Wisconsin Couple Starved Child, Forced Her To Eat Feces: Cops
MILWAUKEE -- A severely malnourished Wisconsin teenager found walking barefoot in pajamas outside in the cold last week had been forced to stay in an unfinished basement for years and an alarm would sound if she went upstairs, police records say.
The 15-year-old told authorities she ate what she could find in the garbage and on the floor of her father and stepmother's Madison home. Sometimes she was made to eat her own feces and drink her urine, according to a police affidavit.
When Mike Vega found the teen Feb. 6, he says she was crying and walking barefoot in thin pajamas. She was bleeding from a gash on her nose and other small scrapes and was so scrawny he mistook her for an 8-year-old.
"It was the most shocking thing I have ever seen," Vega, 31, said Wednesday, recalling the afternoon when he found her. "A little girl looking like that. I've never seen anybody look like that to be honest."
Her 40-year-old father and 42-year-old stepmother, whom The Associated Press is not naming to protect the girl's identity, were arrested Friday on suspicion of child abuse and neglect, and a judge set their bail Tuesday at $20,000 each.
A hearing was set for Thursday to review the bail and discuss the status of the potential charges, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne said. He said he was waiting to receive the evidence and couldn't comment on when charges might be filed.
Madison police spokesman Joel DeSpain said the girl was getting follow-up medical treatment and remained in protective custody.
A doctor quoted in police reports said what the girl went through before Vega found her amounted to "torture."
The girl said her father and stepmother had forced her to stay in the basement since 2006. She told authorities she would have to scrounge for food and at times was made to eat her feces and drink her own urine.
She told authorities that she had to ask her stepmother for permission to eat, drink water or use the bathroom upstairs. She said if she was caught eating without permission, the couple would make her throw out the food or vomit it back up.
Vega, who lives about a mile from the girl and her family, said he was driving on a busy street not far from home when he spotted her. As he slowly passed her, he looked through his rearview mirror and saw her bare feet. He backed up and she told him she needed help.
Once she was inside Vega's car, he noticed her bloody scrapes and a large bruise on her forehead. The girl's feet were purple from the cold, he said.
She was scared at first, but Vega said she became more comfortable after he showed her photos of his three young sons and a Mary Poppins video on his cellphone.
According to police records, the girl told authorities she had been let out of the basement that day to "clean some papers" for her stepmother and that the woman became angry because she wasn't working fast enough.
The teen told Vega the stepmother threw her back downstairs but she managed to escape out a window. Vega said the girl told him she feared the woman would throw her down the stairs again. She said the woman even threatened to kill her.
Vega said the girl "wasn't crying, wasn't hysterical" when she spoke about her stepmother's alleged death threat. "But it wasn't nonchalant either," he said. "You could see fear in her eyes. It was very disturbing."
The girl only weighed 70 pounds. Barbara Knox, a physician at American Family Children's Hospital quoted in the police reports, told officers the malnutrition the girl suffered "poses a significant risk of death" and that chronic starvation had caused her puberty to be arrested. Knox also said the girl would be at high risk for other disorders and complications that can lead to death.
The teen said her stepmother homeschooled her using a third-grade workbook, according to the affidavit.
Neighbors concerned about the girl have called authorities at least twice in the past, but they're not sure if anything was done.
Mark Stuntebeck, 44, said he's seen the girl taking out the trash and scavenging through it to find food. "She seemed to be hiding and munching on crumbs or remnants of something," said Stuntebeck, who lives next door.
Melissa Clark said she heard the teen's family berating her inside the house, but the girl rarely came outside. Clark's mother was visiting from Florida last year and called child protective services, Clark said.
Once, the teen's parents yelled at her for showing too much skin when she was bent over and her blouse hung off her, Clark said. "It was horrible," said Clark, 38, who lives across the street. "She was treated like Cinderella."
State Department of Health Services spokesman Sara Buschman said she couldn't comment Wednesday.
The girl's 18-year-old stepbrother also was arrested on a probation and parole hold. DeSpain said he couldn't comment on the arrest. Two other minors in the home were taken into protective custody, DeSpain said.
Police said they encountered the girl in 2007, when someone alleged she might have been molested by a family member. The girl did not corroborate the allegation and her family was not cooperative, police said.
She appeared healthy at the time, police said.
Vega said he has never felt worse about anything in his life.
"That night (after finding the teen) I said to my wife we need to pray for that girl because no one else cares or prays for her," he said. "You couldn't imagine – as a parent or even as a human you couldn't imagine – the look on her face and how sick she looked and know somebody was ultimately responsible for that."
Associated Press writer Todd Richmond in Madison and AP News Researcher Julie Reed in Charlotte, N.C., contributed to this report.