Trial began for Steven Cross, charged with a misdemeanor for disappearing and sending his son to live with neighbors.
Eleven-year-old Sebastian Cross was far more than a best friend to John and Joanne Pahl's 12-year-old son.
"He was one of us, he was part of the family," Joanne Pahl testified Tuesday in the trial of Steven A. Cross, the Lakeville dad accused of abandoning the boy when Cross fell on hard times financially and emotionally.
Pahl's testimony seemed to speak to the central issue in the case: Did Cross harm his son's mental, physical or emotional health when he left home July 18, leaving behind a letter telling Sebastian to live with the Pahls?
Pahl described a boy who did chores every morning, which he'd already been doing before his dad left. He'd gone with the family on vacation before and went on a couple more during the 45 days he lived with them. He never acted out or showed signs of an emotional problem, she said. The only time he shut down "was when he was told he'd have to leave," she said.
Cross, 60, is charged with one count of child neglect, a gross misdemeanor.
In her opening statement, prosecutor Nicole Nee told jurors that Cross "willfully deprived Sebastian of necessary supervision ... when he was reasonably able to make provisions, and that Sebastian was harmed by that."
Defense attorney John Price III, however, said that Cross was "at the end of his rope" when he sent Sebastian to live with the Pahls, a couple that "was, is and still is, family."
Both sides agreed before the trial that Sebastian would not testify. Nee played an audiotape of an interview with the boy by child protection worker Chandra Poissant and Lakeville police detective Jeremy Lerfald.
The boy answered questions about his school and home life politely and matter-of-factly, telling the two that he lived with his dad "and a guinea pig named Rudolf and a dog named Sam." Poissant testified Tuesday that the only time he became emotional was "when I said I knew it was scary and emotional."
Said Poissant, "Then his eyes welled up and he looked down."
According to testimony, court documents and interviews: Cross had been a single parent to Sebastian for 10 of his 11 years. Cross had told the boy that his mother was dead.
The two spent July 17, a Sunday, at home watching World Cup soccer. The next day, when Sebastian awoke, his dad was gone. Cross had left two envelopes, one for the boy and another for the Pahls.
The letter to Sebastian said, in part, "If this paper is wet it's because I am crying so bad. You know your dad loves you more than anything. This economy got [illegible] there are no jobs for architects so I have to go because the sherriff [sic] will take the house July 27th. ...
"There will be no more me. ... Some good news is your mother is still alive. Though I do not think it is for the best. ... There are many many great years ahead for you. Not so for me."
In an interview outside court on Monday, Cross said he drove to California to try to get help from some long-lost relatives and that he had every intention of coming back for Sebastian. He only asked that the Pahls keep Sebastian until Aug. 31.
Joanne Pahl, a stay-at-home mom of four, testified that Sebastian was crying when he arrived on his bike with the letters, but that he "regained his composure very quickly."
Had Cross asked her to take care of the boy, she would have. "Absolutely," she said.
Later that day, Pahl and her husband called police. On Aug. 26, Lerfald testified, he got a tip that Cross might be working at a deli in California. A cellphone number was traced to Cambria, Calif., and Cross was arrested as he arrived for his shift.
Sebastian is living with his maternal great-aunt. Cross is fighting to get his son back but has had no contact with the boy.
While Cross has completed the court-ordered requirements in the custody case, Dakota County District Judge Richard Spicer said earlier this month that the boy is still angry with his father and isn't ready to see him yet. Another hearing in that matter is set for Feb. 22.
Cross said Monday that he is "totally broke" and is living with a neighbor across the street from his former home.
Jurors will hear closing arguments Wednesday morning, then begin deliberations.
Pat Pheifer • 952-746-3284