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A 12-year-old Montana boy was found dead in a living room, police say grandparents and uncle ‘tortured’ him

Gallatin County Sheriff's Office

The grandparents and uncle of a 12-year-old boy in Montana have been charged in connection with his death after police say they found evidence of them torturing the child.

Videos found by police show a pattern of abuse that included forced exercises and physical abuse, according to court documents.

James Alex Hurley had been living with his grandparents, James Sasser Jr. and Patricia Batts, for the last two years. Also in the home were the couple’s children, including their 14-year-old son, who was James’ uncle. The uncle is being charged as a minor.

Detectives found video from about two years ago in which James “appeared to be a healthy and well fed boy,” court documents said. At the time of his death, detectives said James “appeared to be emaciated,” according to the documents.

“I believe the systematic torture and beatings are perpetrated on the victim in this case that led to his death,” Bjorn Boyer, deputy county attorney with the Gallatin County Attorney’s Office, said during the relatives’ initial appearance in court to have bail set.

The suspects have all three been charged with one count of deliberate homicide, according to court documents.

A fourth person, Gage Roush, 18, was also arrested for felony assault on a minor. Court documents allege that Roush, a family friend, could be seen on cell phone video beating Hurley with a paddle.

Documents show the defendants are being represented by the Gallatin County Public Defender’s Office. CNN has reached out on multiple occasions.

James was sent to live with his grandparents after his father died

James Hurley had been sent to Montana by his mother to live with his father. James’ mother lives in Texas, according to a criminal complaint from the Gallatin County Attorney’s Office.

James’ father died in 2018, which is why he ended up living with his grandparents and uncle, the complaint said.

The family described Hurley as recently becoming “suicidal,” “erratic,” and “hearing voices,” according to the complaint.

Sometime in January, the relatives said James deliberately tried to hurt himself by running himself into an entertainment center, according to the complaint.

Despite the family’s claims, detectives said they have not been able to find any record of the family reporting these alleged behaviors to law enforcement or of the family attempting to get medical or psychiatric help for James.

Detectives were also told by James’ biological mother in Texas that she tried to call the grandparents’ home numerous times but those attempts were “systematically blocked by Batts,” the complaint said.

Police say videos showed pattern of abuse

The 14-year-old uncle claimed that on January 27, he saw James standing over Batts with a knife, the complaint said. The uncle told investigators he didn’t know what James was going to do with the knife so he tackled him, according to the complaint. The uncle said he punched James several times on his body and head, the complaint said.

James was 103 pounds and 5-feet-3-inches tall, and his 14-year-old uncle was 300 pounds and 6 feet tall.

James and the uncle had multiple altercations, with the last one being in February, the complaint said.

Sasser told detectives that on February 2, he had been asleep but the uncle and James had gotten into a fight. He woke up the next morning and was told by Batts that James had died, according to the complaint.

Batts told detectives she was also asleep during the Super Bowl, but woke up to the uncle and James having an altercation, during which the uncle hit James with the paddle, according to the complaint. She denied that the uncle hit him on the head. Batts told detectives she found James’s body on February 3 in the living room area, the complaint said.

James’s body was taken to the Montana State Crime Lab for an autopsy on February 4; it said his preliminary cause of death was blunt-force trauma to the back of his head, the complaint said. Toxicology reports are pending.

Detectives seized the cell phones of the uncle and grandparents and put together a timeline based on videos of abuse dating back to December 2019.

“Detectives observed videos of what appeared to be the family torturing (James),” the complaint said.

Instances of the abuse included James being forced to do exercises — jumping jacks and wall squats — along with standing in front of a fan with no clothing but his underwear, according to the complaint. Videos reviewed by detectives also showed the suspects spraying James in the face with an unknown substance that burned him and choking him, the complaint said.

During the search of the home, detectives found food in the house was locked up so James did not have access to it, the complaint read.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the context in which the deputy county attorney commented on the case. He made the comments in court.

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