Mystery shrouds chained teenager
The boy was naked except for a pair of gray boxer shorts. He was covered with soot and gashes and shackled with a heavy chain when he flopped over the 8-foot-high backyard fence and landed in a health club parking lot, free.
Alarmed, a member of In-Shape Sports Club raced to see if the youth had been injured when he hit the cold pavement in this Bay Area bedroom community.
“Please, hide me, please, hide me,” were the first words out of his mouth as he came through the glass doors of the sprawling gym and approached assistant general manager Lea Leonardo. His voice was urgent, his eyes were terrified.
“When he came behind the front desk, I saw the chain and realized he had just escaped,” Leonardo said Wednesday as she described the harrowing sight of a bloody child with a three-foot chain padlocked to his right ankle. “I started shaking and called 911. You would never imagine a child like that.”
Authorities say the boy had allegedly been abused by his father and then by the aunt in whose home he had been placed for protection. And for about the last year, he had been held captive in a nondescript tract home here in the gateway to the Central Valley.
Small and emaciated, with bare, swollen feet, cuts on his back, a gash on his head and dried blood on his arm, the boy looked to Leonardo to be no more than 12 or 13.
He told the gym staff he was 16, but he’s actually a year older. His September birthday came and went while he was in captivity. He never knew.
On Wednesday, a Tracy couple and the boy’s aunt were in San Joaquin County Jail, charged with torture, kidnapping, false imprisonment and “pay for adoption” -- a charge that means authorities believe his aunt may have tried to sell the boy to the couple, a cable installer and his Girl Scout leader wife.
Much of the last 18 months is shrouded in mystery for the young man, who was known to at least one neighbor family as Kyle. Authorities would not say whether he was chained up regularly or where he was held in the house on Tennis Lane, with its Christmas wreaths and garden gnomes.
But since his daring escape three days ago, he has been the recipient of kindness instead of blows.
As the boy cowered behind the front desk at In-Shape Sports, staff members quickly covered him with towels. They stayed close by his side so he would feel safe from the captors he feared would take him back.
They led him to district manager Chuck Ellis’ office to wait for the police and paramedics. They gave him a banana and a bottle of water. He wolfed down both, said thank you and told his story.
At least some of it.
Ellis said the boy told them his name and birth date and said he was from Sacramento, where he lived with a foster family before he ran away. “He said, ‘I was brought here, and I’ve been here almost a year,’ ” Ellis recounted.
The boy, whose name was not released by police, was taken to Sutter Tracy Community Hospital on Monday afternoon. Police officers bought him a pizza and the next day pooled their money to buy him a Nintendo DS game.
Tracy spokesman Matt Robinson said the city has been flooded with offers of assistance for the boy, from money to clothing to help with college and places to stay. In-Shape Sports is setting up a fund for him and will make a corporate donation.
“This is one of those stories that captivated everyone,” Robinson said Wednesday. “The boy escaped. We hear about child abuse cases all the time. But this teenager had the presence of mind to get up, get out and save himself.”
The youth was released from the hospital Wednesday morning and is now a ward of the state and in the care of Sacramento County Child Protective Services, Robinson said. That’s where he lived when he was taken from his abusive father and placed in a foster home a few years ago.
“Child Protective Services wanted to then give him to a family member to reunite him with. They gave him to an aunt,” Robinson said. “She ends up being arrested for abusing the kid as well, in 2007.”
Caren Ramirez, 43, pleaded no contest in 2007 to one felony count of beating her nephew, according to court documents.
Police reports referenced in the court filings said investigators responded to reports of abuse in May 2006 and found the boy with severe bruises on his buttocks, legs and arms and a split lip.
Ramirez used “martial arts sticks” to spank him and had hit him in the past with a spatula, broomstick and a clothes hanger, the boy told investigators. She was sentenced to five years’ probation, which was revoked after she failed to appear at an April court hearing, and a warrant was issued for her arrest.
The boy was placed in a second foster home in Sacramento County, but he ran away.
“This is where it becomes the real mystery,” Robinson said. “From the time he disappeared in 2007 until Monday, no one in the world knew where he was except three people.”
Authorities say those three were Ramirez; Michael Lambert Schumacher, 34; and Kelly Layne Lau, 30. Schumacher and Lau lived in the house on Tennis Lane from which the boy allegedly escaped Monday. Four children lived in the home with them -- at least one from Lau’s earlier marriage.
Lau had been a Girl Scout troop leader since September after passing a criminal background check, reference check and attending two training sessions, said Pam Saltenberger, chief executive officer of Girl Scouts Heart of Central California.
“It came as much of a shock to us yesterday as it did to everybody else,” Saltenberger said. The troop of kindergarten-aged girls, which included Lau’s daughter, met at a Girl Scouts hut, not at her home.
Saltenberger said there had been no reported problems or incidents with the troop. Lau’s troop leader status was withdrawn once the allegations became public Tuesday.
Rachel Portillo, who lives across the street from Schumacher and Lau, said her family started seeing the boy they knew as Kyle about a year ago.
He helped with the four children, who ranged in age from 1 to 9. He took out the garbage, mowed the lawn and disposed of the baby’s Pampers. Ramirez was there on a regular basis too, Portillo, 47, said.
Portillo described Lau as outspoken and foul-mouthed and said both women spent a lot of time out front, talking on the phone, listening to loud music and smoking. But she never thought that Lau and Schumacher would “physically abuse someone and chain him up and not feed him.”
The last time Portillo saw Kyle a few weeks ago, she said, “he looked really skinny. He was with the family all the time at first. Then you don’t see him.”
Times staff writers Evelyn Larrubia and Catherine Saillant and the Associated Press contributed to this report.