DENVER — The father of a 7-year-old boy whose body was found encased in concrete in a Denver storage unit in December 2018 was sentenced on Friday to the maximum of 72 years in prison.
Leland Pankey, 40, pleaded guilty last month to child abuse resulting in death and tampering with a deceased human body, according to the Denver District Attorney's Office.
He had been charged with first-degree murder in connection with the death of Caden McWilliams. In exchange for the plea, that charge was dropped.
Caden's body was discovered Dec. 23, 2018, in a storage unit in the 5000 block of East Evans Avenue. That same month, Leland Pankey was arrested after Elisha Pankey accused him of assaulting her. That allegation started the chain of events that led to the discovery of their son’s body.
According to the arrest affidavit in the case, officers who spoke to Elisha Pankey became concerned when they couldn’t find Caden and went to his daycare. An employee there subsequently said the child was “lost” and that his sister claimed her brother had “died.”
Elisha Pankey claimed she hadn’t seen either of her children since Nov. 27, when she claimed her husband had taken them away from her. According to the affidavit, Elisha Pankey had asked victim care advocates to pick up some medications from her nightstand, and that’s when they found heroin inside.
According to the arrest affidavit for Leland Pankey, his wife told police that in May 2018, the family moved into a hotel and that she worked full-time. Leland Pankey was supposed to take care of the children, and according to the affidavit, Elisha Pankey said she knew her husband was abusing Caden and not feeding him.
The affidavit says on July 11, 2018 -- about three days before Caden's death -- Elisha Pankey saw Leland Pankey holding their son against a wall and later taking him into the bathroom, where she could hear a "ruckus."
The affidavit says Leland Pankey told his wife they "can't save both children" and they could take Caden to the mountains to bury him.
An ensuing investigation revealed the boy had been unenrolled from Denver Public Schools (DPS) in August 2018 and was last seen in class on May 24 that year. He was 7 years old at the time.
During Leland Pankey's sentencing, Caden's aunt and Elisha Pankey's sister spoke about Caden.
"I was in the room when Caden was born. I saw his sweet little face and was immediately smitten," Sarah Cruz said. "As Caden grew, it became apparent that he had a very old soul. He was sweet and gentle and our entire family fell in love with him."
"How could this have happened to this sweet little boy who was so loved?," she asked the court. "Caden McWilliams was a beautiful boy with a heart of gold. His smile would light up a room. To think that the parents that were supposed to care for him, keep him safe, could so callously extinguish his life, it just makes me nauseous. He trusted them to take care of him, to love him, and to always be there for him."
Cruz is now raising Caden's little sister.
"The only positive that has come out of this terrible situation is my niece. She is a miracle. She’s a survivor and she is precious."
A Feb. 28, 2019 autopsy indicated McWilliams died by undetermined means, but that child maltreatment played a role. According to the affidavit, an ensuing investigation revealed the boy had multiple broken bones at the time of his death and was possibly malnourished.
"As we try to pick up the broken pieces of our hearts, we will make sure that Caden McWilliams is not forgotten," Cruz said. "He will not just be the headline of some sick and twisted nightmare story. He will bring about change and protect those that like him did not have a voice. This is not the end of his story."
Elisha Pankey pleaded guilty to child abuse resulting in death on Aug. 1, 2019.
She faces 16-32 years in prison with five years of mandatory parole following her release. Her sentence was deferred until she successfully cooperated with the prosecution in Leland Pankey's case.
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