By Monique Ching
GARDENDALE, Texas (Reuters) - The sand-colored brick house with a red roof sits off a gravel road surrounded by farmland and oil fields in a tiny west Texas community thrust into a raging international debate over the death of a boy adopted from Russia.
It was in the backyard of this single-story house where Texas officials say 3-year-old Max Shatto was last seen alive on January 21, and authorities are still trying to piece together exactly how he died that day.
His adoptive mother says she found him unresponsive in the backyard and he was whisked away to the hospital where he died.
Thousands of miles away in the boy's native country, where he was born Maxim Kuzmin, outraged Russian officials say the boy may have been badly beaten and abused before his death, which demonstrates why the Moscow government's recently imposed ban on further American adoptions of Russian children was needed.
Unexpectedly caught in the middle of the controversy is a growing and fiercely independent community of about 1,600 people some 20 miles northwest of Midland, the childhood home of former U.S. President George W. Bush.
Gardendale voted two years ago to remain unincorporated despite a newly thriving oil industry that some said needed tighter local regulation.
"First, the oil field, now this," resident Vanessa Engeldahl said of the area's energy boom and Max's death as she left a local store. "It's just awful."
Engeldahl doesn't know Laura and Alan Shatto, the couple in town who adopted both Max and his 2-year-old biological brother.
Neither did any of several other people interviewed in Gardendale's tiny post office, or at one of two country stores in town or at a local oil and gas business that runs pipe into drilled holes.
Karima Nunez, a receptionist at a veterinary clinic, said that's not surprising given that Gardendale is not as tight-knit a community as outsiders might imagine. She said residents largely keep to themselves.
But most everyone here has heard the tragic story that has played out in recent news coverage around the globe.
Laura Shatto told investigators she was with her two sons as they played together in the family's backyard, then had to go inside momentarily, leaving the boys unattended, according to Ector County Sheriff Mark Donaldson. When the mother returned, Max was on the ground, unresponsive, Donaldson said.
The boy died at the hospital. An autopsy is pending and a criminal investigation is under way.
"We're going to find out what happened," Donaldson told Reuters on Wednesday. "He's a Texas boy, not a Russian kid to me."
Texas child welfare authorities also are investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect, and the priority is ensuring the safety of the 2-year-old boy, who remains in the home, said Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the state Department of Family and Protective Services.
Russian officials have opened their own inquiry, saying they are concerned the 3-year-old boy may have been badly beaten and that the Shatto case is the latest example of inhumane treatment of Russian children adopted by Americans.
Russia banned further U.S. adoptions as of January 1, 2013, in retaliation for the U.S. law known as the Magnitsky Act, passed in response to the death in a Russian prison of anti-corruption lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, in 2009. The Magnitsky Act will deny visas to Russians accused of human rights abuses and freeze their assets in the United States.
American families in recent years have adopted more children from Russia than from any other country, with more than 60,000 Russian child adoption cases documented in the United States since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
"It's a shame - other people may not be able to adopt now because of this," said Gardendale resident Terry Layman as she worked behind the counter at Mike's Country Store.
Not far away, at the Shattos' house, two pickup trucks sat out front on Wednesday afternoon, but no one answered the door. "No trespassing" signs were posted along the road leading to the house. Horses grazed on a neighbor's property.
Ricky Jennings, who owns Gardendale Grocery and has lived in the area since 1973, said he remembers when there was nothing but cotton fields on the land where the Shattos' house now sits.
Gardendale, as described by Jennings and other residents, is a place filled with retirees, oil field workers and commuters to Midland or nearby Odessa, and many of its residents come to enjoy the wide-open spaces or to avoid the scrutiny of government.
"We just like being on our own out here," Jennings said.
(Writing by Corrie MacLaggan; Editing by Steve Gorman and Lisa Shumaker)