An area in the backyard of a house on Hallock...

An area in the backyard of a house on Hallock Street in Farmingdale, where police said they recovered the body of a child. The medical examiner's office is conducting an investigation into the cause of the child's death. (Oct. 6, 2012) Credit: Ed Betz

A routine child-neglect investigation took a grim turn when State Police found the remains of a toddler buried for more than two years in a Farmingdale family's backyard.

State Police said they believe the body to be that of Justin Kowalczik, who was never reported missing. Authorities are trying to determine what caused the death of the 17-month-old boy and how he ended up in a 3-feet-deep grave behind his Hallock Street home.

"This is a suspicious death. We treat every suspicious death as if it's a homicide until we learn differently, and that's how we're treating this right now," said State Police Maj. Patrick Regan, commander of Troop L in Farmingdale, which has the case.

State Police described Robert Rodriguez, the boyfriend of the child's mother, as a "person of interest." He has not been charged with a crime.

Rodriguez, 30, hired a criminal-defense lawyer and was refusing to cooperate with the investigation, State Police said.

"He's certainly someone we feel can provide us with more information about this case than we have," Regan said. "To this point he has not spoken to us."

The child's mother, Heather Kowalczik, 29, has been more helpful, Regan said.

"I wouldn't characterize her as completely cooperative but she provided certainly more information than Mr. Rodriguez has," Regan said. "Certainly we believe they have information that could lead us to exactly how this occurred and how we arrived at locating this child yesterday."

Neither Kowalczik nor Rodriguez was in custody.

Justin had apparently been buried in the unmarried couple's backyard since July 2010, soon after the family moved to Long Island from upstate Orange County, Regan said.

The Suffolk County medical examiner's office will do an autopsy to determine the cause of death and confirm the identity.

Only last week, during the child-neglect investigation into one of the two children Kowalczik had with Rodriguez, did Justin's circumstances come to light.

Those children -- Alex, 6, and Robert Jr., 9 -- are now in the custody of Suffolk County's Child Protective Services.

Justin's father has not been identified, but Rodriguez, a P.C. Richard & Son salesman, is not the father, according to State Police and Kowalczik's family.

The case began Wednesday when a Child Protective Services worker went to Kowalczik's home to check out a tip about Robert Jr.'s poor health, Regan said. Neighbors said the child was recently hospitalized.

The case worker couldn't account for the third child, Justin. Kowalczik at first claimed the boy was in Orange County with a relative. The case worker contacted authorities in Orange County who concluded Justin was not there. They contacted State Police who confronted Kowalczik. She then admitted the boy was buried in the backyard, Regan said.

As he got wind that police were investigating him, Rodriguez fled on Friday with Robert Jr., who is autistic. When the boy did not arrive at school, an Amber Alert was issued across the area. The boy was later found unharmed.

Meanwhile, police on Friday exhumed Justin from the shallow grave along the property line.

Rodriguez's attorney, Byron Divins of Garden City, said Saturday that his client is still on Long Island. Divins declined to comment on the discovery of Justin's remains.

Louie Lancia, the family's Farmingdale landlord, said he does not recall ever seeing a small child around the house. "It's the most disgusting thing in the world," a distraught Lancia said.

Neighbors Jimmy and Michele Peavey said Kowalczik often appeared depressed and anxious and that Rodriguez was unpleasant and rarely at the home. Michele said Kowalczik "was very scared of him."

The family baby-sitter, Patty Ruane, said she thought the kids looked unhealthy and thin.

"I got the sense the kids weren't being well taken care of," Ruane said.

Sigmund Kowalczik of Middletown described his niece as "a very sweet girl, very mild young lady . . . she is a sweetheart."

He said there was no indication from her that anything had gone wrong with her family, and that as far as he knew, everything was fine.

"This is what they call a horrifying nightmare," he said "This happens to other people."

With Kevin Deutsch, Robert Brodsky, Scott Eidler, Mackenzie Issler, Candice Ruud, Sarah Armaghan and Nik Bonopartis

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