The mother of a baby boy who was found buried in a backyard and her boyfriend led troubled lives since moving to Farmingdale two years ago, according to people who knew them.
Heather Kowalczik and Robert Rodriguez often paid their $1,550-a-month rent a few days late, their landlord said. Their two children both had disabilities, and one required a feeding tube, according to their baby-sitter. And the couple frequently argued at the sparsely furnished duplex apartment, neighbors said.
New York State Police are continuing to investigate what happened to Kowalczik's 17-month-old son Justin, whose remains were found Saturday buried in a 3-foot-deep grave in the couple's backyard. The Suffolk County medical examiner's office is trying to determine a cause of death.
Kowalczik, 29, was described by people close to her as a loving mother often seen walking around the neighborhood with her two sons -- identified by friends as Robert Jr., 9, and Alex, 6. But some said she was afraid of Rodriguez, 30, who was not Justin's father and whom authorities have described as a "person of interest" in the toddler's death.
Kowalczik "wanted out of Long Island," said her uncle Sigmund Kowalczik, of upstate Middletown. "She had nobody there." She wanted to move back to her small hometown, "where she felt safer," he said.
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, said State Police Maj. Patrick Regan, commander of Troop L in Farmingdale.
When a case worker couldn't account for Justin, Kowalczik claimed he was with a relative in Orange County, where she used to live. Authorities in Orange County could not find him and contacted State Police. She then admitted the boy was buried in the backyard, Regan said.
Alex and Robert Jr. are in the custody of Suffolk Child Protective Services.
Both boys had been diagnosed with autism, and Alex required a feeding tube, said Patty Ruane of Farmingdale, the boy's baby-sitter. Robert and Alex were bused to special schools, as is Ruane's son, who also has autism.
In Kowalczik's apartment, there was a couch frame with no cushions and a bunk bed with only a top mattress, Ruane, a nurse, said. There were no sheets.
The boys seemed happy, she said. And Kowalczik "had food in the house, boxes of cereal, stuff in the fridge." But she never paid for baby-sitting, Ruane said.
Before renting the Hallock Street apartment to the couple in July 2010, Luigi Lancia said he ran credit and background checks, and found nothing negative. The October rent has not been paid and Lancia said he's given Rodriguez's attorney until Tuesday to remove all of the apartment's contents.
Lancia said he has taken in a dog that was left caged in the apartment without food and water.
Kowalczik, who identified herself as a member of the 2002 class of Warwick Valley High School on her Facebook page, struggled to hold on to a job, former co-workers said. At Frankie's East Side Gourmet Restaurant in Farmingdale, employee Danny Romano said Kowalczik worked there one day as a waitress.
"She had problems with her kids and she didn't work out," he said.
Kowalczik seemed afraid of Rodriguez, Ruane said. "I feel like she was scared of him and she didn't know what to do," the baby-sitter said. "She was trapped."
Rodriguez worked as a salesman at the Greenvale PC Richard & Son store, where a colleague described him as a "pretty mysterious guy." The colleague did not want to be identified because he was not authorized by the store to speak.
Rodriguez, who has not spoken with police, wasn't always at the Farmingdale apartment, but visited a few times a week, neighbors said.
At a Central Islip apartment listed on Rodriguez's PC Richard job application as his home address, neighbors said Rodriguez lived there about a year ago.
"He came home with his 12-pack and that was the last you saw of him for the night," neighbor Ozzie Moore said.
William Pearson, a Middletown resident who described Kowalczik as a friend he met in a bar a few years ago, said she showed up at his house with another woman around midnight Saturday but left quickly. He said she didn't mention Justin.
"She's doing all right," said Pearson, 62, who is unemployed. "She had a bad life. She keeps that all inside of her. She don't tell me nothing."
A small memorial appeared Sunday on the sidewalk a few feet from where Justin's body was found.
A minivan briefly stopped and its occupants left a bouquet of white flowers festooned with yellow and purple ribbons and a tiny cross. The upstairs tenant added a handmade cross Sunday evening. Next to the flowers sat a teddy bear holding an artificial rose with a handwritten note wrapped in plastic to withstand the rain. It read, "Rest in peace now little one."
With Deon J. Hampton, Scott Eidler, Mackenzie Issler and Kevin Deutsch