soon after that, Gooch announced she wanted to move back to Georgia, court papers said. In a summary of Gooch's testimony included in Nassau Family Court Judge Conrad Singer's decision in the custody case, Gooch said she "wants to live in Georgia so she can obtain a job and provide housing for herself and her son."
The decision also said Gooch was interested in sharing custody with Richards -- something the judge said Richards seemed unwilling to do in return. Richards strongly disputes that.
Richards, who initiated the custody proceeding, said he knew that Gooch had no place to live in Georgia and no support network there, but no one in the legal system questioned her assertions. He said if she had had family there, as she told the judge, she would not have left her child alone with a man who had two prior felony convictions, as Ballard had.
Richards said he tried to demonstrate to the court that C.J. had a loving relationship with him and his parents.
In a decision dated Nov. 29, 2012, Singer found that C.J.'s mother had been his primary caregiver since birth. Singer said in the decision that Richards did not testify in a credible manner and was intentionally argumentative with Gooch and his son's court-appointed legal guardian, Lisa Daniels. Singer awarded Richards time with his son during the summer and on holidays.
Daniels recommended to Singer that Gooch get custody. She now says the case was like many in Family Court: muddy and painful. But she said it is wrong to suggest that anyone should have foreseen that C.J. was not safe in his mother's care.
She said if Richards had believed Gooch was an unfit parent, he could have asked for a court-ordered investigation, but never did. Richards says such an investigation was not warranted since there was no claim of abuse by the mother, but that verifying that she had a place to live, child-care options and job prospects should have been part of Daniels' job as the child's guardian.
"There were no bad parents here," said Daniels, of East Rockaway. "But the father lived in New York and the mother wanted to move to Georgia, so joint custody was not an option. You couldn't split the child in half."
A spokesman for Singer said the judge reviewed the case after C.J.'s death and found no issues that would require him to take action after the fact.
Richards said what eats away at him is that he did everything he could legally, and his son was the one who lost in the end.
"I just felt like I never had a chance," he said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version misstated who alleged that Ballard beat C.J. Gooch so badly that it caused his brain to swell and bleed.