02/14/2013 04:07 EST | Updated 04/16/2013 05:12 EDT

David Stephan, Collet Stephan's Charges Targeted: Family


RAYMOND, Alta. - A relative of an Alberta couple charged after a toddler died of meningitis thinks the family's belief in nutritional supplements is behind an "overzealous" prosecution.

David and Collet Stephan have been charged with failing to provide the necessities of life for their 19-month-old son, Ezekiel.

The child died nearly a year ago and RCMP charged the couple this week. The 29-year-old man and 32-year-old woman, from the town of Glenwood, are to appear in Lethbridge court in May.

"Whatever's going on here stinks," the man's brother Brad Stephan said Thursday. "I don't see anybody else getting charged for having meningitis.

"I almost have to wonder if we don't have an officer somewhere or someone just acting overzealous ... We just feel this is just really over the top and we're not understanding why."

It's unclear whether Mounties are alleging the couple didn't act quickly enough to get their son proper medical treatment. The RCMP have simply said the boy fell ill in February 2012 and it wasn't until March 13, when he stopped breathing, that his parents called for an ambulance.

Family said officers questioned the couple for hours after they arrived at Alberta Children's Hospital in Calgary. The boy was placed on life-support machines and died five days later.

An autopsy confirmed he had a bacterial infection that spread into his bloodstream and lungs, causing meningitis, Brad Stephan said. Meningitis symptoms, such as fever and rash, can at first appear mild but quickly escalate. The condition can be fatal within a few hours.

Brad Stephan said the couple loved their son. They simply didn't know he was so sick.

The curly-haired tyke had developed a cough but he appeared to be getting better. Hours before he stopped breathing, he was an active little boy, said his uncle.

"He was playing with his dad. He was eating. Everything seemed good."

Brad Stephan said he thinks the family's involvement in the natural medicine industry played a role in the charges.

Anthony Stephan, the patriarch of the family, co-founded Truehope Nutritional Support in 1996 after his wife committed suicide. She and some of the couple's children were diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Anthony Stephan knew that violent behaviour in hogs was mitigated well with mineral supplements, so he and business partner David Hardy formulated a human version.

Truehope, based out of the town of Raymond, fought to have Health Canada approve its product for more than a decade before an Alberta judge ruled that it could be sold here as a drug. It's now shipped to more than 100 countries.

Brad Stephan, chief operating officer of the company, said he just can't understand where police are coming from.

He said he's not sure what exact steps the couple took to take care of the boy, but they all see doctors and use traditional drugs.

"We're not anti-establishment or anti-medicine. Some people like to paint us with that brush."

RCMP would not comment further on the case and said the facts will be explained later in court.

The parents, who have two other children, issued a statement after they were charged saying they treated the sick child as any good parent would. They also blamed an ambulance that took 40 minutes and wasn't equipped with intubation equipment for small children as contributing to his death.

Brad Stephan said he has six kids himself and doesn't always rush them to the doctor. "I've taken them in and I've been sent home with kids that are sick and told you've just got to ride it out."

He said police and hospital staff may also have questioned why the couple didn't want to take their son off life support when it was clear he was brain dead. They just wanted a few more days to see if there was any natural medicine that might help him.

"I can't blame them for trying. In fact, I don't see that as inappropriate ... These guys were so distraught and so desperate, they just wanted to find something. And that seems to be coming out as a negative."