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Neighbors saw and heard, but tiny boy's torment went on and on

HOMOSASSA — They watched the frail child, wearing nothing but underwear in 30-degree weather, stand on the porch screaming and begging to be let back inside the mobile home.

Over the course of several months, they saw bruises and black eyes.

At least a half-dozen houses in the rural neighborhood sit within earshot of his house. But beyond a handful of anonymous calls to an abuse hotline giving scant details about a beaten boy, no one tried to help.

Because, neighbors said, they feared retribution from the adults in the house. Because they couldn't prove anything. Because surely, they thought, deputies would eventually take care of it.

But because no one had told law enforcement all that they saw, deputies couldn't help.

So, neighbors and investigators said, the abuse continued for nearly two years.

"I had adults who witnessed this stuff and didn't call," said Citrus County sheriff's Detective Kat Liotta, who later investigated and helped place the child, now 5, and his four brothers in homes.

"I'm here to tell you, if we had not sheltered this kid, he would have ended up dead," she said Tuesday. "There's no doubt in my mind. He was hated so much."

In that home on Lima Avenue, authorities say, the boy's mother and her live-in boyfriend locked him in a 4- by 4-foot closet for hours at a time. They forced him, Liotta said, to eat his own feces, drink his own urine and, once, to lick his own vomit from the kitchen floor.

Crystal Jean Ciampa and Joshua Louis Heater, both 26, were arrested Thursday and charged with aggravated child abuse, child neglect and tampering with a witness. She denied it all, but investigators said Heater implicated Ciampa and confessed to nearly everything.

Four times since February 2009, investigators with Citrus County's child protective team had responded to calls that the boy was covered with bruises.

But each time authorities went to the house, the boy either wouldn't speak at all or whispered that his now 9-year-old brother had hit him. His bruises alone, Liotta said, were never bad enough to file criminal charges or take the five boys away.

But in mid February, during an unrelated Sheriff's Office investigation into Heater, someone approached a deputy with pictures on her cell phone.

The photographs showed the 5-year-old's nose bloodied and both of his eyes blackened. The woman told authorities about the closet and what he was forced to eat. An investigator questioned and inspected the boy, who again blamed his older brother and denied everything else.

That day, the investigator found about 20 bruises on him. The next day authorities questioned him again at Jessie's Place, a child advocacy center in Citrus named after Jessica Lunsford, who was killed in 2005 only a few streets away from Lima Avenue. They counted 42 bruises.

The 5-year-old is the only child the 5-foot-11, 232-pound Ciampa is accused of abusing. Authorities said she did it because he reminded her of his father, her ex-husband.

From then until last week, Liotta built her case. She interviewed 12 people who said they witnessed abuse.

"I'm just looking at them in horror," she recalled, "and I say, 'And you called us?' "

"No."

"Why?"

"Well … "

Most of them, Liotta said, offered little explanation.

Eventually, though, she compiled the testimonies.

Even the boy told her what Ciampa and Heater had done to him, she said.

The detective, hardened by 26 years in law enforcement, was consumed with the case. Soon after she entered the mobile home, Liotta walked in the closet where she said the boy was kept. She shut the door and turned off the lights. The stench of urine was overwhelming. She wanted to know what the boy had felt in his prison.

When she noticed the closet doorknob had been removed, she rifled through the couple's garbage until she found it.

After Liotta made the arrests last week, she interviewed Ciampa and Heater. Liotta told Ciampa she needed to cooperate. She said the woman's response was: "What good is that going to do me?"

Heater, the detective said, insisted he was so addicted to prescription pills that he rarely took part in the abuse. Liotta said he admitted shutting the boy in the closet, but noted the door wasn't always locked.

"If the door wasn't always locked, the kid knew what happened to him if he came out," the detective said. "They didn't need a lock on that door to keep him there. Heater pretty much agreed with me on that."

Liotta said the amount of time it took authorities to stop the abuse still haunts her. She wonders if she did anything wrong. How the system might have failed. Why neighbors and relatives did almost nothing to stop the torture.

The last time she saw the boy, his body showed no bruises. He smiled and was proud of that.

News researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or jcox@sptimes.com.

Neighbors saw and heard, but tiny boy's torment went on and on 04/27/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 27, 2011 10:08am]

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