The car belonging to a woman who said her 2-year-old son disappeared after she ran out of gas in Bellevue had enough gas to be driven "a significant distance," police said Wednesday afternoon.
Bellevue police said Julia Biryukova, the mother of a missing 2-year-old Redmond boy, “holds the key” to her son’s whereabouts.
Bellevue police Maj. Mike Johnson said during a new briefing Thursday morning that finding Sky Elijah Metalwala is their top priority. “We believe Julia holds the key to that,” he said.
However, Johnson said Biryukova is not considered a suspect or a person of interest in her son’s disappearance.
On Wednesday, Johnson said Biryukova’s story about running out of gas and returning to her car to find her 2-year-old son missing is quickly “falling apart,” even as Bellevue police have exhausted their list of places to search for the missing toddler.
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“We believe there’s something suspicious afoot here. … The story doesn’t add up. The mother’s story is falling apart day to day,” Johnson said. “We have been challenged to try and find evidence and facts to support Julia’s story.”
Biryukova told police her car ran out of gas while she was driving her ill son from their Redmond home to a Bellevue hospital on Sunday morning. She said she walked with her 4-year-old daughter to a gas station about a mile away to retrieve gas, leaving Sky sleeping in his car seat.
When she returned, Sky was gone, she told police.
An examination of Biryukova’s Acura Integra on Wednesday morning found there was “a sufficient amount of gas in that vehicle to run a significant distance,” Johnson said.
Johnson said police plan to continue their mechanical inspection of the car on Thursday. Johnson said a test drive will tell police how car is functioning and whether it has mechanical problems.
“You’re on the way to the hospital, why would you leave your kid in the car? It certainly is suspicious,” Johnson said. He said an email sent by Biryukova to a friend Sunday morning is the only evidence police have that Sky was ill.
Also troubling to police is Biryukova’s refusal to take a polygraph test.
“That looks suspicious, and we’re puzzled by that,” said Johnson, who added that Biryukova’s attorney has said, “Julia is devastated and is in no condition to take a polygraph.”
Investigators watch TV
Members of the investigative team have also viewed an episode of the popular TV show “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” which aired Saturday night, hours before Biryukova reported her son missing. There were similarities between the episode’s plot line and Biryukova’s version of events, Johnson said.
The episode centers on a young couple whose car is stolen on Halloween with their toddler son inside. The child’s body is eventually found buried and the husband and wife each individually confess to killing the baby. It later turns out the child died from natural causes and each parent confessed to killing the child to protect the other.
Police also have viewed Biryukova’s Facebook page, which “is unusual at first glance,” Johnson said, because there are dozens of photos of Biryukova’s 4-year-old daughter, Maile (pronounced Miley), but only one of Sky.
An FBI agent with expertise interviewing children has spoken to Maile, and the little girl said her brother Sky was in the car, wrapped in a blanket, on Sunday, “which wasn’t what we expected to hear,” Johnson said.
A blanket was found inside the vehicle, providing K-9 search and rescue teams with a scent to follow, but their hours-long search near the car on Sunday didn’t turn up any trace of Sky, he said.
Johnson said investigators have looked into where trash from Biryukova’s sprawling apartment complex in Redmond is taken, but haven’t searched landfills or transfer stations. However, he cautioned that there is no indication that garbage from the complex has any evidentiary value.
“We’re sort of out of options as to where to search for the child. … There isn’t much left to search.”
Johnson said Wednesday morning that police planned to administer polygraph examinations to the people closest to the mother and son, including the boy’s father, Solomon Metalwala. He said Metalwala, the estranged husband of Biryukova, has thus far “cooperated fully.”
The couple were involved in a contentious custody battle before hammering out a tentative agreement last week that would allow Metalwala to have visitation with Sky and Maile, according to his attorney, Leslie Clay Terry III. But he said Biryukova wanted to back out of the agreement in the days before she reported Sky’s disappearance.
Biryukova, who hasn’t been interviewed by police since Sunday evening, is answering questions through her attorney, Veronica Freitas, Johnson said. He said Biryukova has answered every question asked of her and is cooperating, though police would prefer “a little more direct communication” with her.
“It’s certainly not ideal from a law-enforcement perspective, but it’s the situation we find ourselves in. She is concerned about protecting her interests; she’s hired an attorney, and we’re being respectful of that,” Johnson said.
Lawyer defends mother
Freitas challenged the police characterization of Biryukova and said the mother has helped police in every way possible.
“She gave them her home, car, computer, cellphone. She talked to them for hours. What else is she supposed to do?” Freitas said Wednesday.
Freitas said she advised Biryukova not to take the polygraph test because Biryukova is emotionally overwhelmed and the tests are notoriously unreliable.
She told reporters to turn the question around and ask police what officers do when they are accused of wrongdoing. She said they refuse to make a statement until they’ve contacted their police union and have hired a high-priced lawyer.
Even then, investigators sometimes have to wait months to question officers directly, she said.
Johnson also said investigators want a small group of people close to Biryukova and her son to supply DNA samples so they can be compared to DNA evidence found in Biryukova’s vehicle and inside her Redmond apartment.
“We don’t know who a lot of the DNA [evidence] belongs to,” but the plan is to “match up known entities to eliminate them as suspects,” Johnson said.
Police have spoken to nearly every resident of Biryukova’s apartment complex, and one neighbor recalled seeing Sky about two weeks ago, the last reported sighting of the toddler, Johnson said.
“Julia and her children led a very reclusive lifestyle, and it was not uncommon for her not to be seen for periods of time,” he said.
Girl’s custody at issue
Meanwhile, during a court hearing in Kent on Wednesday, a court commissioner ruled that 4-year-old Maile will remain in foster care. She was taken into protective custody by Child Protective Services (CPS) on Sunday after her brother went missing.
Attorneys for Metalwala and Biryukova had asked the court commissioner to place Maile with Metalwala or one of his relatives.
However, CPS caseworker Heidi Stull said the agency had concerns about allegations the parents have filed against each other during their contentious divorce. She said the agency also was concerned about her brother’s disappearance.
Stull said CPS officials have learned Biryukova has left her children alone for extended periods in the past. She also cited the incident in 2009 when the parents left Sky, then 3 months old, alone in their car in a Target store parking lot. The parents were cited for reckless endangerment.
In addition, Stull said, Maile told CPS workers and a foster mother that her “dad was mean.”
The court commissioner, Elizabeth Castilleja, said she was concerned that the father had not seen his children since December and because there is a valid protection order limiting his contact with the children.
Biryukova, who did not attend the hearing on the advice of her attorney, had requested that Maile be placed with her estranged husband rather than a stranger, Freitas said.
Castilleja also denied a request by Biryukova to have supervised visits with her daughter. Authorities had argued that she might exert influence over her daughter’s recollection of her brother’s disappearance. Castilleja agreed that those concerns were valid.
Stull said CPS will run background checks on Metalwala’s family members to see if placement with a relative is suitable. Stull said that none of Biryukova’s relatives have offered to take Maile.
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Seattle Times news researchers David Turim and Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.