The Short Life of Viktor Matthey

An article depicting the unhappy life of a Siberian boy whose violent death is told against the larger story of his birth parents, the orphanage that briefly shelters him, and his abusive adoptive parents in America. Originally published in the Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), on October 28, 2001.

The frail boy was lying flat on the kitchen floor by the sink. There was no sign that he was breathing or that his heart was beating.

He was disturbingly thin. The first rescue workers to arrive at the modest ranch house thought they were looking at an AIDS victim, or perhaps a child undergoing chemotherapy. Only a few tufts of hair sprouted from his nearly bald head.

The mother of the stricken 7-year-old was trying to administer CPR, but she was pushing on his abdomen, not his chest. A telephone receiver was on the kitchen floor, the line open to the county emergency center.

The mother had called 911 at 12:22 p.m., and help arrived 10 minutes later. Soon the house was swarming with medical technicians and state troopers. The boy, dressed in a shirt and sweat pants with a diaper underneath, was taken by ambulance at 1:10 p.m. to the Hunterdon County Medical Center, 10 miles away.

As the ambulance was preparing to leave, the mother swore at the police officers still there and ordered them off her property. She chose not to ride in the ambulance, but went to the hospital about 15 minutes later with her husband, who had been at Sunday church services with their six other children.

In the emergency room, doctors and nurses were able to restore the child's heartbeat, but his condition was critical. The decision was made to transfer him by helicopter that afternoon to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick.

Doctors there noted that the boy, Viktor Alexander Matthey, was covered with 40 cuts, scrapes and bruises. The skin on his right hand was bright red, from his wrist to his fingertips. Three bones in that hand were broken, and there was evidence of an earlier, untreated fracture.

He also was in an advanced state of hypothermia; his body temperature, recorded as 83.2 degrees at the emergency room in Hunterdon, had dropped to 80 by the time he reached Robert Wood Johnson. There he was put on life support in an intensive care unit while his family prayed for his recovery.

Two days later, on Oct. 31, 2000, the boy died.

A week after that, Bob and Brenda Matthey, a deeply religious couple who 10 months earlier had adopted Viktor Sergeyevich Tulimov in Russia and given him their name, were charged with his death.

Hunterdon County authorities said that before he died, the Mattheys' adopted son had been imprisoned in an unheated, unlit and damp pump room, off the basement, when the temperature outside got down to 37.

Put simply, the child from Siberia had died in the cold of America. More than 16,000 children born in foreign countries - including 5,000 from Russia - were adopted by Americans in 1999, the year the Mattheys journeyed to eastern Siberia and adopted Viktor and his younger twin brothers, Vladimir and Yevgeniy.

The cost of adopting from overseas can be considerable. It is not unusual to spend $10,000 to $15,000 for a single child - to process documents, to travel to the country where the child is, to pay fees to the lawyers and adoption agencies.

In the vast majority of adoptions, a simple goal is achieved: A family in search of a child is united with a child in need of a family.

Sometimes, however, things don't work as planned. Some children have suffered in their early years, abused by birth parents and sent to institutions where the care is less than nurturing. Often they carry psychological scars that make adjusting to their new homes extraordinarily trying, for them and for their well-meaning but ill-prepared adoptive parents. As a result, some child psychologists now specialize in treating dysfunctional children who were adopted overseas.

There was no sign that Bob and Brenda Matthey had anything but Christian charity in their hearts when they came home from Russia with Viktor and his 4-year-old twin brothers just before Christmas in 1999. Already the parents of four boys, the Mattheys - Bob was 36, Brenda 34 - had decided God wanted them to adopt a foreign child in need of a good home.

Viktor certainly was that. One of six siblings taken from neglectful, alcoholic parents in 1997, he had been in two orphanages over 21⁄2 years. When the Mattheys came to his orphanage to briefly meet him for the first time, Viktor was told they would be his new "forever" parents. As the Mattheys prepared to leave, Viktor began to cry, believing he had failed to please them. The Mattheys assured him they would be back, and days later he and two of his brothers were on their way to a new American home.

If there were serious problems in the Mattheys' house in Union Township, they were not apparent from the outside. The family's life centered on a Pentecostal church that taught that the answers to most problems could be found in the Bible. They did not socialize with their neighbors. None of the children attended public schools; the biological children were home-schooled until they were sent to a Bible school in September 2000.

How Viktor adapted to his new life undoubtedly will be an issue at the Mattheys' eventual trial. Relatives say he picked up English quickly, enjoyed playing on the backyard trampoline and riding a bicycle; the family's pastor says he embraced Christ.

Lawyers representing his adoptive parents are likely to paint a much different picture of Viktor, one that portrays a maladjusted, self-destructive little boy whose many injuries were his own doing.

It is now a year since Viktor died, and no date has been set for the Mattheys' trial. They were indicted in March on charges of aggravated manslaughter, endangering the welfare of a child and witness-tampering. And no one - not the dueling lawyers, not adoption officials in Russia or the United States, not the boy's birth mother in Siberia or his adoptive grandmother in America, not his teachers in a Siberian orphanage, not even the Mattheys' pastor - no one claims to fully understand why this adoption ended in tragedy.

It is far easier to pinpoint when events were set in motion. The story begins in a New Jersey church.