ATGLEN, Pa. (AP) — The mother of a man accused of striking his girlfriend's 3-year-old with a frying pan, hanging him upside down and hitting him, and whipping him with a metal rod said Friday that her son is a good kid and she doesn't believe he beat the boy to death.
"I believe he's being railroaded," Paula Fellenbaum said outside her parents' home in central Pennsylvania. "He liked kids. He never had an issue. I don't understand it at all."
Yet authorities said her 23-year-old son, Gary Fellenbaum, and Jillian Tait both acknowledged repeatedly hitting Tait's young child in a mobile home outside Coatesville, about 35 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Both face murder charges.
The Chester County district attorney described the case as "an American horror story," saying weeks of escalating abuse ended in three days of systematic torture.
Friday night, more than 100 people participated in a solemn vigil and prayer service for the boy, Scott McMillan, and a second local homicide victim at a church in nearby Parkesburg. The crowd, many accompanied by young children, held lit candles and stood silently as people took turns praying, and later sang "Amazing Grace."
"Scotty's death really touched my heart and I feel that the community should all pull together and support each other," said Ann Orshesky, holding her 1-year-old daughter Madelyn as a musician played a cello at the gathering. "I wish we could have somehow prevented it, but obviously we didn't."
Fellenbaum severely beat Scott for refusing to eat toast both Monday and Tuesday morning, authorities said. The "discipline" included throwing him against a wall, knocking him off a chair with a punch and then taping him to the chair to keep him upright for more beatings, police said.
As Scott lay dying Tuesday, officials say, the couple went car shopping, picked up a pizza and then took a nap. Fellenbaum later "expressed remorse" for Scott's death, police said.
The victim's father, Loren McMillan, has been living out of state but is traveling back to the area, according to officials and relatives.
Loren McMillan's sister, Tera Kluxen, said Friday her family had no idea the boy was in danger. They now want custody of Scott's 6-year-old brother, who authorities say also showed signs of abuse and was placed with unspecified other relatives.
"We're going to do everything we can to get him back into our family and get him safe," said Kluxen, of Lancaster.
Kluxen said her brother and Tait, 31, never married and broke up about a year ago. Loren McMillan then moved to Kansas with their mother, she said.
Kluxen, who has three children of her own, hadn't seen her nephews in about a year. But Tait "really seemed to love those kids" and regularly posted photos of the boys on her Facebook page until about a month ago, Kluxen said.
She described the older child as a smart and funny boy. Scott looked a lot like his father and was a happy baby, Kluxen said. She said she doesn't know Gary Fellenbaum.
She noted her parents had frequently helped her brother and Tait financially, and "anybody in the family would have swept those kids up in a second" if they knew there was a problem.
"We just had no clue," Kluxen said. "What kind of people do things like that? There's not even words for it."
Through tears, Paula Fellenbaum described her son as a hard worker who was "trying to make his way in the world." She said although she hadn't seen him in recent weeks, Gary Fellenbaum had recently visited his grandparents and nobody suspected any problems. She said they were shocked to learn of the charges against him.
Shannon Taylor of West Caln Township said Tait was a "normal, goofy, everyday funny girl" when they regularly hung out several years ago.
"I never would have pictured her hurting a fly," Taylor said.
Yet when she saw Tait working at Wal-Mart two or three weeks ago, Tait was "pretty rough looking," Taylor said Friday. "She just looked like she just didn't care about herself really."
Tait and Fellenbaum had moved into a West Caln mobile home about a month ago with Amber Fellenbaum, his estranged wife. Amber Fellenbaum called 911 on Tuesday after Scott stopped breathing, authorities said. She's charged with child endangerment for failing to help sooner.
Reached by phone Friday, Amber Fellenbaum's mother declined to comment.
Matheson reported from Philadelphia. Associated Press Writer Sean Carlin contributed to this story from Parkesburg.