MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A judge postponed preliminary hearings for a father and stepmother accused of forcing the man’s daughter to live for years in the sparse basement of their Wisconsin home and denying her sufficient food after they appeared in court Thursday without attorneys.
The severely malnourished 15-year-old girl has told investigators her father agreed to give her to her stepmother in exchange for marrying him. She said her stepmother beat her, forced her to do chores and demanded to be called “master.” She said her stepbrother repeatedly forced her to perform oral sex on him.
The father and stepmother have both been charged with child abuse, child neglect and reckless endangerment. The girl’s 18-year-old stepbrother faces a child abuse charge and two counts of sexual assault. The Associated Press isn’t naming them to avoid identifying the girl. The AP does not usually name victims of sexual assault.
Preliminary hearings had been scheduled for all three Thursday, but Judge Amy R. Smith agreed to postpone the proceedings for the father and stepmother after the state public defender’s office said neither qualified for free representation.
The judge would use the hearings to determine if there’s enough evidence to order a trial.
The stepbrother waived his right to a hearing. His attorney, Ronald Benavides, declined to comment.
The burden of proof to force a defendant to trial is low and court documents suggest prosecutors were prepared to play a videotaped testimony from the girl.
The girl told investigators she spent most of the last five years in the basement of the family’s home. She could open the basement door, but was afraid an alarm and motion sensors would alert her stepmother.
Most of the food she ate was scraps she found on the floor or in the garbage. She was forced to bathe in a basement sink and relieved herself in boxes or containers. If she made a mess, she said “they will make me eat it. Or drink it or rub it on my face.”
She tried to escape several times, but her family always found her and brought her back. She ran away on Feb. 6 after her stepmother threatened to throw her down the stairs. A passing motorist found her wandering the streets, barefoot and thinly dressed. She weighed 70 pounds.
She’s now in foster care and doing fine, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne said. She gained 17 pounds after about a week under doctors’ care, according to court documents.
Her father and stepmother each face 11 years and three months in prison if they’re convicted on all counts. The stepbrother faces 68 years.
Unable to produce bail money, all three appeared in court Thursday in blue jail jumpsuits and handcuffs. Baliffs wheeled the stepmother into court in a wheelchair.
The stepmother told the judge she’s having trouble filling out her county attorney application because jail staff won’t give her any writing instruments. Smith said she would ask the jail to provide her with one. The father said he wants to help police with their investigation but wants a lawyer with him when he talks. He said he suffers from a learning disability and was having trouble understanding what was going on. He did not elaborate.
Smith set a status conference in both cases for March 2.
Bailiffs escorted them back to jail immediately after the proceedings and reporters had no opportunity to try to speak with them in court. Ozanne said later he had no information about the father’s learning disability.
The stepbrother said little, giving the judge “yes” or “no” answers when she asked him if he understood his right to a hearing and whether he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.