PENN YAN — In the span of a little more than two hours, a Yates County jury decided a case that was nearly 20 years in the making — including several years of sometimes intense police work.
“For over three years this investigation has been the focal point of so many people who worked tirelessly in the pursuit of justice for Ethan,” District Attorney Todd Casella said. “It has been an honor to have been among them.”
Casella was talking about Ethan Eslick, whose mother, Kelly Anderson, was convicted Wednesday of second-degree murder in his 2002 death. He was 16 months old.
Sheriff Ron Spike said Ethan was found dead by his mother — then-24-year-old Kelly Axtell — in their Dundee home. Ethan’s body was sent to the Monroe County Medical Examiner’s Office for an autopsy, and a ruling on the cause of death — homicide by asphyxiation — came several months later.
Spike said while the criminal probe — by sheriff's office investigators Todd Sotir and Mike Christensen — at the time was extensive, no arrests were made and it turned into an open cold case. The sheriff’s office developed new leads in early 2018, and state police and the FBI assisted through the use of forensic science and other technology.
Casella, at the time just months into his first term as DA, used legal and search warrant applications in the case. That resulted in 90 days of wiretaps and four days of grand jury presentation, leading to an indictment in June 2020.
“This was a difficult case that required the greatest effort to successfully prosecute, and it could not have been done alone,” Casella said. “If not for the assistance and persistence of the Yates County sheriff’s office, this case may have never been given a second look.”
Casella said the expertise, manpower and dedication of the state police special investigations unit were instrumental in securing the evidence to get an indictment and ultimately a conviction. He highlighted the work of sheriff’s office Inv. Arlyn Cunningham Jr., state police investigators Allison Regan and Michael Schreiber, and the FBI’s behavioral analysis unit.
The trial started June 1, with Casella calling 24 witnesses over four days, including two pathologists, a DNA expert, a serologist (a scientist who studies blood and other bodily fluids), and the original investigators on the case.
Anderson, now 43, testified in her own defense.
She was convicted Wednesday afternoon after just two hours of jury deliberations and will be sentenced by county Judge Jason Cook on Sept. 21. Anderson is facing 25 years to life in prison.
Anderson’s attorney, Susan BetzJitomir, said in an email she was very surprised by the verdict in what she called a circumstantial case.
"I am not saying there wasn't some evidence that made her look bad, but I did not see it as proof of anything. The bottom line is that I thought there were many reasons to doubt there was a murder and/or that Kelly Anderson did it, and the jury is supposed to convict on circumstantial evidence if her guilt is the only plausible explanation," she said. "I was surprised by the verdict."
Spike said the state police devoted tremendous time and personnel to the investigation. He also credited the local and federal officials who helped.
“The jury has found justice for Ethan,” Spike said. “A cold-case homicide is very challenging, and we must recognize the work of dogged investigators, officers both current and retired, as well as the coordination and teamwork of multiple police agency members, forensic technology, and a prosecutor working hard for the people seeking justice.”