SUNBURY, Pa. – Dante Welton died in his sleep, a victim of a gunshot inflicted by his mother early Wednesday.

The 11-year-old didn’t witness Nicole Welton, 32, point a handgun and pull the trigger and didn’t live to see her take her own life with the same gun inside a Lancaster County motel — and for that, Seth Welton is thankful.

“At least she did it while he was asleep,” Seth, 35, the boy’s father, said in an interview with The Daily Item, moments after ending a phone call with the Lancaster County Coroner’s Office.

Seth is left with grief. He’s left with unwrapped Christmas gifts Dante never got to open. He’s left with questions and he’s angry.

He wonders why an Amber Alert wasn’t granted as requested. He questions how Nicole received a protection from abuse order in a scenario where she ultimately withdrew it herself. He asks why police maintained that the matter between he and Nicole was best resolved in civil court after she fled the area, which he took as a signal Dante was in immediate danger.

“Given her increasingly erratic behavior, I felt like she was developing potential to do something to him just to keep him away from me. Unfortunately, that came true,” Seth said.

Seth and Nicole divorced in 2008. They coexisted with a shared custody agreement until 2016 when Seth filed for primary custody. He alleged Nicole threatened to move to Lancaster without his consent. They went to mediation and ultimately stuck to custody terms established as part of their divorce: one week on, one week off.

Seth again filed for primary custody in April. He alleged of the 68 school days Dante was in her custody, he had 26 absences and nine tardies or early dismissals. Seth wanted Dante but not exclusively. He sought an arrangement where Nicole had him three weekends a month.

Tensions and resentments heightened when in December, according to court documents, Northumberland County Judge Hugh Jones granted Nicole an emergency protection from abuse order against Seth. It was Dec. 18, two days after the last time Seth and Dante spoke.

Seth contested the PFA within hours on a lack of merit. Senior Judge Harold F. Woelfel dismissed it Jan. 2 after Nicole withdrew it herself. Dante and “Papa,” his name for Seth, locked eyes inside the Northumberland County Courthouse that day but didn’t have a chance to speak. By the time the dismissal was granted, Nicole left with Dante.

A boy is lost

Dante was a fifth-grader at Milton Area School District. His father called him a free spirit. Dante was a voracious reader. He read through the entire seven-book “Harry Potter” series after receiving them for Christmas in 2017. He loved video games, too, and hoped to launch a career creating videos for YouTube. Seth wanted him to focus on more practical endeavors first.

Seth remarried last May. He and his new wife, Nancy, each work as paramedics in Columbia and Luzerne counties.

Seth said Dante attended counseling regularly for years. The boy had been diagnosed with ADHD. He was well-liked at school but didn’t have many friends outside of it. Seth hoped to help Dante become more sociable. The experience of living with Nicole ran against it. His absences piled up. As of January, Seth said he’d missed about 50 days since last school year.

The last day father and son spent together was Dec. 16. Seth said they spent time with his family. They played the Harry Potter version of Trivial Pursuit. Dante excelled.

“He was very smart. He doesn’t often lose at games,” Nancy said.

“If he did,” Seth said, “it was probably to me.”

‘They’re both dead’

Judge Paige Rosini granted temporary custody to Seth on Jan. 4, according to court documents. Nicole didn’t comply. Seth went to her home that day. Nicole was gone. So was Dante. Seth said her mother claimed Nicole left a note, that she was going to visit family. He didn’t believe it.

He hoped to force her hand through the court system. Through his attorney, Joel Wiest, they sought an order Monday asking Rosini to issue an Amber Alert. Rosini declined. The judge on Thursday told The Daily Item there wasn’t enough evidence to warrant such action.

Nicole had no criminal record. There were no documented threats against Dante in court filings. Seth said aside from a vague comment that made him believe she was contemplating suicide, Nicole never made direct threats against Dante or herself. Nicole suffered from anxiety and depression while they were married and was treated with medication, Seth said. He said he wasn’t aware of additional mental health diagnoses in the years since they divorced.

Seth’s motion for primary custody was very much intact. A hearing was set for 10:45 a.m. Wednesday. Seth hoped to win custody. He did. Senior Judge Lawrence Clark ordered primary custody from the bench. It was little solace. Nicole and Dante weren’t there.

Seth promised to drop a push for criminal charges against Nicole based on the no-show. He wanted Dante back. There was a 3 p.m. deadline. Seth went to his mother’s home in Milton to wait it out. The phone rang. It was Milton police. They had an update.

“Maybe she dropped him off at the police station and then she fled,” Seth said.

Shortly after, a police cruiser arrived. Then a second. Then a third.

“I still thought when I was walking out I would see him in the back seat or something,” Seth said before pausing. “Then (officer Daniel) Embeck gave me the update. He said, ‘we found them in a hotel. They’re both dead.’”

“It’s different being on this side of it,” said Nancy, referring to her work as an emergency responder. “I’m usually the one going up to a family member saying, ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’”

Seth served in the military, first with the Air Force and then the Army. He officially separated from the Army on Friday. He didn’t want to re-enlist due to the custody battle.

He relied on his training. He began to ask questions. He said he learned through police investigators that Nicole bought a gun Monday. He said she didn’t have a job. He figures a relative gave her money.

Nicole had lived in West Milton. Online court records show she was evicted in August for failing to pay rent. Custody records show she last lived on Shakespeare Avenue with her mother, who declined comment for this story.

Nicole was being represented by attorney Stephanie Wilson, of Harrisburg, who did not return a phone call and email seeking comment about the incident.

Father hopes for changes

Lancaster County Coroner Stephen Diamantoni conducted an autopsy Thursday. He confirmed the murder-suicide, saying both Dante and Nicole died of a single gunshot between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. Diamantoni said there were no signs Dante suffered any physical abuse.

A manager at Americas Best Value Inn, 1320 Harrisburg Pike, Lancaster, discovered the two after they failed to check out, Seth said. Manheim Township Police investigated. A police spokesperson declined Thursday to provide any information.

Milton Police Chief Curt Zettlemoyer said Thursday that Nicole’s mother told police what Seth was told: that Nicole went to visit family. Zettlemoyer said there was no reason to believe Dante was in danger or that Nicole would harm herself.

“I feel horrific for this family,” Zettlemoyer said.

Seth spoke with Milton Area School District officials and discussed how to inform students and staff about the incident. District Superintendent Cathy Keegan said in a statement that grief counselors were available.

Seth figures Nicole stayed awake overnight. The two were dead before the custody hearing began.

Seth said he spoke out because he wanted people to know more about Dante and also to put out a call for change.

“If you can file a PFA against me with zero evidence and a completely stellar record baselessly and keep him away from me for 14 days, you can’t issue an Amber Alert to keep him away from someone who’s dangerous to the child?” Seth asked.

“Were the roles reversed and a baby daddy left with their kid, I’ve seen plenty of those Amber Alerts,” Seth said. “If you in your gut feel like something is wrong, it doesn’t hurt them to issue that.”