MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A Wisconsin man accused of locking his teenage daughter in his basement and starving her down to 68 pounds testified in his own defense Wednesday, saying the girl suffered from severe emotional problems and he did what he could to help her.
The 42-year-old man said he believes the girl, now 16, suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather in Texas. The father said he brought her to live with him in Madison in 2006. He said her behavior deteriorated and she refused to eat, turning to crumbs and garbage scraps. He said he once woke up to find her standing over his bed with a steak knife.
"She said she could hurt us in our sleep. Kill us," the man said.
He denied locking her in the basement, saying a psychologist suggested she live on a different level of the home than the rest of the family, but he did say he boarded up the basement windows so she couldn't get out and raid the neighbor's trash.
He said he tried to get her psychological help and said county social workers made several visits to their home. But he said he couldn't find time to follow up on her care and appointments because he was a truck driver and was always on the road.
In a confrontational cross-examination with Assistant District Attorney Matt Moeser, the man accused social workers of fumbling the girl's case, saying they should have removed the girl from his home. Shouting at Moeser, he said he wished he could have done more but his job handcuffed him.
"Do you think the longer you yell at me, the more I'll believe you?" Moeser asked him.
The case came to light in February 2012 when the girl ran away from home. A passing motorist found her wandering the streets barefoot and lightly dressed and called police.
The girl told investigators she had spent most of the past five years confined to the basement of her family's home and was denied food despite begging to eat. She said stepmother beat her and her stepbrother repeatedly forced her to perform oral sex on him.
Her stepmother was sentenced in July to five years in prison for reckless endangerment and causing mental harm to a child. Her stepbrother is set to stand trial in February on two sexual assault charges as well as a child abuse count.
The Associated Press isn't naming anyone in the family to avoid identifying the girl.
A jury convicted the father in March of felony child neglect but acquitted him of misdemeanor neglect and deadlocked on four other counts, including false imprisonment and child abuse. Prosecutors decided to retry him. The proceedings began last week.
The man already faces up to six years in prison on the March conviction; the remaining counts carry a combined maximum sentence of 37 years in prison and $70,000 in fines.
The man's voice broke as he spoke about traveling to Texas to bring his daughter back to Wisconsin. He said she was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism, and reactive attachment disorder, a condition that can develop in neglected, abused and orphaned children.
The man said psychologists and social workers who dealt with her didn't help, leaving the family on their own. He said he started looking for new ones in the Yellow Pages but said it was difficult to keep appointments given his chaotic trucking schedule. Meanwhile, he never noticed how thin his daughter was growing because he always saw her clothed.
But he added, "I'm her father. I should have known. I should have seen it."
Moeser noted in-home therapists visited the girl 22 times in 2008. He questioned how the man didn't notice the weight loss and pointed out that the girl's youngest stepbrother got medical treatment when he needed it.
"You chose to let your daughter live that way," the assistant prosecutor said.
The trial is expected to wrap up by the end of the week.