Thousand Oaks Mother Faces Trial on Child-Abuse Charges : Courts: Teen-ager says parents made her sleep in a small outdoor bathroom for months on end. But the couple cite health concerns.
A well-to-do Thousand Oaks couple accused of making their teen-age daughter sleep in a small outdoor bathroom for months on end say they acted to prevent her from raiding the kitchen at night and violating her salt-free diet.
Charlotte Russo, 51, was ordered Wednesday to stand trial on three counts of child abuse following testimony at a preliminary hearing that she would hose down her naked daughter with cold water outside the house in the morning, then let the girl into the residence with a list of housework to be completed that day.
The girl’s father, stockbroker Richard Russo, 49, pleaded guilty Monday to a misdemeanor charge of child endangerment. Charlotte Russo, a registered nurse, is scheduled for arraignment in Ventura County Superior Court on Oct. 13.
Both are free on their own recognizance.
Sheriff’s Detective Robert LeMay, testifying at Charlotte Russo’s hearing Wednesday in Ventura County Municipal Court, said the girl told him that her mother beat her regularly and that her parents started locking her in the bathroom on their back-yard racquetball court 2 1/2 years ago.
The girl, who turns 16 today, said the frequency of the stays in the 4-by-7-foot bathroom increased to the point that “in the course of time it became clear to her . . . that that’s where she was supposed to sleep,” LeMay testified.
Although she sometimes was given a blanket and pillow to use as she slept on the floor, those items were taken away from her as the discipline escalated, the girl told LeMay.
Except for a week near Halloween, 1992, the girl slept continuously in the outdoor bathroom from August, 1992, until May of this year, according to testimony. At one point she was locked in the windowless bathroom for a solid week, LeMay said the girl told him.
The girl also told detectives she was locked in the bathroom on Saturday nights while the rest of the family went to church, during family gatherings at the house, and whenever her parents went away for the day.
LeMay testified the girl told him that during the nine months she was confined to the racquetball court, she was fed the same meal four times a day: a mixture of oatmeal, eggs and orange juice.
She could not tell others of her plight because she was not allowed to use the phone, LeMay testified. Instead of attending school, the girl took a home-study course, he said.
The couple have seven children altogether, but the girl told LeMay she was allowed little contact with the other members of the family. After she finished her housework every day, she was put back into the bathroom, she told the detective.
She was not allowed to watch television or use the phone, and sometimes her father disconnected the light in the bathroom so she would be in darkness, LeMay said the girl told him.
Through their attorneys, the Russos denied that they locked the girl in the bathroom or that she was kept there for an entire year, but they acknowledged that they made her sleep there sometimes so she could not raid the kitchen at night.
The girl has a heart condition that has required four surgeries, and locking her out of the house was the only way they could keep her from eating salty foods, the attorneys said.
“We acknowledge that with the advantage of retrospect, the locking her out (of the house) for medical reasons to keep her away from the food may have put her in a position where she was psychologically harmed because she was ostracized from the rest of the family,” said Jorge A. Alvarado, attorney for Richard Russo. “We adamantly deny that there was a lock (on the bathroom).”
Attorney Joseph Hackett, who represents Charlotte Russo, told Municipal Judge Bruce A. Clark that the girl is a juvenile delinquent who is lying about being abused because she wants to avoid prosecution for three burglaries at Westlake High School.
Hackett said the Russos were justified in locking the girl out of the house because they were worried that if she ate too much salt she would have a seizure, as had happened in the past.
Hackett has said some of the couple’s other children will testify in Charlotte Russo’s behalf.
The Russos were arrested May 24 after a neighbor couple walking past their house saw Charlotte Russo beating the girl with her fists in the garage, LeMay said. Richard Russo was standing nearby screaming at the girl, the neighbors reported to police.
When the girl was removed from the home later that night, her face was swollen and scratched, she had 26 marks on her arms and three human bite marks, LeMay testified.
The girl had been in police custody the night before, when she was questioned by a sheriff’s detective about the burglaries. Detective Gregory Seeba testified Wednesday that the girl admitted the burglaries and told him she had slept on the sidewalk outside the high school the night before because she had been thrown out of her house.
Seeba testified that Richard Russo came to the sheriff’s station and denied that the girl had been thrown out of the house. Seeba said the father asked what the girl had eaten during the two days she was away from home. When told she had eaten potato chips, the father became agitated and exclaimed “The chips! The chips!’ ” Seeba testified.
The girl told Seeba about being confined to the racquetball court, and Richard Russo told the detective it happened two or three times “simply for health reasons, to get across to her she should restrict her diet and not eat salty foods,” the detective testified.