Justis Burland's mother says she contacted Otter Tail County social services in the days before his death. Misty Dawn Truitt says she wanted to make sure Justis and his twin brother Xavier were accounted for because their caretaker "flipped out" after a custody hearing was cut short by a judge.
That phone call would've come after April 2, the date the caretaker, Bobbie Bishop, was denied full custody of the children. By April 9 Justis was dead, having allegedly been beaten by Bishop and Walter Wynhoff of Fergus Falls, Minn., the family friends with whom Justis and Xavier were living.
"I called CPS (child protective services) to see if they were in the system," Truitt said in a phone interview Friday, April 13. "They said no. I told them Bobbie was saying they were going to come and take them away. I asked them to call me if they knew anything. I never heard back from them."
Truitt didn't know who she talked with, nor what specific office she called. Voice and text messages left for Otter Tail County public information officer Shannon Terry were not immediately returned.
In her first media interview since the death of her son, Truitt's voice would shake and she'd break into sobs periodically while talking about 6-year-old Justis. Truitt said she wanted to travel from her home in Spokane, Wash., to pick up Justis and Xavier from Bishop's home, but Bishop dissuaded her.
"Their birthday was March 12, and I told Bobbie I was going to come and get them after that, but she said, 'No, just wait. We can bring them out there in April. She was stalling me,'" Truitt said. "I just wanted to go get my boys and this happened. It's horrible."
Bishop, 40, and Wynhoff, 42, were charged last week with five felonies in Justis' death, including second-degree murder without intent, first-degree manslaughter, two counts of second-degree manslaughter, and malicious punishment of a child resulting in great bodily harm.
The criminal complaint says Justis had injuries from head to toe, and a doctor at Lake Region Hospital in Fergus Falls, where the boy was admitted, remarked about the varying ages of the wounds. Justis was rife with infections. Authorities believe he was beaten, tortured and neglected for a lengthy period of time, possibly months.
Justis died April 9 after Bishop found him in bed that morning not breathing. She acknowledged she gave Justis a severe beating the night before, according to court documents. He was taken to the hospital clad only in a soiled, torn diaper.
Whether Truitt, 42, would have been able to take custody of the twins is in question. Her mother, Norma Burland of Polson, Mont., was their legal guardian, and she had just signed over temporary custody to Bishop.
But Truitt said she and family members were going to leave Spokane early Sunday morning and drive to Fergus Falls, arriving in time for a court hearing Tuesday to determine custody of Xavier. Truitt and her mother believe Xavier should be returned to family.
"I just want to bring my surviving son back home. I just want him back," Truitt said. "But CPS has pretty much told me that's not going to happen, that I won't get Xavier back."
Court documents and interviews paint a picture of lives filled with poverty, difficulty and instability for Truitt, Norma Burland, Justis and Xavier.
Truitt gave birth to the twins in 2012 and, according to court documents, they lived with a cousin for the first two years of their lives. Norma Burland received full custody because Truitt was serving jail time and didn't have a home address. Burland said Truitt has several children, including a 1-year-old, none of whom she has custody of.
Justis and Xavier lived with Burland in an apartment in Spokane for a time, but Burland said she couldn't handle them as they grew older. And because of financial difficulties she was going to lose the apartment and move to the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana. Bishop, a longtime friend of the family, said she was willing to take the boys, so Burland drove to Fergus Falls and dropped them off in August.
Court documents show Bishop petitioning for custody of the children a couple of months later, saying Truitt wanted to be with Justis and Xavier "only when it's convenient" and that Burland was "fiscally unable to raise them" and "does not want to raise them."
"I love them like they are my own and have since they were born. Norma wants me to raise them so she can be there (sic) grandma," Bishop wrote in court documents.
Truitt said she trusted Bishop to care for the boys because they seemed to like her and Wynhoff.
"I did not know they were like this. No freaking way," Truitt said. "If I did, I would have never allowed it."
Truitt said the plan was for Justis and Xavier to spend six months or so in Minnesota and then return to live with Truitt in Spokane. She said "everything came together" in March when she escaped a domestic violence situation and found housing and she was ready to drive to Fergus Falls and take the twins.
Court records, though, show Bishop was working toward gaining full custody from Burland. There was a hearing by telephone April 2 during which Burland resisted losing custody and Bishop became agitated with Otter Tail County District Court Judge Sharon Benson, using profanity. Benson ended the hearing by hanging up her phone.
Burland said she was trying to do what was best for Truitt and the children.
"I just wanted her to be stable and have a life of her own. It's time," Burland said.
But Bishop sent frustrated text messages to Burland, berating the grandmother and threatening to turn over the children to child protective services. That's when Truitt said she called Otter Tail County.
Truitt learned of Justis' death by a phone call from her mother. Burland said a Fergus Falls police officer called her in Montana on April 9 and then she called her daughter.
"I told her I have some bad news, you better sit down," Burland said. "She knew something bad happened. She started crying right away, even before I told her."
Justis' body was sent to Ramsey County for an autopsy, and it will be flown to Spokane once it is released. Heritage Funeral Home and Crematory in Spokane is handling the arrangements. A GoFundMe page titled "Funeral for Justis" has raised over $800 toward a $10,000 goal, and a spokesman at the funeral home said funding is available through foundation grants.
"I never thought Bobbie was this kind of person. I've known Bobbie since I was 10 years old. None of us thought she was capable of this kind of thing," Truitt said. "It's killing me."