Soft-spoken but anxious to tell her story, Charlotte Russo denied on the witness stand Tuesday that she punched, pinched, bit or locked her teen-age daughter in a bathroom of a racquetball court outside their posh Westlake home.
Testifying for the first time during her four-week trial on child abuse charges, the 52-year-old Russo described her daughter as a problem child who lied, stole and refused to follow her parents' commands.
Russo, who broke down in tears at one point during her three hours of testimony, also said the girl went out of her way to be noticed and often acted up at family gatherings.
"She always had to be the center of attention," said Russo, adding that her daughter had as many problems in school as she did at home.
The mother acknowledged that she tried to rein the girl in by slapping her in the face.
But, she said, that only occurred when the girl "mouthed off."
Russo said she and her husband, Richard, often tried to get the girl to behave by leaving her out of family vacations. They also required her to do extra chores when she received bad school grades or acted up.
But Russo maintained that she was only acting out of motherly love and not to be mean-spirited.
By April of last year, her daughter was having trouble adhering to her salt-free diet, Russo testified. She said the girl would wait until other family members went to bed and then make popcorn or eat an entire jar of pickles.
As a result, Richard Russo banned the girl from the family's nine-bedroom house at bedtime.
"My husband said, 'I can't trust you in here anymore,' " Russo testified on direct examination from defense attorney James M. Farley. " 'There's only one thing left to do: Go out and sleep in the racquetball court.' "
But Russo denied locking her daughter in the racquetball court bathroom, as prosecutors and the girl have alleged in court. And she said the girl was provided the necessities for a good night's sleep, including a sleeping bag, blankets and pillows.
Richard Russo has served 30 days in jail after pleading guilty to one count of misdemeanor child abuse in the case. He was not in the courtroom Tuesday as his wife testified.
She is charged with one count each of felony child abuse and misdemeanor child abuse. The charges state that Charlotte Russo bit the girl once on the forearm and locked her in the racquetball court.
Russo testified that the girl had severe heart trouble when she and her husband adopted the child at age 1. The child, now 16, has had five heart surgeries, Russo said.
Appearing anxious to tell her story, Russo often drifted into long detail on questions requiring a simple "yes" or "no" answer. One of her responses prompted Superior Court Judge Charles R. Campbell to admonish her against such elaboration.
At one point, Russo began to cry when answering questions. She said she gave her daughter more attention than she gave her other six children.
During her testimony, the girl said she was scratched, pinched, slapped, bitten and punched by her mother. The girl also said she was locked in the bathroom for long periods of time, on some occasions a week or more, as a form of discipline.
Charlotte Russo acknowledged that she once grabbed the girl's face when she lied about a math test. The incident occurred as the two of them were sitting at the family's kitchen table, along with Richard Russo.
"I reached across the table with my left hand," the mother conceded. "Using my thumb and index finger, I squeezed her cheek."
Officials at La Reina High School, where the girl was attending summer school, noticed the bruise and reported it to authorities. A sheriff's deputy and social worker went to the home, but decided against trying to remove the girl from the custody of her parents, according to court testimony.
The girl also testified that she was forced to eat the same meal three times a day--either peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or oatmeal with raw eggs and water from a faucet.
Russo said she did require the girl to eat a special diet that included oatmeal three times daily. But she denied putting raw eggs in it, as the girl alleged, and said the girl was allowed to heat meals in the microwave.
She said the girl was fed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for one week straight after she was caught shoplifting and told the grocery store manager that her parents made her eat such sandwiches regularly.
It was, Russo testified, a form of punishment to teach the girl not to lie.
Russo told the jury that she was so adamant about the girl's diet because salt caused her daughter's feet to swell.
As for sleeping in the racquetball court, the girl was only required to do that for a few nights at a time at first, the mother said. But Richard Russo, 50, made that a permanent arrangement after the girl did not improve her school grades by March, 1993, Russo testified.
"My husband just said 'You stay out there all the time,' " she said.
But she said the girl was given complete access to the main house during the day.
At the same time, she said the girl had become such a problem that she and her husband began looking for other places for their daughter to live.
The Russos were arrested May 24, 1993, after neighbors reported seeing the girl being physically abused by her mother. Russo said that plans had been made to send the girl to live with Richard Russo's sister prior to the arrests.
Russo will continue testifying this morning under direct examination and be cross-examined by Deputy Dist. Atty. Dee Corona.