Ten-year-old Kayden Culp, a special-needs child who has a hearing impairment and speaks with a lisp, had been bullied in the past, relatives said.
Other boys he considered his friends “would make fun of him and pick on him and tease him,” his mother, Tristyn Hatchett, told the San Antonio Express‑News. “He was usually the brunt of that kind of joke, but he kept playing with them.”
On Sunday afternoon, Kayden hopped on his bike and headed out to play with three boys in a shed not far from home in Kerrville, Tex., relatives said.
Not long after, his parents received some alarming news: That shed was on fire.
Relatives rushed to the scene.
“We went out there not knowing it was Kayden on fire,” his aunt, Tanya Kasper, told The Washington Post.
When first responders arrived, they found Kayden “severely burned,” and he was airlifted to a hospital, police and fire officials said in a joint statement.
Family members and police said the boy was placed in a coma while his medical team tended to his second- and third-degree burns, which covered 20 percent of his body, from his bottom lip to his belly button.
In an ambulance, Kayden told his family that another boy “did this to me — he set me on fire,” his aunt said. “We haven’t heard his voice since Sunday.”
But the accounts from Kayden’s family and the authorities in Kerrville tell different stories.
Family members had alleged that one of the boys doused Kayden with gasoline and another set him on fire.
“This was no accident!” Hatchett, Kayden’s mother, wrote on Facebook earlier this week.
“I need the police to arrest the … boys involved with the pre-meditated attempted murder of my 10 yr old son Kayden Culp!” she wrote.
“There’s no reason they should not already be incarcerated,” she added to the Express-News. “The other boys who were there [have] been telling kids at school that it was not an accident, that it was intentional.”
Kasper, the boy’s aunt, said family members cannot comprehend “somebody being so young having an intention to hurt another child.”
Indeed, the Kerrville Fire Marshal’s Office, which is investigating the incident, said in a statement Wednesday that a “juvenile has been identified as the individual responsible for causing the victim’s severe burns.” Authorities said a juvenile was taken into custody and charged with first-degree arson, a felony.
But at a news conference Thursday, Kerrville Fire Chief Dannie Smith said that “based on the results of our preliminary investigation, it does not appear that this event was premeditated or that there was any intent to harm any of the juveniles present.”
“We have not been able to produce any evidence to suggest that there was any intent to commit bodily injury to any of the four juveniles,” the chief told reporters, according to CBS affiliate KENS.
Police Chief David Knight told reporters that the juvenile who was charged threw accelerant onto an existing fire in the shed and that the flames ignited the container. When the boy “discarded” the burning accelerant container, it “inadvertently” struck Kayden, Knight said.
The chief said investigators believe the three boys and Kayden were “friendly” with each other and that “no one was coerced to be there.”
But Kasper, the boy’s aunt, told KENS that her nephew was only friends with one of those boys.
“They weren’t friends,” she said. “At least one of them we know about had a past with him. He didn’t like Kayden.”
Ashley White, a family friend, told the Express-News she had seen the boys playing in the area and, later, she heard sirens and saw the smoke spilling from the shed.
She phoned Kayden’s parents.
“They later said a lady up the street had helped put the fire on Kayden out,” she told the newspaper.
“I’m praying it was an accident,” she said. “But if it wasn’t an accident, justice needs to be served, because no child deserves to go through what he’s going through.”
Kayden’s mother said Thursday morning that Kayden’s condition is improving.
“They have taken him off the epinephrine,” Hatchett wrote on Facebook. “He was able to stabilize his heart rate and blood pressure on his own all night. Still on feeding and breathing machines. He is going in for his second dressing change soon. We will know more about the severity of his burns and lung damage afterwards. His swelling seems to be reducing now. The last dressing change caused him to plummet.”
She added: “We want to thank everyone, everywhere for all of the thoughts, prayers and support. I can’t express how grateful we are. Truly amazing. We need the good to outweigh the evil.”
Late Thursday night, she added that Kayden “has done fairly well” in recovery.
“He has 3rd degree burns on his arm, neck and chest,” she wrote. “He will be getting skin grafts tomorrow. He is fighting infection and pneumonia now. Blood pressure and heart rate still doing well. Please keep praying.”
Hatchett also said she is seeking an attorney for her son.
Relatives call Kayden a loving child who struggles to fit in.
He has shown signs of autism, they said, but the disorder has not been diagnosed.
“Life has been a challenge from the get-go,” said Kasper, his aunt.
Kasper set up a GoFundMe page, writing that her nephew “needs prayers and lots of support. … Money is something that will not fix everything, but it will give the parents a chance to stay beside him and his other siblings. Kayden is going to change the world and he is now a voice for other children that are dealing with a ‘bully’.”
The campaign raised more than $29,000 before Kasper announced Friday morning that she was closing the account.
“I want to thank everyone that has contributed to the cause,” she wrote. “I am closing the account with the faith and gratitude that #TEAMKAYDEN has raised enough money to be able to start helping our family lay the foundation to solid new beginnings for this cause.”
A YouCaring site, which has raised $192,000, says: “He’s going to be in the hospital for quite a while enduring something no person, let alone a child, should ever have to go through.”