HOMOSASSA — When Billie Murray flicks on the lightbulb and stares into that closet, she wants to believe it's just a closet.
Not her grandson's prison.
Not a 4- by 4-foot cell where, authorities say, a now 5-year-old boy with dark eyes and wispy blond hair was locked away for hours. Where he was starved. Where he was forced to drink his own urine and eat his own feces.
She wants to believe her daughter, Crystal Jean Ciampa, could not have committed such horrors against her own son.
"You'd have to be more than an animal to do this," she said Monday. "I couldn't imagine that my daughter could …"
Murray stopped, unable to push the words out. Tears trickled down her cheeks.
The 26-year-old and her live-in boyfriend, Joshua Louis Heater, also 26, were arrested by Citrus County sheriff's deputies Thursday on counts of aggravated child abuse, child neglect and tampering with a witness. She denied it all. But Heater implicated Ciampa and confessed to nearly everything, investigators said, though Heater insisted he was so addicted to prescription pills that he rarely took part in the abuse.
Ciampa's five sons, fathered by three different men, had lived with the two in the mobile home on Lima Avenue until authorities removed them all in February. But the woman is accused of abusing only one. Because, she used to say, the little boy reminded her of his father, her ex-husband.
She punished him — tortured him — for nearly anything, authorities and neighbors say. For sneaking chocolate candy bars or sharing his toys. Once, a report says, Ciampa caught him taking a soda without her permission. She made him chug it until he threw up.
Then, she made him lick the vomit up from the floor, the report says.
Neighbors recall him standing outside in 30-degree weather once this winter, dressed only in his underwear. He begged his mother to let him back inside. Other times, he was locked outside during rainstorms, authorities say. People hundreds of yards away could hear his screams through the night.
Investigators have accused Ciampa of striking the little boy until his eyes were black and blood streamed from his nose. They say the couple burned him with a cigarette lighter, sliced his hands with a plastic cake cutter and, once, beat him so badly his body was covered in 42 bruises.
Since early 2009, Citrus authorities had received reports about Ciampa and Heater abusing the boy. But every time they investigated, the boy refused to talk or blamed his older brother. The bruises were concerning, investigators said, but they were never bad enough to file charges or take the kids away. Then, in mid February, authorities learned of the vomit incident and saw the boy wrapped with injuries, so all five boys — ranging in age from 2 months to 9 years — were removed and placed in either foster care or with relatives.
Since then, sheriff's Detective Kathleen Liotta conducted 12 interviews with people who corroborated the allegations. Even the boy, eventually, detailed the atrocities committed against him and admitted he was compelled to lie before. Many times, the boy said, he was forced to consume his own "poop" and "pee."
"It's unfathomable," said sheriff's Sgt. Mike Kanter, "that parents or caregivers would do that to their kids."
Ciampa and Heater, deputies told Murray, trafficked drugs from the house. A September report says two men, armed with a gun, stole 45 Somas and 110 oxycodone pills from them. Neighbors say they've seen dozens of cars pull into the driveway where Ciampa would meet them and sell prescription pills.
After hearing last week that the children had been taken, Murray quit her job managing a hotel in Virginia and drove down to Homosassa. Recently, she was told her grandson had been locked up after he looked at his presents before Christmas. She spoke to him Sunday about living with her. "'Grandma, I'm not going to get into the presents, so you don't have to put the lock on the door,'" she recalled him saying. "I just had to pause and cry."
The house is strewn with contradictions. Toy trucks, blocks and everything SpongeBob SquarePants is piled in one room, just feet away from 12 bottles of Jagermeister atop a cabinet. On a wall is the boys' "Job Chart": take out the trash, pick up toys and take showers. On a marker board tacked nearby, in Ciampa's handwriting, is a reminder to call a "child protection investigator."
The couple had bought three big-screen TVs, one 6 feet across, but Murray has spent nearly $3,000 — all that she has — covering Heater and her daughter's unpaid rent and electric bill.
Though she's 54, with diabetes, she intends to raise her grandchildren, if she gains custody.
"They didn't ask to be brung into this world," she said. "They deserve to have a beautiful life."
News researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1432.