Officials face obstacles to determine toddler's death

Flowers and a bear sat outside the gate,

Flowers and a bear sat outside the gate, where State Police dug up remains of 17-month-old Justin Kowalczik, of the Hallock Street home where he lived. (Oct. 7, 2012) (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

Law enforcement authorities face obstacles in determining what killed a toddler found buried in a Farmingdale backyard, a source close to the investigation said.

The Suffolk County medical examiner's office is conducting an examination to determine the cause of death of remains investigators have said they believe to be of 17-month-old Justin Kowalczik.

The boy had been buried since his mother, Heather Kowalczik, and her boyfriend, Robert Rodriguez, moved to Long Island in July 2010, police have said.

The medical examiner's office would not comment Sunday on the status of their examination because it remains an active criminal investigation. The office is barred by law from releasing its results to anyone other than the victim's family or the district attorney's office.

Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota's office also would not comment on the investigation.

New York State Police, the lead investigating law enforcement agency, did not return several telephone calls Sunday seeking comment.

"An awful lot depends on the condition of the body," said Dr. Michael Baden, retired chief forensic pathologist for the New York State Police, who is not directly involved in the case. "Some 27-month burials look like they died yesterday and others are totally dissolved away by the decomposition, so it's not something one could predict."

Regardless of the body's condition, the autopsy will "take more time" than that of someone who recently died, Baden said.

Rodriguez, whom state police consider a "person of interest," was not talking to authorities Sunday, his lawyer said.

"We're waiting for all of the facts to come out before jumping to conclusions," said attorney Byron Divins of Garden City. "This is a sensational story, but let's take a deep breath."

Kowalczik has not retained legal counsel, the source said Sunday.

Neither Kowalczik nor Rodriguez was in custody.

The couple and their two children moved to Long Island from upstate Orange County. Rodriguez is not Justin's father.

Police confronted Kowalczik in a child-neglect investigation into one of the other children and she told them Justin had been buried in the backyard, police said.

Roland Hampson, spokesman for the Suffolk County Department of Social Services, said New York State Office of Children and Family Services regulations and social services law prevent the agency from discussing the investigation and added that they are further encumbered by law enforcement officers who are actively investigating the case.

Hampson confirmed via email that the two children were in child protective custody and safe.

With Laura Figueroa

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