A Trenton couple accused of starving and neglecting their 6-year-old adoptive daughter have pleaded guilty to felony child abuse two weeks before the case was scheduled for trial.
Christopher Allen Tucker, 36, pleaded guilty Wednesday to second-degree felony child abuse and Becky Lynn Tucker, 34, pleaded to a third-degree count. The couple also agreed to relinquish parental rights to the neglected girl, now 7, and her 4-year-old half-sister.The case had been moved from Cache Valley on a change-of-venue motion by the defense, citing pretrial publicity.
The girl's plight had attracted statewide attention after a state caseworker, responding to a tip from a neighbor, found the malnourished 6-year-old locked in a basement room of the family's home with bare bedsprings and a tub of murky water. When found on Nov. 4, the girl weighed just 32 pounds.
Third District Judge Leslie Lewis, who accepted the Tuckers' pleas, was horrified by the condition in which the girl was found.
"It's impossible to believe the extent of the injuries without looking at these photographs," Lewis told the Tuckers. "I thought I had seen it all."
Cache County Attorney Scott Wyatt said he will seek prison time for both when they are sentenced May 14. Christopher Tucker faces a possible one to 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine; Becky Tucker could get zero to five years and a $5,000 fine.
Wyatt said information about a 3-year-old foster child who died in the Tuckers' care in Coldwater, Mich., also may be presented at sentencing.
Lewis appeared frustrated several times with both Tuckers' failure to explain the condition of the child, known as B.T.
"(B.T.) had some disciplinary problems and emotional problems which caused her to have severe problems and I didn't take her to a hospital or doctor," Christopher Tucker said.
Lewis wasn't satisfied.
"Did you see burns on her body?" Lewis asked.
"I saw the sores," Christopher Tucker replied.
"Did you see fungus on her feet?"
"I did not, ma'am."
"Did you see the condition of her bottom, the severe bruises and the skeletal nature of the body? Did you witness that?"
"Yes, I did."
"How did she get in this condition?"
"I neglected her care," Tucker said.
Later, Lewis asked, "You understand the child was close to death?"
"Yes, ma'am," he said, and added, his voice shaking, "Ma'am, this was my fault."
Lewis also grilled Becky Tucker, thrice forcing her to look at photographs of the child. The defendant insisted she knew the child was thin, but didn't know she had sores, bruises on her legs and fungus on her feet.
"I didn't give her the love and the care she needed," she said, near tears.
Christopher Tucker told the judge he had tried to feed the girl, but she had refused food. His wife said they had locked her in the basement room off and on for five months because the child would defecate on the floor.
He said the bucket of water was used to wash the child and her mattress was being cleaned when investigators found only steel bed-springs.
The girl had reportedly suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, and defense attorneys said that was expected to be key to their defense. But Wyatt said prosecutors could prove conclusively the girl didn't have the syndrome.
"They've provided all kinds of excuses for why she behaved the way she behaved," Wyatt said later. "It's our position that she behaved that way because she was treated so poorly."
Wyatt said the girl put on six pounds in the first five days she was in state custody. Her weight is now up to 53 pounds and she is "obsessed with eating," although her growth remains stunted both emotionally and physically and she still has the distended stomach associated with severe malnutrition.
Shannon Demler, Becky Tucker's attorney, said attorneys had been negotiating the agreement for some time.
"I think it came to the point where we were all under the gun with the trial coming up," Demler said. "Sometimes you have to stop and take responsibility for what you've done."
J. Bruce Savage, attorney for Christopher Tucker, said prosecutors offered to reduce the original second-degree felony child abuse charges for only one of the two Tuckers.
"It was left to the Tuckers to decide who would take which plea," he said. Relinquishing parental rights was "devastating" for the couple. "They cried for a long time," Savage said.
The Tuckers' two biological children, ages 14 and 15, will remain in the couple's custody, but a guardian ad litem will be responsible for assuring their well-being.
"If I find anything is wrong with these two children in your care, I'll have you in jail so fast your head will spin," Lewis warned.