Deputies found the keys to the car trunk that became Isaiah Theis’ tomb lying next to the 2-year-old’s body, the family’s pastor said Saturday.
The ring of keys to the Chevrolet Impala was one of several sets of car keys found with the boy, said Pastor Rick Van Gundy.
How the toddler got into the parked car — which had been left for repair with his father, Justin Theis — and remained missing for nearly 30 hours is still a puzzle to police and neighbors in Centuria, where searchers repeatedly came within feet of the trunk where Isaiah was trapped before he was discovered.
“When we were doing the searches, they were looking for the keys,” Van Gundy said. “They couldn’t find the keys anywhere … I remember Justin saying, ‘They should be right here, they were laying on my desk. He must have taken all the keys.’
“And then later, after they had found Isaiah, the family had told me that the keys to that car, and other ones, were with him.”
The extreme heat in the closed trunk killed Isaiah, according to a preliminary autopsy report released Friday. On hot days, experts said, temperatures inside a vehicle can quickly reach 150 degrees or higher.
The child was last seen playing with his 7-year-old brother Tuesday evening, but no one opened the car or trunk until its owner showed up late Wednesday night to collect his vehicle.
“Hindsight is 20/20,” Van Gundy said Saturday. “I myself looked in the car with a flashlight. I looked under the car with a flashlight. … It’s just that at the time, the car is locked, and it’s in your head that it’s secure. You don’t even put two and two together.”
On Friday, Polk County Sheriff’s officials expressed regret that they didn’t break into the trunk. Saturday, Sheriff Pete Johnson did not return a reporter’s calls.
Van Gundy, pastor of St. Peter’s Community Church in Dresser, Wis., said the family is not upset with law enforcement and is grateful for all the searches that they and volunteers did.
Neighbors Shara and Kirk Anderson were among those who searched for the little boy and who were devastated by the news that he was in the trunk of the car that some of them even touched during the hours Isaiah was missing.
Justin Theis works on the Anderson family’s cars, and last week Isaiah’s older brother came with them to a Bible camp, Shara Anderson said Saturday.
“It really has shaken people up, and I think it’s shaking people up that much more because we were all around that car, all of us,” she said. “That’s what’s the really hard part. He was right there.”
Van Gundy said he could not provide details on what exactly happened as the two boys played together in the yard Tuesday, or how Isaiah got in the car.
“Like any other kid, they’re climbing around and in things all the time,” he said. “They were just two very active boys, and they spent a lot of time in the shop with their dad.”
Justin Theis told the pastor and police that it was not uncommon for Isaiah to take keys. Van Gundy said Isaiah was a bright ball of energy who had watched his father work on cars and could have used the keys himself.
“Honestly, Isaiah was an exceptional kid,” Van Gundy said.
Van Gundy also took issue with criticism of the parents that he’s spotted in the media and online.
“There is not a single person I know, including myself, who have children, and who haven’t at one point turned around, and had your kid gone,” Van Gundy said. “In an instant, this stuff can happen.”
He said the couple are good parents, who need the community’s support.
“They were fantastic parents,” the pastor said. “They are very loving, very caring. Justin would do anything for those boys. He had told me a hundred times in the last few days that ‘I would trade places with Isaiah if I could.’ ”