Prince Elias McLeod Rams (family photo)

By all accounts, Prince McLeod Rams was a happy, well-loved little boy. He lived in Maryland with his mother, Hera McLeod, who adored him, and regularly visited his father, Joaquin S. Rams, who lived in Virginia. On one of those visits to his father, Prince collapsed and died. He was 15 months old.

On Monday, a trial will begin in Prince William County to decide whether the toddler died a natural death or, as prosecutors contend, was killed by his father for a life insurance payout. In one of many unusual aspects of the case, the verdict will be rendered by a judge, not a jury. Four years after Rams was arrested, prosecutors withdrew the death penalty from the case, a major victory for the defense. In exchange, the defense agreed to waive a jury trial and have the case decided by Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy I. Bellows, a former federal prosecutor who defense lawyers say is one of the toughest sentencing judges in Fairfax.

So Bellows will know things that a jury would never have heard — namely that Rams was suspected (but not charged) in the 2003 shooting death of his ex-girlfriend and in the 2008 asphyxiation of his mother (ruled a suicide). He will also know that both women had life insurance policies, one that Rams did not collect and one that he did, for $162,000, all evidence that the judge can’t take into account because it had already been ruled inadmissible for a jury.

The death of Prince in October 2012 and the prosecution of his father have been followed by a sequence of startling twists that will conclude with the rare circumstance of a judge being the sole arbiter of a murder trial. In the meantime, lawyers on both sides dropped out of the case after years on it, as did the original judge. A special grand jury was launched. The official cause of death changed. Jailhouse informants entered the case.

Prosecutors say their case will take less than a week to present, and the seemingly complex case is likely to be over by early April, perhaps boiling down to a clash of experts over how Prince died and whether that was even a homicide.

The crucial moments in the case occurred on Oct. 20, 2012, when paramedics were summoned to Rams’s home in Manassas City, Va., for an unresponsive child. On arrival, the paramedics found Prince, naked, wet and not breathing, wrapped in a towel on the floor. The toddler was rushed to Prince William Hospital, but records show he wasn’t revived for 40 minutes. He was flown to Inova Fairfax Hospital and placed on life support, but he died the next day.

“I did not harm my son,” Rams said in a written statement in 2013, after he’d been charged with murder. “It breaks my heart to think that anyone would believe that I did. I’m still shocked to learn how sick Prince was.” He has pleaded not guilty, and defense lawyers declined to say whether he would testify in his own defense.

“Either he’s the most unlucky person around,” McLeod, Prince’s mother, said in 2013, “or he’s a serial killer.”

In life, Prince was the subject of a heated custody battle started soon after his birth in 2011, his mother pleading with a Montgomery County, Md., judge not to allow Prince’s father near the boy. After the toddler’s death, a Virginia medical examiner ruled in 2013 that Prince had drowned, but a year later that finding was reversed, and the official cause of death is now “undetermined.”

Prosecutors plan to stick with their theory that Rams drowned his son. Rams’s attorneys have experts lined up to say that the boy didn’t drown and that the series of six febrile seizures Prince suffered in the months before his death were a more likely contributor. They also have three witnesses in the Manassas City house where the boy fell unconscious who say that Rams did not drown his son.

The other part of the prosecution’s case is their theory that Rams was having financial problems and killed his son to collect insurance money. What Bellows will hear in evidence is that Rams took out $524,000 in life insurance policies on Prince shortly after he was born in 2011. Rams’s attorneys claim that he intended to take out a policy only on himself but was persuaded to add policies for his children as college savings vehicles.

Prosecutors say the backstory to the life of Joaquin Rams, 44, who has spent the last four years in the Prince William jail, shows the character of a man who would kill his son. But how much of that will be admissible is unclear, and Bellows cannot base his verdict on facts not in evidence, even if he is otherwise aware of them.

Rams was born John Anthony Ramirez in New York City in 1972, though he has often used 1977 as a birth year, and prosecutors have charged him with multiple counts of fraud for doing so. His first son, Joaquin Shadow Rams Jr., was born to Rams’s girlfriend Shawn K. Mason in 1999, and Rams formally changed his name to Joaquin Shadow Rams in 2002.

Mason and Rams broke up, and Rams was granted custody of his son. In March 2003, Rams was spotted breaking into Mason’s house, and police found her with a single gunshot wound to the head, apparently dead for at least a day. Rams told Manassas City police that he was concerned after not hearing from her, and police said he cooperated with the investigation.

Mason had a $142,000 life insurance policy, and prosecutors believe Rams tried to collect, but their son Joaquin Jr. was the beneficiary and the money was placed in a trust.

In 2008, Rams’s mother, Alma Collins, was found asphyxiated at her home in Bristow, a plastic bag around her head and a suicide note by her side. The medical examiner ruled the death a suicide and Prince William police agreed. Rams collected a $162,000 death benefit.

Prince William prosecutors wanted to use both of these cases in the murder trial, but then-Judge Craig Johnston rejected that idea in 2014.

Rams met Prince’s mother, McLeod, through an online dating site in February 2010, and they seemed to have a smooth courtship. Rams posted love notes McLeod sent him in an online blog. When McLeod became pregnant, the couple became engaged, and McLeod gave birth on July 1, 2011.

Two weeks later, Rams slept with McLeod’s younger sister, court records show. McLeod took Prince and left, setting off a custody battle in Montgomery County. McLeod’s attorneys presented details about Rams’s past, including launching an “adults online” nude modeling website, and his seeming lack of steady employment. McLeod was granted sole custody of Prince in March 2012, and Rams was allowed supervised visits. Then in August 2012, he was granted unsupervised visits every other Saturday.

On one of those visits, in September 2012, Prince had a febrile seizure in Manassas, and then three more seizures in the next 24 hours, defense records show. Prince had two more febrile seizures in subsequent weeks, which experts said could be an indication of a more serious condition.

Then on Oct. 20, 2012, Rams says that Prince had another seizure while lying in a crib next to Joaquin Rams Jr., then 13. Rams told police that he rushed Prince to the bathtub to splash water on him, to lower his temperature, and court records show Joaquin Jr. told prosecutors in May 2013 that he followed his father to the bathroom and watched this, and that there was no water in the tub because there was no stopper.

Joaquin Jr. ran to housemate Roger Jestice to tell him to call 911. Both then returned to the bathroom and saw Rams splashing water on the boy. “Was there any water in the tub at all?” prosecutor Sandy Sylvester asked the teen. “No,” Joaquin Jr. replied. “From when my dad brought him into the tub there was no water in it . . . because the plug wasn’t there.”

Roger Jestice and his wife, Sue Jestice, gave similar accounts. Still, Prince William prosecutors empaneled a special grand jury to investigate Rams, and the panel indicted him on capital murder. At least four fellow inmates of Rams apparently testified at the grand jury, and at least two are expected to testify at trial. If convicted, Rams would face life without parole.

The trial is expected to last about four weeks.