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Tampa father tortured child over porn, police say

TAMPA — The allegation was horrifying: A father used water torture to punish his 10-year-old daughter for finding his pornography.

Moslim Al-Assadi, 35, was arrested last week on a charge of aggravated child abuse. Police say he tied his daughter's hands behind her back about nine months ago and plunged her head under water in a bathtub. She struggled for breath, her younger siblings said.

It was not the first allegation of mistreatment involving Al-Assadi.

Authorities have responded to six calls of alleged mistreatment since the family moved to Tampa in 2006. Each time the father was protected by the same children he was accused of abusing.

Ages 8, 9 and 10, the three siblings have cried and told of beatings during interviews with police. But they also said they loved their father and, at times, disputed their own accounts.

In July, when the children first spoke of the daughter's water torture, they told police they were "taught a lesson" by their father's punishment. On a return visit, they apologized for lying.

Now, the children say their allegations are true.

"I'm not afraid of my dad, but I was when my sister was in the bathtub," one child told police. "We have not talked about this with each other. My sister is scared of him."

Police say she minimized the abuse.

"I think she was protecting her dad," said Tampa police spokesman Jim Contento.

While with the children at their rented home at 1910 W Patterson St. in July, their mother, Arlene Heintzelman, asked police to take her children to a domestic violence shelter, according to a police report. She said Al-Assadi had been beating the children and they were afraid.

But police wrote that the 9-year-old son "looked around and quietly whispered (with tears in his eyes) 'my mom told us to tell you daddy hurt us,' " police wrote. Confused by the conflicting reports and lack of physical evidence, no charges were filed.

Heintzelman, 34, stayed in Pennsylvania when Al-Assadi moved but retains the right to supervised visits, according to Hillsborough court documents.

In 2003, two of the children fell from a two-story window while under her watch, according to Northumberland County court documents. Al-Assadi's attorney said Heintzelman was unemployed, unable to contribute support and had "a history of neglect." Messages left with Heintzelman were not returned.

The state Department of Children and Families has investigated the children's care each year since 2006. For two years an anonymous caller reported that the children were provided "inadequate supervision." In 2006, a caregiver was blamed. In 2007, the father.

Last year, a caller said the children faced bizarre punishment, inadequate supervision, physical injury and threats of harm, said DCF spokeswoman Erin Gillespie. Like previous cases, officials found "no indicator" the allegations were true. But unlike the other cases, the caller said the mother was the alleged abuser.

The DCF has one open case involving allegations that the father "threatened harm,'' sparked by a call repeating the water torture allegations on March 31. Al-Assadi was arrested two days later.

Deputies went to Oak Grove Elementary School to interview the children, who again spoke of spankings, slappings and the oldest daughter's submersion.

"She said that she recalls telling someone about this before but told them she was lying because she (did) not want her father taken away," police wrote. "She said she knows what he did was wrong. He told her he loved her no matter what she did."

Such protection by children, even in the face of abuse, isn't uncommon, said one psychologist.

"Children who have experienced abuse have a heightened need for the comfort and security" that parents can provide, said Lauren Fasig, the director of research at the University of Florida's Fredric G. Levin College of Law Center on Children and Families. "This need may outweigh the perceived threat."

Neighbors said Al-Assadi was a contract worker, paid hourly at one of Tampa Electric's power plants. A company spokesman couldn't verify the claim. Al-Assadi told police he worked as an electrician but was laid off in January.

Al-Assadi moved to the United States from Iraq when he was 19, neighbors said. After moving to Florida, he and his children lived in his Dodge Durango until moving in with a family who would become his landlord. Neighbors saw the children playing in the yard or carrying laundry. Al-Assadi was a calm father, they said, adding they had heard no allegations of abuse until his arrest.

"My dad never hits us," one child told police. "If he did hit me, I'd tell you right away. I love him, but I just …" The girl couldn't finish her sentence, an officer wrote. She began to cry.

Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3386.

Tampa father tortured child over porn, police say 04/07/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 8, 2009 9:18am]
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