BELLEVUE, Wash. — Police searching for a 2-year-old Washington state boy focused their efforts Monday around the home of his mother, who reportedly told investigators she last saw him in her stalled car on a city street as she walked away for an hour to get gas.
It wouldn't be the first time Sky Metalwala had been left alone in a car. When he was just 3 months old, court records revealed, his parents left him in their sport utility vehicle in a Target parking lot for 55 minutes on a 27-degree day. They only came out of the store to get him after police arrived and asked for the vehicle's owner to be paged.
The toddler's disappearance Sunday in Bellevue, a city of 122,000 across Lake Washington from Seattle, came at the height of a custody fight between his parents, Julia Biryukova and Solomon Metalwala. They separated in March 2010 amid back-and-forth protective orders and allegations of abuse and psychiatric problems.
Last December, a social worker determined that there was a "preponderance of evidence" that Metalwala had struck his daughter hard enough to cause bruising, court records show. The social worker also said Sky had troubling bruises, but because the boy could not talk, it wasn't clear where he got them. However the attorney for Metalwala, Leslie Clay Terry III, said Monday that case worker had only interviewed the mother and that Child Protective Services later conducted an investigation that cleared Metalwala.
"He was exonerated completely," Terry said.
Last week, at a mandatory mediation session, a tentative agreement was hammered out that would allow Metalwala to have some visitation with Sky and his older sister, his lawyer said.
Biryukova reported that her car ran out of gas in Bellevue on Sunday morning, police said. She said she left Sky in the unlocked vehicle and walked with her daughter, who is 4, about a mile to a gas station. When she returned to the car, Sky wasn't there, she said.
Investigators searched a 20-block area and even went door to door but found no sign of him. There was no gas can at the car, police said.
The Bellevue Police Department said both parents were cooperating, and Biryukova had consented to have her vehicle and home in nearby Redmond searched. The older child has been placed in protective custody.
"We're looking at it from all angles, at this point," said Bellevue Police Maj. Mike Johnson. "Missing person, abduction, foul play has not been ruled out."
Biryukova did not immediately return a call seeking comment. Her younger brother, Stanley Biryukov, said Julia was crying frantically when she called him Sunday afternoon and explained what had happened.
"I'm hoping they'll find the child," he said.
Metalwala spoke with reporters at the office of his lawyer, Terry. They said his estranged wife's story was bizarre: Why didn't she call for help, knock on a nearby door, or take the child with her?
"I don't understand why she would leave a little baby in the car," Metalwala said. "The whole story is puzzling."
In December 2009, Redmond police cited both parents for reckless endangerment at the Target parking lot. A shopper who heard the baby crying in the SUV called police, and a responding officer reported that the car felt cold.
Paged inside the store, the couple said they had left the baby in the car for 15 to 20 minutes because they didn't want to wake him up. Surveillance video of the parking lot later proved it had actually been 55 minutes.
The case was dismissed early this year after the pair completed a year of probation, 40 hours of community service and a 10-week parenting class.
The couple had been together for 14 years. He was 21 and she was a high school sophomore when they began dating, according to one of her court declarations. In another declaration, her mother, Nadia Biryukova, wrote that they married in 2003 in her kitchen just before he was to be deported to Pakistan.
In court documents filed in connection with their divorce, Julia Biryukova said their relationship deteriorated in 2008 after they bought an expensive home in Kirkland and couldn't keep up with the payments on that property and a condominium they also owned.
The couple separated in March 2010, court records show. In June 2010, the same month Metalwala filed for divorce, Biryukova, 30, filed for a protection order on behalf of herself and their two children.
She said Metalwala, 36, had a severe anger problem, was verbally abusive and that he had beat her for the first time on Christmas Day, just weeks after the incident at the Target parking lot. The reason was that she had allowed Sky to sleep later than expected, she said.
"He became furious like I have never seen him before, he grabbed me by my hair (in front of our 3 1/2 year old daughter), dragged me into our hallway, threw me down on the floor and then threw me against a decorative column we have in the entrance of our home," Biryukova wrote. "He continued to assault me with his feet – by kicking me and then he took out his car keys and continued to scratch me in any area he could."
The abuse escalated after that, with Solomon telling her to go live on the street and work as a prostitute, she said.
"The most, most recent have been his threats to kill me if I say anything against him or if in any way I proceed with action of seeking custody of our two small children," Biryukova added. "I live in constant fear for my life and my children's life. Please investigate and help me!"
He responded that she had mental health problems and was involuntarily committed to a mental clinic in 2010.
"The accusations against him were totally false," his lawyer said.
Earlier this year a social worker with state Child Protective Services reported that a doctor found her to be in good mental health and an appropriate caregiver for the children.
One psychologist who evaluated Biryukova wrote in July 2010 that though she was dealing with "a severe form of obsessive compulsive disorder, I do not believe that interferes with her ability to be a compassionate, effective parent to her children."
CPS received six referrals about the family from late 2009 to late 2010, state officials reported in court documents.
Johnson and Le reported from Seattle. Associated Press writer Donna Gordon Blankinship contributed to this report.