Family remember the boy found dead in Mound, ‘Eli was the sweetest kid’
Family members of six-year old Eli Hart say they are devastated.
They confirmed on Saturday it was his body that was discovered in the trunk of a Chevy Impala, after a traffic stop Friday morning in Mound.
“I guess we’re just doing the best we can,” says Josie Josephson, during a phone interview with 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS. “Tory and I are grieving in our separate ways. He’s still trying to absorb this. To him, it’s really hard to believe that this is real, that he’ll never see Eli again.”
Josephson shared social media photos from happier times — of Eli, his father Tory, and Josephson, who is Tory’s fiancée.
She says the six-year-old had dreams of becoming a firefighter.
“Eli was the sweetest kid. Very kind. Anyone who knew Eli just fell in love with him,” Josephson says. “He was always happy, full of energy, full of questions, very inquisitive. He loved to play with matchbox cars. Recently, he learned how to fish.”
Police say just after 7 a.m., they pulled the Chevy over at Shoreline Drive and Bartlett Boulevard, after a call about a suspicious vehicle with a flat tire and a rear window shattered.
Orono Police Chief Corry Farniok says as officers questioned the woman behind the wheel, they noticed blood inside the car. Officers then opened the trunk and found the boy’s body inside.
“It impacts us all,” Farniok explains. “Our hearts go out when you have a juvenile victim in all this and dealing with that and processing that.”
Police arrested the driver, identified as 28-year-old Julissa Thaler, and a second unnamed male suspect.
“We believe the driver of the vehicle, the female, is the prime suspect we’re investigating at this time,” Farniok says. “We believe she’s involved.”
Thaler is now being held in the Hennepin County Jail for probable cause murder.
She has not been formally charged.
Josephson identified Thaler as Eli’s mother.
She says she and Tory were involved in a lengthy custody dispute with Thaler — all while trying to remain a part of Eli’s life.
“He was placed in the custody of Dakota County. He was in Dakota County’s custody for 457 days,” Josephson recalls. “During that time, we worked closely with Dakota County. They allowed us to be involved in Eli’s. He was allowed visits with us, unsupervised visits.”
She says by the end of 2021, Eli was living with Thaler in a Spring Park apartment complex — but that she and Tory made sure to visit as much as they were permitted.
“We went back to our every other weekend visitation and every Tuesday,” Josephson notes. “We live about an hour-and-a-half from where Eli is located, and every Tuesday we drove two-and-a-half hours to see him, and two-and-a-half hours to go home, and that was for a two hour visit. We never missed a visit.”
She says by May 10, a court granted Thaler full custody, and then closed the case.
Josephson says the last time she and Tory saw Eli was the day before, a Sunday.
“For me, I’m very upset — and I want to speak out for Eli and Tory, and for what we’ve been through,” she says. “He was just such an innocent child.”
Westronka School Superintendent Kevin Borg Saturday sent out a letter to parents and staff saying district officials believe the victim in the case to be a kindergarten student at Shirley Hills Primary School.
In that letter, Borg wrote, “the death of any young person is a loss that, in one way or another — affects each of us. My thoughts and prayers go out to all those who are grieving this profound loss.”
The superintendent says school counseling will be made available to anyone who needs it.
Mound Mayor Ray Salazar says the city is considering organizing a vigil to honor Eli’s life.
Meanwhile, Josephson says she’s thankful for the people who’ve rallied around her family at such a difficult time. “We want to say thank you for the support,” she says. “It felt like such a battle fighting for Eli. A lot of the times it was a lonely battle. To see how many people care, it means so much.”