As December rolled in and the Christmas spirit began to ramp up all across the 209, Oakdale resident Tracy Gulcynski was feeling a dark melancholy that no twinkly lights could pierce.
The Christmas tree was up, but underneath there would be no presents for Gulcynski’s grandson Koltyn Sparks-Blackwood to unwrap. No action figures to make fly through the air. No blocks to stack up and then knock over. No bicycle with training wheels for his little legs to pedal.
Koltyn, a toddler with big, blue eyes, had a personality that his grandmother describes as “all boy.” Some of his first words were ‘vroom vroom,’ which he would shout out when he saw his daddy’s motorcycle. He had a hug at the ready for any puppies, cats and other kids that crossed his path. He could be lulled into sleep with some cuddle time and his favorite bedtime stories, and if he was really resisting slumber, a foot rub would likely get the job done.
“He was so affectionate,” Gulcynski said. “If he had a chance to climb up in bed with you and snuggle, he took it.”
The memories Gulcynski holds of her grandson are precious for so many reasons, but perhaps most poignantly because they are truncated. On Jan. 15, 2019, at the age of 23 months, Koltyn died after suffering a blunt force trauma, in what would later be determined as a homicide.
For Gulcynski and the rest of Koltyn’s family, the grief that remains with them after his death is like the pain from a new wound. And the anger over how he died has been palpable.
But even with this ever-present grief and a gnawing frustration, Gulcynski, along with her family and friends, were able to push it aside and created a community-wide effort that brought some much-needed joy to children and families in the Oakdale and Sonora area for the Christmas season. And they did it all with Koltyn’s name on their lips and his memory in their hearts.
Team Koltyn organized a toy and bike drive that resulted in more than 40 new bicycles being given to children and piles of wrapped toys to open on Christmas. In itself, the toy and bike drive is an admirable achievement, but it’s even more impressive that it was accomplished in just a few weeks — from the onset of the idea to distribution.
“It was about three weeks until Christmas when Koltyn’s aunt, Theresa Blackwood, came up with the idea of doing a toy drive in Koltyn’s name,” Gulcynski said. “His uncle put in the first $1,000 and Justice for Koltyn added $2,000 and we were off.”
From there the idea grew legs and took off running. Community members were inspired to join in and gave their money and their time to make it a success. One resident even made a $1,000 donation in Koltyn’s name to pay for a month’s stay at a local motel for a homeless family and then pay to have their car fixed.
“It was amazing how the community came out and supported this,” Gulcynski said. “People were shopping, donating and helping give the gifts out. There were so many who came out to help. It was very emotional and a lot of gratitude.”
The opportunity to spread so much joy in Koltyn’s name did them all so much good, Gulcynski said, and allowed them if just for a time to not have to focus on all the unanswered questions that remain in the wake of his death.
“It felt great to put something positive back into the community,” Gulcynski said.
On Jan. 15, 2019, Koltyn’s mother, Waterford resident Nicole Sparks, brought him in to Adventist Health Sonora with what was initially thought to be the flu. But when his condition continued to decline, he was transferred to UC Davis Children’s Hospital. It was there, surrounded by his family, that Koltyn passed.
“We were all there by him when he passed,” Gulcynski said. “It was hard to believe it was happening but we never believed it was the flu. We knew right away that someone had hurt him.”
From the onset Koltyn’s death was deemed suspicious, but was changed to a homicide after an autopsy showed he had sustained blunt force trauma to his abdomen, along with signs of shaken baby syndrome and smothering.
Prior to his death, Koltyn had been in the care of a babysitter, Joseph Maloney, who was the boyfriend of Koltyn’s mother. Koltyn’s father, Joshua Blackwood, is Gulcynski’s son.
Haunted by questions of what happened to this little boy, Gulcynski and Koltyn’s great-aunt Theresa Blackwood launched Justice for Koltyn. Through social media platforms, hashtags and in-person demonstrations, they have not ceased in their efforts to get answers. For more than two years they have carried on this campaign for justice and on Jan. 25, the Tuolumne County District Attorney’s Office filed charges against Sparks and Maloney.
Maloney is charged with second degree murder, assault on a child causing death, and child abuse under circumstances likely to cause great bodily injury or death. If convicted on all charges, Maloney faces up to a 25 year to life sentence in state prison.
Sparks is charged with child abuse under circumstances likely to cause great bodily injury or death. If convicted, Sparks faces up to six years in state prison.
Maloney was arrested at his home in Sonora in January. His bail is set at $1,000,000. Sparks’ arrest warrant remains outstanding. Her bail is set at $25,000.
“We would like to thank everyone that put in countless hours of hard work to make this arrest,” Koltyn’s family said in a released statement. “Especially the Sonora Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office. We would also like to thank all of the reporters that helped keep us going over the past two years. Now we can move forward and concentrate on Koltyn’s Law.”
Koltyn’s Law would require hospitals to make immediate notices to law enforcement and Child Protective Services when a child is brought to an emergency room with signs of traumatic injuries, likely caused by abuse.
The toy and bike drive was not the first event staged in Koltyn’s honor. Since his death a poker run and dinner have been held to raise funds with the primary goal of aiding children who have been abused. Gulcynski said the toy and bike drive will also become an annual event.
“It’s so easy to feel overcome by the grief,” Gulcynski said. “So, you have to do something positive and keep yourself strong. We do it for Koltyn.”