“I felt like I had stepped into a horror movie,” said one of the investigators who’d been called out to a house on the northwest side of Wichita Falls. Law enforcement officers were serving an arrest warrant for a subject at 3106 Northeast Drive, and they had no idea what they would find when they entered the nondescript house.
“It was easily the worst thing I have seen in 25 years of law enforcement.” Officer after officer who responded to the scene later testified in a similar way.
The first thing officers noticed was the overwhelming smell of human feces emanating from the residence. “The house smelled like a dirty outhouse at a deer camp,” one investigator said. In looking for the suspect with the warrant, officers had obtained permission to enter the house. In a dimly lit, cluttered front room, they found what appeared to be a cage. “It scared me—I thought it was a monster in a cage,” one veteran officer said, remembering when he first entered the room and saw the naked, caged creature making guttural noises. “It looked like a caged animal.”
In fact, officers had discovered 25-year-old Allison (not her real name), the daughter of Robin Payne. The cage was a dilapidated adult medical crib. The apparent rust on the cage’s bars turned out to be dried fecal matter. Allison was naked in the crib with no bedding or pillows. She was covered in dried feces, which made a pattern like a tattoo on one leg. Her fingernails and toenails were also caked in her own excrement.
As a baby, Allison had suffered a stroke and had severe brain damage. Other than guttural sounds, she could not communicate, and she was legally blind. When officers discovered her, she was in a clear state of distress. Her brother, Brandon Terrell, who had felony drug convictions, was the only relative at the house. (The warrant was for Mickey Stuart, a friend of Brandon’s who was not at the house.)
After being transported to the hospital, Allison was showered. It took four nurses over 30 minutes to clean her thoroughly. The fecal matter was so dried and embedded in her pelvic and anal regions that nurses had to pick it out in a laborious piece-by-piece process. “When she realized she was getting a shower, she got this big smile on her face,” one of her nurses said. Even after the shower, Allison still reeked of feces.
Assessing the crime scene
Back at the house, officers executed the search warrant, cataloging the shocking state of Allison’s room. “Her room looked like a hoarder’s house,” one investigator said. One of us, John, also responded to the call and witnessed it first hand. In my 15 years as a prosecutor, I’ve seen some awful crime scenes, but none has haunted me like that house. Clothes and various junk cluttered the entire area, with barely any space to walk to or from the crib. A bottle of curdled chocolate milk rested on a table a few feet from where Allison slept. The floor was littered with discarded Chef Boyardee-type food tins.
Not five feet from the crib, a dead mouse laid in a trap on the floor. The floor was also sprinkled with rodent droppings. The wall next to the crib was smeared with dried fecal matter. The mattress in the crib had a hole in it, and an indentation indicated Allison had been lying in one spot. Duct tape held the old crib together. When investigators pulled the crib back from the wall, they found a huge pile of human feces on the floor against the wall. In the crime scene photos, it almost looked like large scoops of chocolate ice cream.
In the kitchen, the refrigerator was dead and overgrown with mold. Other than some ice coolers with lunch meat, investigators could locate no edible food in the room. One cooler did contain several cold beers, and the cabinets above the stove were filled with empty cigarette boxes. The living room with the TV and the other bedrooms were much cleaner than Allison’s room.
While investigators were on scene, Robin Payne arrived home with a bottle of chocolate milk. Ms. Payne identified herself as Allison’s mother and said she had been at a community college and left Allison with her son, Brandon.
Ms. Payne said she was “awfully ashamed” for Allison’s condition and that she “had no excuse for it.” Ms. Payne told the detective that she knew she had failed her daughter and that she should be doing better for her.
In that interview, Ms. Payne also said she had not taken Allison to a doctor in two years and that she had not seen a dentist in five. The unemployed Ms. Payne said she had been meaning to call for a doctor for Allison, but “there just aren’t enough hours in the day.” Finally, Ms. Payne said she was receiving $710 a month in Social Security disability for her daughter.
Finding the right charge
Law enforcement sent the case over as a grand jury referral for injury to a disabled person. While the medical records indicated that Allison may have been dehydrated and malnourished, she had no significant injuries. Also, because she was unable to communicate, Allison could not tell us whether her condition caused her physical pain.
In scouring the Penal Code for the best charge, we located exploitation. In 15 years as a prosecutor, I (John) had never reviewed or charged an exploitation offense. Section 32.53 of the Penal Code defines exploitation, a third-degree felony, as the “illegal or improper use of a child, elderly individual, or disabled individual or [of their resources] for monetary or personal benefit, profit, or gain.” Additionally, exploitation can be intentional, knowing, or reckless.
Exploitation neatly fit our set of facts. First, the charge did not require that we prove bodily injury. Second, it was broad enough that in proving that Allison’s resources were used for Robin Payne’s monetary or personal benefit, we could focus on the Social Security money that Ms. Payne took for her daughter’s provision coupled with the substandard care that she provided, including the lack of medical or dental care, filthy conditions of the room and crib, and lack of hygiene. Additionally, the Adult Protective Services investigation, which started the day Allison was found and concluded four months later, expressly determined that Robin Payne exploited her daughter and found significant medical and physical neglect, so we had an expert report to support the charge. Based on this information, the grand jury returned an indictment for exploitation.
The bench trial
On the eve of trial, defense counsel said her client wanted to plead guilty and go open to the judge at a bench trial on punishment. We consented.
Our trial strategy was to call almost every law enforcement officer who responded to the scene to explain it was one of the most horrific crime scenes each had seen in his law enforcement career. In total, we had eight officers testify that they had been in numerous messy houses and seen many disturbing things, but that this house and the conditions that Robin Payne had subjected Allison to were some of the very worst things these veteran officers had seen. Months later, these officers were still visibly shaken from what they had witnessed in Allison’s room.
We also called several of Ms. Payne’s neighbors. Two said they thought Allison had been committed to a facility because they never saw her in the neighborhood after the young woman had stopped going to Dayhab, a daycare-like facility for the disabled, five years before. Ms. Payne’s next door neighbor, who was a bit like the nosy neighbor Gladys Kravitz on the old ’60s TV show Bewitched, said she became so concerned about never seeing Allison that she point-blank asked Ms. Payne why Allison never left the house. Ms. Payne claimed that Allison was “allergic to the sun” so she could not bring her outside. Allison’s pediatrician, however, testified that she had no such condition. We believed this testimony was important to show that Allison had been willfully confined inside the house.
The neighbors testified that while they often saw Ms. Payne walking her dogs in the neighborhood, they never saw her taking Allison out to get some sun and fresh air. Ms. Payne’s lie about the sun allergy also helped demonstrate her consciousness of guilt.
Dr. Kenneth Sultemeier, a pediatrician who had treated Allison since she was baby, was also a key witness. He explained that Allison had hydrocephalus and shunts in her brain. She had complications with these shunts, and the doctor said they needed to be checked regularly by a physician. Additionally, Allison had a seizure disorder for which she needed regular medical care.
Dr. Sultemeier said Ms. Payne knew of these critical medical conditions but that she had not brought Allison to see him in five years, and Ms. Payne admitted on the stand that Dr. Sultemeier was the last doctor to have seen Allison. Thus, the doctor’s testimony established that Robin Payne had lied regarding Allison’s last doctor’s visit. While Ms. Payne repeatedly claimed it had been only two years, actually five years had elapsed since a doctor had examined Allison.
To establish motive for the exploitation, we called the care facility administrator at the first facility where Allison had lived after her removal from the Payne house. The administrator confirmed that while Medicaid would help pay for care for a patient like Allison, her mother would have to assign over her disability payments to the facility. The administrator also testified that patients like Allison received regular perineum care, which demonstrated the type of intimate cleaning a patient like Allison needed and would receive in an inpatient facility.
This evidence showed the motive: Ms. Payne was denying her daughter inpatient care that she desperately needed because she would have to relinquish the monthly disability payments. Thus, the old adage of “follow the money” applied to our case.
The State’s case ended with Nikki Ross, a veteran Adult Protective Services investigator. We designated Ms. Ross as an expert witness in the investigation of exploitation and neglect. Ms. Ross detailed her thorough investigation and her conclusions that Ms. Payne had medically and physically neglected Allison and that she had exploited her daughter’s resources.
Significantly, Ms. Ross detailed all of the social services that were available for a disabled individual, such as adaptive medical equipment, medical treatment, and home health nurses through Medicaid. Yet the only social services that Ms. Payne had taken advantage of were food stamps and disability payments, which directly benefitted herself. Ms. Ross also testified that it was clear from looking at Allison that “Ms. Payne wasn’t spending much money on her.”
Emergency room records indicated Allison was malnourished, but the defense questioned Dr. Sultemeier about Allison’s lab numbers, and the doctor replied that they were all normal and not indicative of malnourishment. We wound up not emphasizing that at trial. Allison had a voracious appetite when she was placed in care and gained 10 pounds—but disabled people in her condition will eat and eat and eat, we were told, so it is hard to say if her appetite was because of malnourishment or because of her disabilities.
Finally, Ms. Ross testified that in approximately 2,500 cases of adult abuse and neglect that she had investigated, this was the single worst case of a child’s exploitation and neglect by a parent.
The defense case
Rather than accept responsibility and claim that the defendant was just overwhelmed and had let the situation get out of control (which is what Robin Payne had told the detective the first time she spoke with him), the defense decided to deny that Ms. Payne had exploited Allison and instead blamed law enforcement for her daughter’s condition. (That’s right: Ms. Payne pled guilty but then tried to shift the blame for Allison’s condition elsewhere. We were befuddled as to that trial strategy.)
Ms. Payne and several other witnesses testified that on that morning when Robin left for class, Allison was clothed and clean, that there was no fecal matter smeared on her crib or bedroom walls, and that there was no dead mouse on the floor. Rather, they claimed that when law enforcement arrived, Allison had just escaped her clothes and had a bowel movement. Allison had “fast-drying” fecal matter, they said, and she often “pooped balls and balls and balls—massive amounts—of poop.” Thus, they claimed law enforcement was responsible for Allison’s situation, which the defense claimed had deteriorated rapidly only after the officers arrived and intervened.
This absurd testimony was rebutted by two first responders who cared for Allison. Both testified that they had encountered many situations where people had lost control of their bowels and then not been discovered for up to 24 hours, but Allison’s situation was worse than those. Rather, they said it was clearly something that took days if not weeks to deteriorate to that point.
While Ms. Payne testified that her son Brandon was an appropriate babysitter, Brandon himself testified, “I’m not a babysitter. I’m not a role model. I’m not a daycare provider. I don’t change diapers.”
Sadly, trial testimony also revealed that Ms. Payne rarely went to see Allison after her placement in a residential care facility.
During her direct testimony, Ms. Payne went through her alleged expenditures for Allison. She claimed to have spent close to $700 a month on her and claimed not to be able to account for only $20. This directly contradicted the information she had given to the APS investigator, when she had trouble accounting for much more of Allison’s money.
When defense counsel asked if she ever spent Allison’s money on herself, Ms. Payne said that she had not. We were surprised that Ms. Payne had just denied the offense for which she pleaded guilty. Importantly, she had previously signed a judicial confession where she swore she had exploited Allison.
On cross-examination, John asked her if she was familiar with the legal definition of exploitation. She said that she was and that her attorney had explained it to her. Then I asked her if under the legal definition of exploitation in Texas, did she ever exploit her daughter? “No, I did not exploit her,” she replied.
Later that week, the grand jury indicted Ms. Payne for aggravated perjury because she had sworn to two directly contradictory statements under oath, both of which could not be true.
“The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members,” Gandhi once said, and John used this quote at closing. If this is a true standard for society, then isn’t it also a true way to measure crimes against the most vulnerable? For a mother to exploit her daughter who was so completely vulnerable, so completely dependent, so completely unable to speak up for herself was a special kind of evil.
Judge Bob Brotherton sentenced Ms. Payne to six years in prison and said that he was especially offended at the terrible conditions she left Allison in compared to the rest of the house. He said it was clear that Ms. Payne was providing a better standard of living for herself and the other adults in the house than for her disabled daughter. Following the judge’s prison sentence, we permitted Ms. Payne to plead to misdemeanor perjury, whose sentence will run concurrently with the exploitation sentence.
Allison is now placed in a new residential care facility in Wichita Falls. When we went by to see her, she was in a clean bed with fresh clothes and a bow in her hair. She often watches the Disney Channel, and she is happy.