GREELEY, Colo. (CBS4) – The suspect convicted of causing the death of a toddler in Canada is awaiting a prison sentence — thanks to the investigative work done by a biology professor at the University of Northern Colorado. Professor Steve Mackessy, a snake expert, helped the Royal Canadian Mounted Police identify venoms used to kill 2-year-old Aleka Esa-Bella Scheyk Gonzales in 2014.
Mackessy told CBS4’s Dillon Thomas he was in a remote area of western Colorado analyzing snakes in 2014. When he returned to cell service, he noticed there were missed messages from Canadian phone numbers.
“There were some messages on my cellphone; one of these was from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. And, at first, I thought, ‘Okay, somebody is trying to prank me here,'” Mackessy said. “We really didn’t start working with snakes, and snake venoms, with the intent of going into forensics.”
UNC is in possession of dozens of live, venomous snakes from around the world. Mackessy and his students are using their venom to study if the liquids can be used to fight cancer and high blood pressure in humans. However, after realizing the request for help was sincere, Mackessy agreed to offer his expertise to assist in the investigation. Police believed the boyfriend of the child’s mother played a role in her death.
“The (boyfriend) said the child fell down the stairs,” Mackessy said investigators told him.
However, after investigating the death, RCMP believed the death may have been caused by venom from snakes found on the suspect’s property.
“This individual had some curious habits, and hobbies,” Mackessy said.
RCMP found illegally obtained, and venomous, snakes on 51-year-old Henry Thomas’ property. Mackessy said the investigation also revealed Thomas was using the venom on himself at times.
“He was injecting himself with venom to stimulate his immune system,” Mackessy said.
The RCMP had to apply for several clearances to transport evidence over the U.S. border to Colorado. That evidence included samples from the deceased, snake venoms and snake skins.
“There were syringes that had residue in them,” Mackessy said.
Mackessy and a team of students, were ultimately able to obtain the evidence. They tested what they were given and were able to clearly identify venoms found in the child’s system at the time of death. Mackessy said the snakes they identified were the same species as that were found on Thomas’ property.
“Testing confirmed that snake venom was the cause of death of the 2-year-old infant,” a spokesperson for the RCMP said.
“This man administered venom to the child,” Mackessy said.
Thanks to the test results provided UNC, Thomas confessed to giving the child the venoms. He is awaiting sentencing in a court east of Vancouver.
Though the death of the child was tragic, Mackessy said he was proud of his team for their efforts to bring justice in a case they normally wouldn’t handle.
“We had never had anything like this before,” Mackessy said. “Information we provided was central to them solving this case, and bringing closure to this tragedy.”