PALATKA, Fla. – The grandmother of a 15-month-old boy, who police said died from asphyxiation after being tied and gagged, has often broken down in tears just thinking about her grandson in the months following the toddler's death.
Isaiah Keller died Jan. 22, and the child's mother and her boyfriend were arrested three months later, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office said.
Andre Keller, who is not Isaiah's biological father, is charged with murder and aggravated child abuse. Isaiah's mother, Lori Hopper, is charged with aggravated manslaughter.
"I knew in my heart that something happened. So I knew I was going to hear that. I didn't realize it, but I knew someone was going to get arrested," said Sandra Olivieri, Hopper's mother, told News4Jax on Friday.
Olivieri recounted the phone call that turned her world upside down -- when she learned of her grandson's death. She said Keller called the house in January, saying, "he's gone," and then hung up.
"My husband called my daughter, Lori, to see if she would pick up the phone. And she picked up the phone and he says, 'What is going on?'" Olivieri said. "I was already hysterical and I said, 'What's going on?' And what came into my head is 'What did you guys do?' That's what came out: 'What did you guys do?' And then she hung up on me."
At her Palatka home, Olivieri showed News4Jax photos from Isaiah's first Christmas, first birthday and his toys that were still on the living room floor.
"I have pictures of him and grandpa," Olivieri said. "Look how happy he was. He had a smile on his face. He was happy."
She shared the happy memories of Isaiah, but the grandmother also revealed what she describes as the first signs that the baby was in danger.
"My daughter and her boyfriend didn't want me to see him. He was controlling and everything. So the whole time I would be calling and texting, calling and texting, 'When am I going to see him? When am I going to see him?' And finally, out of the blue, my daughter calls and says, 'Would you like to have Isaiah?' And I thought, 'Maybe just for a weekend.' And we had him for 10 weeks," Olivieri said. "He was controlling her and very disrespectful to us."
Olivieri said Hopper only allowed her to see her grandson a day after he was born and then, finally, seven months later. Olivieri said she felt that something was wrong, because she was only allowed to meet up with her daughter in a public place, where Hopper handed over a smelly diaper bag and a child, who the grandmother described as being underweight.
"In the back of my head, I'm like, 'What can I do? Could I call DCF?' But what grounds did I have?" Olivieri said. "I didn't see any marks on him. The only thing I thought was kind of odd was when we would have him and it was time to change his diaper."
The grandmother then went into detail about what Isaiah did every single time he would have his diaper changed, which led her to believe something was definitely wrong.
"You know how when you change a baby's diaper, you know how you hold the legs up and you wipe? He would scream, like scream, twist, turn to get away," Olivieri said. "I'm like, 'Isaiah, grandma is only changing your diaper.'"
Olivieri said it was unbelievably painful to see that her grandson was malnourished and not developing as a child should. But despite it all, she remained quiet.
"Any negative thing I said would jeopardize me from seeing Isaiah, and I wanted to see my grandson," the grandmother said.
The final straw then came on New Years Eve, when Olivieri received a text from her daughter asking her to come get her and Isaiah. Minutes later, Hopper told her mother never mind. Less than a month later, Isaiah died.
"I was in shock. I just, the thing that came to my mind was my poor grandson. He was, like, tortured," Olivieri said. "And then to think that my daughter, she didn't protect her son."
Olivieri said she wishes she had acted sooner, but she doesn't hold any guilt, saying she knew that either her daughter or Keller would land behind bars in the end. But she will always have one question weighing on her heart.
"Why didn't she pick up the phone and call me? All she had to do was pick up the phone and I would have came and got her and Isaiah and he would still be here," she said. "That's the part I don't understand."
Olivieri shared a message for daughter.
"I don't know where her head is right now, but if she's listening and sees this interview, I hope that she tells him don't let him control her anymore. He's not with her anymore. He's in a cell. She needs to tell the truth and she's going to have to pay the consequence of what she's done, whatever she's done," Olivieri said. "She's going to have to pay the consequences."
Mother, boyfriend charged in 15-month-old's January death
Keller, 29, and Hopper, 29, were arrested April 27 and charged in the January death of the 15-month-old boy, according to the Sheriff's Office.
Hopper and Keller were supposed to make a first appearance at the Duval County Jail on April 28, but jail officials said the judge waived that appearance after the two refused to leave their cells.
Police said it took some time for the autopsy results to conclusively determine the cause of death. Initially, there were no visible signs of foul play.
Police said that Keller and Hopper initially told them that while living at the Diamond Inn on Ramona Boulevard near Lane Avenue and Interstate10, they gave Isaiah a bottle and put him down to sleep, and then later found him unresponsive. He died at the hospital, police said.
The Sheriff's Office said the baby lived at the hotel with the couple, along with Keller's three biological children.
During the course of the investigation, police said, two of those children told detectives that they had seen Keller in the past tie up Isaiah, in order to get him to stop crying. Hopper later confessed that was true and happened the day Isaiah died, investigators said.
Keller's estranged wife, Jeannette Keller, told News4Jax last week that their children will never be the same after seeing what happened in that room.
"(They told me), just like it says in the police report, that he wrapped the blanket around the baby's throat and tied him up and that he had done it in previous occasions," Keller said. "I'm in shock that the father of my children is being accused of this and I'm happy that they have evidence that he did it."
Sources said Hopper is from Palatka and met Keller while pregnant when she moved to Jacksonville. Keller's family members said he signed baby Isaiah's birth certificate when he was born.
News4Jax was told the Department of Children and Families placed Keller's three children in the care of other family members.
Keller and Hopper are being held without bond.