David "D.J." Creato Jr. said he believed a spirit drew his 3-year-old son, Brendan, to a spot in the woods where the boy was found dead, prosecutors said Thursday in revealing a conversation secretly recorded by the boy's mother.
Creato, 23, now charged with murder, had frequented that same spot, at times around 2 to 3 a.m., and considered it a spiritual place, Assistant Prosecutor Christine Shah said during her half-hour opening statement at his trial in Superior Court in Camden.
Creato said "he loves to go down there, goes down there all the time," Shah told jurors.
The boy's mother, Samantha Denoto, who did not live with Creato, later testified she made the recording at the behest of investigators at the home of Creato's mother about a month after the slaying.
Denoto called Creato's reasoning "completely odd and unexplainable."
"It's not logical," she said.
Prosecutors have said Creato killed Brendan to stop his girlfriend, whom he met on the dating app Tinder, from leaving him.
Brendan's pajamas-clad body was found slumped over a rock in woods near the Cooper River in Haddon Township on Oct. 13, 2015, several hours after Creato had called 911 and reported him missing. The father was charged three months later.
In his 15-minute opening statement Thursday, Creato's attorney, Richard J. Fuschino Jr., said, "I represent an innocent person," and asked Creato to stand up for jurors. Creato, wearing a dark blue suit, his hair tied in a ponytail, did so and then sat down.
Fuschino called Brendan's death horrible but said Creato did nothing but love his son.
Creato is spiritual, Fuschino said. And while that may make people uncomfortable, he said, "that's not what makes a person guilty."
Prosecutors have said that Brendan died of "homicidal violence" and that an examination of his brain showed an abnormality consistent with oxygen deprivation that can be caused by asphyxiation, drowning, or strangulation.
An exact cause of death was never determined.
Shah told jurors that Creato was consumed by jealousy at the time Brendan died. Creato's girlfriend, Julia Stensky, 17 at the time, was attending Pace University in New York, and Creato was worried she was talking to other men — which she was, Shah said.
Stensky also did not like children, according to Shah, and told Creato she wanted Brendan to not be around when she and Creato were together.
"I don't have a choice," Creato told Stensky at one point in a text message, Shah said. "I want you to not have a kid in your life," Stensky told him, according to Shah.
The night Brendan disappeared, Stensky was at college. Creato called her 10 times and repeatedly signed in to her social-media accounts, including Snapchat, from his iPhone, Shah said. She never responded.
"He was very upset with Julia that night," Shah said.
Shah told jurors she plans to reveal up to 2,500 of the 9,487 text messages Stensky and Creato exchanged after meeting in June 2015 on Tinder. Stensky is not facing charges in Brendan's death.
The jury of 11 women and three men also saw pictures Thursday of the inside of Creato's second-floor apartment and the living-room couch where Creato told investigators he had put Brendan to sleep the night he disappeared.
Denoto testified that she ran to her car barefoot, still in the shorts and T-shirt she had slept in, after Creato called her and said he couldn't find Brendan. She then arrived in the neighborhood and searched. Many residents also searched after receiving a reverse 911 call from police about Brendan's disappearance.
Denoto said she and Creato started dating when she was 13 and continued through high school. She hadn't planned to have a baby when she became pregnant with Brendan in 2011, shortly after graduating, she said.
Denoto said that Creato was a supportive father — she lived in his family's home for some time — but that they separated when Brendan was about 2.
They stayed in touch through text messages and shared custody of Brendan. Both Creato and Denoto were also responsible for paying for his preschool.
Shah said Creato, who worked at his father's window business, struggled financially and sometimes failed to make the payments. Denoto said Creato owed $100 each week.
At another point during Thursday's hearing, Shah mentioned that Creato had a pet rat. Shah then asked Denoto — though it was unclear whether the questions were related — whether she remembered receiving a text about Creato's getting physical with Brendan.
Denoto said she could not remember, and Fuschino objected to the question. He and Shah then spoke privately to Judge John T. Kelley, and Shah did not return to the matter.
After the hearing, Creato's father, David Sr., said, "I had no idea where they were going with that question," though he guessed, "I think maybe because it's a peculiar pet."