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Toddler's death from hyperthermia in car trunk last July declared 'tragic accident'

BALSAM LAKE -- One day shy of a year since a sheriff's deputy found the body of a toddler, locked in a car trunk when the owner came to retrieve the vehicle from a repair shop operated by the dead boy's father, Polk County District Attorney Daniel Steffen has concluded the boy's death was simply a "tragic accident."

Two-year-old Isaiah D. Theis had the key to the car on him when his body was found about 24 hours after he disappeared while playing with his brother on his parents' property near Centuria.

In a written statement released Wednesday, July 16, Steffen said he was "confident the Polk County Sheriff's Department and its investigative team (conducted) an extensive and thorough investigation and has gone above and beyond in providing me with as complete a picture as possible as to what happened."

Steffen said deputies had assistance from the FBI, state Department of Criminal Investigations and the state crime lab.

He summarized, "It is my opinion that Isaiah's death was a tragic accident and that no intent or recklessness was present to cause that death.

"Numerous forensic tests were conducted and re-creations of the events of that day all point to the same conclusion -- that it was an accident."

Steffen said, "Although this decision has taken a great deal of time to arrive at, it was important that I be confident in my conclusion and that no rush to judgment would occur."

Isaiah's disappearance occurred when the region was in the midst of a heat wave. National Weather Service records show nearby St. Croix Falls had recorded a high of 87 degrees the day Isaiah went missing, and a high of 91 on the day his body was found.

Within hours, Polk County officials had organized a massive search for the lad, directing some 2,450 volunteers through fields and woods surrounding the family's rural property.

Preliminary autopsy results released after he was discovered said Isaiah likely died of hyperthermia – a condition in which the body temperature spikes – due to the blistering heat.

The Rev. Rick Van Gundy, pastor of St. Peter's Community Church at Dresser who acted as spokesman for the family, said family members realized that Isaiah was capable of such a complex act of finding the keys, opening and hiding in the trunk as he'd often watch his father repairing cars and had demonstrated mechanical aptitude.

"As far as my office is concerned, this case is closed,” said Steffen.

Steve Dzubay

Steve Dzubay has been publisher at the River Falls Journal and Hudson Star Observer from 1995-2016. He holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. He previously worked as a reporter-photographer at small daily newspapers in Minnesota and is past editor of the Pierce County Herald and River Falls Journal.